28 November 2011

Pope Loses It In Translation

The Roman Catholic church has embraced bad translation practices for English speaking Catholics in a mass liturgy marked by overliteral translations (did somebody fire a human and use Google translate instead?), vocabulary that isn't really even part of vernacular English ("consubstantial"!?), abandonment of the gender neutrality (where an inclusive meaning is intended) that is part of modern Standard English, changes in meaning (Jesus died "for you and for many," rather than for you and everyone) that aren't obviously part of a theological agenda for doctrinal change, and just plain clunkiness.

Vatican II had fostered ecumenical trends as Roman Catholics and liturgies Protestants learned that their liturgies were actually almost identical when the new one was rolled out in 1973, and now that cleft has been restored.

It all began on the first Sunday in advent yesterday, the first day of the liturgical church year (an annual rhythm that I've never truly shaken). If only the church translators had spent more time reading Language Log, and less trying to figure out what passes for "formal" English these days, the world would be a better place.

It isn't that there isn't something to be said for crafting a uniform international liturgy to bind the faithful together. The Anglican Book of Common prayer has provided that faith with a uniformity and poetic cadence that has stood the test of time. But, of course, Anglicans defining trait is that they are native speakers of English. The Pope is Polish and spends his days in Italy surrounded by people speaking Latin. Little wonder then, that they did a comparatively inferior job.

Ultimatley, it doesn't matter to me directly. I'm not Roman Catholic. I'm not even Christian. And, half the time when I do listen to a Catholic mass, it is in Latin (which Jesus didn't speak, if he existed at all), anyway. I do wince in horror at a whole new generation who will learn to aspire to a horrible model of how to translate an important text. But, after addling their brains with Sponge Bob and amputating their linguistic faculties with text messaging, how much worse can they turn out anyway.

The change may even help the cause of skepticism by reminding people who arbitrary the core rituals of their faith are and by taking them out of their traditional comfort zones in a faith that many seek out precisely because of its traditions. I certainly got a dose of reality when I learned how the Biblical canon was made, and many Catholics are probably going through the same thing right now.

Still, it is a shame to see any important cultural task done poorly. Somehow or other, it makes us all a little less well off.

No comments: