Friday, April 30, 2010

Popular and elite

The texts of the Roman Catholic Mass have been re-translated into English. The translation in use for the last 40 years will be replaced by a new version. The new one will be more literal, closer both in content and style to the original Latin. Conservatives are delighted, liberals dismayed.

More than one proponent of the 1970's version has decried the introduction of vocabulary that may be unusual for, as they say, "God's whole people gathered in the liturgical assembly." This is elitist popular talk for "illiterate idiots in the pews." Funny how these folks are always screaming that "God's people" be consulted on all sorts of complex matters, but when you throw them a word like "incarnate", they are supposed to become pre-literate. (Did no one ever hear the very common phrase "the devil incarnate"?)

I once had an argument with a low-church Anglican in which she exacerbated Catholicism for its statues and ceremonies, etc. She quoted John's Jesus, who praised worship "in spirit and in truth." In a flash of insight, I told her that because of her tight-assed Anglo culture, she confused "spirit and truth" with "neat and tidy", spiritual attitude with aesthetic preference, when in fact they had nothing to do with each other. I think the translators of the 70's confused "noble simplicity"with "dumbing down" .

I recall an irate Dutch woman taking on the parish priest after a High Mass one Sunday. She complained, with inordinate bitterness, that incense confused her children and they did not understand it, so it should be stopped. The priest replied, "You mean they understand everything else? What else should we get rid of to suit the breadth of your children's minds?" Priest 1, Dutch bitch, 0.

Back in the days when I was church-involved, I wrote a note to the translation committee about something and in return I was sent a booklet with a draft translation of some prayers, with a request for my input. My assessment of the whole 1970's project was that they were aiming for their idea of a 12 year old's vocabulary and comprehension. Note I say "their idea". I happened to have a comic book that my 12 year old brother was reading at the time. Its language was full of subordinate clauses. Clearly comic writers had a higher estimate of 12 year olds than the liturgical group. So I sent them the comic as an example of both poetic and complex popular speech. I never heard back and was not asked again for my opinion.

The 1970's translation was, with very few exceptions, pretty 1970's: basic English for dummies. Sound bites for kindergarteners. It was boring, empty, condescending, lacking in fire, drama, punch or life. And it certainly had a theological bias against transcendance, majesty or sin and in favor of inclusivity and schmaltz.

Having seen the new translation, at least of the common prayers, it is clear that they are sacred language and they do not shy away from Roman orthodoxy. Some of them are a bit clunky and the Book of Common Prayer need not fear being replaced by this revised Catholic English. But at least it has a sense of drama.

"God's whole people gathered in the liturgical assembly." And who knows what that means?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Catholics believe in the incarnation of the devil? I did not know that!

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