Sunday, 1 March 2015

Bugnini on translation

I have just read the section in Bugnini's book about translation. Whilst I have to approach most of the issues he deals with as an amateur and outsider, here is a topic I actually know a little about.

And that leads me to be even more critical of the story he tells.

Here are the guidelines the Consilium offered.
'In Liturgical communication three points must be considered: 
a) What is being said in the original text. Translators must identify the content of the message and give it a new form that is both accurate and agreeable. They must apply the scientific methods of textual and literary criticism that the experts have developed. (1) 
b) The addressee of the text. The language used must be accessible to majority of the faithful, including children and uneducated folk. It must not, however, be "common" in the bad sense but must be beyond blame from the literary standpoint. (2) 
c) The manner and form of expression are integral elements in oral communication. The literary genre of any text depends on the nature of the ritual action. It is one thing to utter an acclamation, another to offer a petition or proclaim or read or sing. 
(1) The instruction is here saying that translations should not always be word for word since this can obscure the overall sense of the message. In Latin, the accumulation of words reinforces the meaning as, for example, in the series "ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque" in the Roman Canon; in modern languages, on the other hand, such a use of three adjectives may have the opposite effect. In his observations the Pope warned against "arbitrary and subjective manipulations" of the original and gave a humorous example : the translation of 'mea culpa' by a modern man of letters who follows the principles set down: 'It was I; yes it was I; there is nothing more to say.' " 
(2) Note of the Holy Father: "The Italian translation of the Mass is not quite perfect when measured by this standard (dovunque instead of dappertuto, mai instead of non mai, and so on)."

There is so much that could be said about all this. Paragraph a) is very interesting. Why the suggestion of a 'new form?' What is meant by 'agreeable?'  The scientific methods of the experts was not an area of settled agreement in the 1960s (it still isn't: translation is more of an art than a science, see Bellos' delightful book Is that a fish in your ear? for a good discussion of this). But in the 1960s, the whole business of textual and literary criticism was politicised, and subject to all manner of 'progressive' theories, not least concepts from post-modernism such as deconstruction, championed by the likes of Derrida and Foucault.

So the Consilium's exhortation to 'apply the scientific methods' of the 'experts' opened wide a very unstable door...

Paragraph b) seems to me even more problematic. In the first place, the assumption seems to be that the addressee of the liturgy is the congregation. But the Catholic understanding has always been that the Liturgy is addressed to God the Father (cf CCC §1083).  My second concern is the stipulation that the language should be intelligible to children and uneducated folk. This could be taken two ways: it could mean that the language 'must be intelligible once explained to...' or it could mean that it 'must be intelligible on first hearing to...' 

The first of these would be a good principle; but the second is what was applied (at least in English and French, the languages I understand  in which I have attended Mass), and has led to the disastrous dumbing down of the liturgy. For if you take something as rich as the Liturgy and so redact it as to make it fully intelligible, on first hearing, to children and the uneducated, you inevitably do two other things. One is that you lose a lot of the meaning; the second is that you make it dull for the intelligent, and for children as they grow older, and for the uneducated on umpteenth hearing: it simply lacks the richness that would allow people to discover more and more in it over time. Those two principles, directing the liturgy at the people, and making it so simple that a child can understand it on first hearing, have been large contributors to the infantilisation of the liturgy (a fruit of which I have commented on here, in my one and only post to get official kudos from Fr Z.)

The exhortation that it must not 'be "common" in the bad sense but must be beyond blame from the literary standpoint,' would be more helpful if it led to some more specific guidance. As it stands, it invites such subjective judgement to be meaningless.

Paragraph c) seems to me to be a practically meaningless platitude. It offers no helpful criteria by which one could guide or evaluate one's work as a translator, merely an exhortation to bear in mind what any competent translator would always bear in mind.

But as so often with Bugnini, the footnotes are as interesting as the main text.

The first footnote contains three distinct elements. The first is a truth that has been known from the time of the ancient Greeks, who distinguished between metaphrase (a very literal, word-for-word translation) and paraphrase (the attempt to find words and phrases that convey the meaning accurately to a speaker of the language into which a text is being translated). It resurfaced in the 1960s (of course) as a new theory of 'dynamic equivalence' (courtesy of Eugene Nida). Nida seems to have varied in what he meant by 'dynamic equivalence.' Sometimes it was the same as the classical paraphrase, but sometimes he insisted it meant finding a translation that would have the same effect on the recipient in the new language as the original text would have had on someone who was a native speaker of the original language. Clearly,when one is operating across centuries as well as languages, that approach is somewhat conjectural. It is, however, the animating principle of many recent translations of the Bible.

The second element is the comment about the accumulation of words. Here Bugnini is guilty of so gross a generalisation that I shudder. The three words in the example he cites are not homonyms. Each has a different meaning and a different set of resonances: this is not just rhetorical repetition. So a good translator will strive to find a way to convey that richness: it is lazy to say 'Oh, Latin likes repetition to add emphasis. I'll omit the repetition and find a word to cover all three.'

Moreover, even if the words are identical, or nearly so, as in mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, it is not necessarily idle repetition. In the first place, any student of rhetoric knows the power of the three part list: and that is not unique to Latin (consider Shakespeare, who frequently uses the device [cry God for Harry, England and Saint George; tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow etc]  or the slogan of the French revolution, or the Nazi slogan Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer and so on.).

But it has further resonance in Catholicism. Any three part list (Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus) immediately recalls the Blessed Trinity. It may also recall the three days of Our Lord's death, and associated with that, the three days that Isaac was under sentence of death, that Jonah spent in the whale, that Our Lord was lost as a child, and so on. In the instance of the mea culpa, and likewise the triple Domine non sum dignus,  we think of Peter's triple denial of Our Lord, and Our Lord's triple command that he should feed His sheep in response.

To talk of these as an accumulation to add emphasis that only works in Latin is absurd. That false understanding has impoverished us.

The third element is the Holy Father's joke. But it seems to me that the joke was criticising the Consilium's principles, not endorsing them. And guess what? The Holy Father's criticisms, as so often, carried no weight with the experts.

The second footnote is another criticism by the Holy Father of the work done by the translators: Bugnini does not record any amendment as a result.

As well as these problems with the guidelines that were issued, there are more considerable problems with what was not said with regard to the criteria for translation.

Given that any translation of a long text is to some extent interpretive, weaving skilfully (if well done) between metaphrase (where possible) and paraphrase (where necessary), I should have thought it essential to provide some guidelines for that interpretive task. I would suggest complete fidelity to the meaning of the texts as understood by tradition, preceding Church teachings (eg how the texts have been quoted by Councils etc) and the writings of the Fathers of the Church; informed by an awareness of the contextual resonance of the text under consideration (eg the issues around three-fold repetition to which I referred earlier).

Th other important issue, I believe, is an understanding of liturgical language. The principle at b) above, as articulated, and particularly as applied in practice, misses an important linguistic feature of any serious  liturgical language (and not just in the Catholic liturgy): it is hieratic. That is to say, it is not the language of every day use, but rather a heightened language, reserved for formal public prayer to God. See my posts here for more on hieratic language, and here for more on translating the Bible and Missal.

Poor translation wasn't the only problem with the liturgical reforms, by any means, but it was certainly a major one, and one which I believe has contributed to generations of children (and indeed adults) abandoning the Mass as it seemed to have so little to offer them... Who needs to go to something that sounds like an infant school assembly on a Sunday morning, after all?

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