Translation is everything

I love to translate.  Now, I don’t mean hopping to google translate or employing the latest browser add-on to translate entire webpages.  These tools can be helpful and, to a degree, they translate the words on the page–but they can never translate actual meaning.  No, I love translating because of the depth to which one must travel in order to precisely transfer meaning from one language to another.  Even then, even in the best circumstances, translations are imperfect.  This includes temporal translations as well: for example, interpreting Shakespeare’s writing in the 21st century.  While the basic verbiage is the same, much of Shakespeare must be translated (either automatically as we read or by someone else) in order for it to be understood.

Let’s look at two examples of translation that have stirred some controversy over the years.

First, a well-known passage from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Most of us know the difficult story of the phrase “all men are created equal.”  The fact is, Thomas Jefferson and many of the other Founders owned slaves.  Women were not equal to men under England’s laws nor anyone else’s.  Native Americans’ rights to liberty were often take advantage of by the newly formed US government for many years to come.  When Martin Luther King, Jr., employed these words in his most celebrated address nearly two hundred years later, he was–in essence–translating.

We must be careful, when reading this text, that our historical blinders do not lead us to assume what the text does not tell us.  The phrase “all men are created equal” is stirring on so many levels, and offers so much difficulty in accurate translation that 12 of the most learned lawyers in our country often disagree to its specific meaning.  I.e., they disagree how to translate this founding phrase into our modern tongue.

Second, something a bit trickier for theologically-minded people (though I don’t need to tell you the theological tangles the above example has caused in the past).  As you may know, the Catholic Church in the United States is rolling out a new English translation for the “Novus Ordo” (the Latin form of the Mass after Vatican II) as of the first Sunday of Advent, 2011.  In keeping with our theme, then, let’s look at a key place in the Mass where people will almost certainly be thrown off a bit–the Eucharistic prayer.

Exhibit A–the Latin:
1      Accepit panem in sanctas ac venerabiles manus suas,
2      et elevatis oculis in caelum ad te Deum Patrem suum omnipotentem,
3      tibi gratias agens benedixit, fregit,
4      deditque discipulis suis, dicens:
5      Accipite et manducate ex hoc omnes:
6      hoc est enim Corpus meum, quod pro vobis tradetur.

Exhibit B–the current translation:
1      He took bread in his sacred hands
2      And looking up to heaven, to you, his almighty Father,
3      He gave you thanks and praise.
4      He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:
5      Take this, all of you, and eat it:
6      This is my body, which will be given up for you.

Exhibit C–the new translation:
1      He took bread in his holy and venerable hands,
2      And with eyes raised to heaven, to you, O God, his almighty Father,
3      Giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
4      Broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying:
5      Take this, all of you, and eat of it,
6      For this is my body, which will be given up for you.

Exhibit D–an alternate translation by yours truly:
1      He received the loaf in his sacred, revered hands,
2-3   And, giving thanks with eyes lifted to heaven–to you, God, his all-powerful Father–
3      He blessed the bread, broke it into pieces
4      And gave it to his disciples, saying:
5      All of you–receive and eat from this bread,
6      This is, in fact, my body, the one that will be surrendered on account of you.

I included the numbers with each translation in case you wanted to double-check the veracity of my interpretation (or the others). The truth is, all three translations are acceptable in the linguistic sense.  Out of a desire for unity and adherence to the strict letter of the Latin, the US Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), together with members of the Vatican, decided to go with “Exhibit C” above.  Is it a “better” translation than B or D?  Well…what does the word “better” mean in this sense?  More accurate to the Latin?  More accurate to the Biblical references of Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22:7-23, or 1 Cor 11:23-26?  If so, to which Biblical reference is it the most accurate?  Why?

On the other hand, one could ask, does it sound pleasing to the modern English-speakers’ ear?  What are the various ways the Latin could be interpreted and how can we translate the text so as to carry the exact meaning over to the English words while perhaps not carrying all the grammatical details of the Latin?  Some would argue that this was the intent of the translators of the first English version above, the one which has been read in American Catholic churches for years.

I have read many, many articles for and against the new translation, and feel myself somewhat detached from the fray. Am I so tied to the old translation that the new one will perhaps not hold as much meaning?  Will the antiquated word choices (for example, “chalice” instead of “cup” in the second half of the consecration prayer) distract me from proper worship or reception of the sacrament?  I doubt it.  I may not agree with all the translation choices, but, really, I don’t agree with all English translation choices of the New Testament (one of the curses of knowing a certain amount of New Testament Greek).

But let’s return to the philosophical idea of translation (in another venue, I might call this an epistemological inquiry–i.e., a study of how we know things).  We translate every thing, every one, every day.  No two people have ever had the exact same experiences and thoughts, and thus no two people conceive of words or phrases in precisely the same way.  I may say I agree with you when you tell me that “there are too many people living in poverty in the world,” but we don’t really mean the same thing.  What is “too many” to you?  What does “poverty” mean, precisely?  Etc.

When it comes to Sunday at Church, the scripted words of the Mass are but one piece of the puzzle.  Every member of the congregation translates the homily into whatever meaning he or she can pull from the 10 minutes (or less) of the presider preaching.  The musician may intend that the songs project a certain spiritual lesson, but both the musicality of the individual congregant as well as the quality to which the musician performs the song affects what is actually heard and experienced by each person sitting in the pews.

In short, being in relationship with other people is a daily act of translation. Whether I’m attempting to interpret my 1-year-old’s babblings or an obscure Latin phrase from the 5th Lateran Council (1512-1517 if you’re wondering), I’m translating.  And no matter what English translation of the Latin we hear at Mass, we translate those words into ideas, images, spiritual truths, profound insights, passing thoughts, and just about anything else your brain might be capable of.

Hopefully, of course, the words spoken at Mass help to lead us to a deeper relationship with God–but, alas, they’re just words.  Left unheard, unread, and unspoken, they are simply repetitious symbols on a sheet of paper.  Christianity is not magic.  The bread and wine are consecrated whether the words are spoken in English, Latin, Spanish, Arabic, or Russian; whether the priest mumbles or sings; and whether people are listening in devout prayer or dancing through the isles.

Christianity is about being in relationship with God through Jesus; and being in any relationship is all about–you guessed it–translation.

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