Wednesday, October 25, 2017

First Things Article on Sacral Language

Thanks to the Surly Hermit for passing this First Things article along to me.  It is in the November edition and available online.

Thus Saith the Lord
by Nathaniel Peters

One Sunday in high school, we went to the Anglo-Catholic parish where my headmaster served as an assistant priest. Catechized by evangelical Episcopalians and Presbyterians, I believed that the Bible was divinely inspired by God. But I had never seen it treated as such in a physical or ritual way. Down Mr. Jarvis came, robed in damask and the smoke of incense, into the congregation to sing and kiss the Word of God. He spoke the words of the King James Bible, a language steeped in the same reverence for Scripture that the liturgy made manifest.
My thoughts drifted to that day on seeing the news that Pope Francis has appointed a commission to review Liturgiam Authenticam, the Congregation for Divine Worship’s 2001 instruction governing translations of the Mass and sacramental rites into vernacular languages. More recently, he issued a decree giving local bishops’ conferences greater control over such translations. The conflict is partly over jurisdiction: Who should decide what is an acceptable Japanese translation of the liturgy, a committee in Japan or in Rome?
Continue on here.

Let me note here that the main point of this essay would be in conflict with Msgr. Ronald Knox.  When Peters quotes Nicholson, in his work God’s Secretaries, saying that the KJV translators considered it more important “to make English godly than to make the words of God unto the sort of prose that any Englishman would have written” he is in direct contrast to what Knox thought, in regards to translation.  Knox, in his book On Englishing the Bible, references the great Hilaire Belloc, saying, “The great principle he there lays down is that the business of a translator is not to ask, ‘How shall I make this foreigner talk English’ but ‘What would an Englishman have said to express this?‘“ 

 I am eager to read your thoughts on this, as always, let’s engage in this topic with great charity.


Jonny said...

I don’t think the Knox Bible is a good example of desacralized English. In fact I think the Knox Bible is very majestic, poetic, and sublime- as many would say of the KJV. The Knox Bible may not be as word for word literal, but it is literal enough when considering its literary quality.

I think the author of the above article is referring more to when existing translations that are already faithful and accurate are watered down. For people that appreciate the language of the KJV, DR, and Knox it is hard to justify dumbing down the liturgy which is already in modern English.

Surly Hermit said...

Thanks for posting this, Timothy! And thanks also for comparing it with Knox's (and Belloc's) translation philosophy.

I love the Authorized Version, and I love the Knox version. The first is superbly suited to liturgical use and memorization, the second is a tremendous aid to understanding the biblical texts without knowledge of ancient languages. Both are masterful examples of the English language nonpareil. Neither is perfect, but neither will either translation ever leave my possession.

Leighton said...

I think this is a good example of the both/and beauty of the Catholic faith. I recently purchased David B. Hart's translation of the New Testament, thanks to a post on your blog, and I'm really enjoying it because it wakes one up by its more literal quality. To hear, in Hart's new version (and the RSV, and NASB, incidentally), that Jesus "opened his mouth" to teach at the Sermon on the Mount, may sound strange, but it's a literal rendering, and reminds one of Jesus' words to Satan during the temptation in the desert that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Hart's more literal version is alive and bracing and helps me to read the NT again as if for the first time, which isn't a bad thing.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoy the language of the NJB, which is in the tradition of dynamic (or functional) equivalence. The reading is vibrant (with a few exceptions) to my ear, and fresh in a way that I don't often experience with a more formal translation. Of course, the soon-to-be-released revision is supposed to have moved much more toward the formal equivalence side of the translation spectrum (I'll find out when I receive my order of the RNJB NT and Psalms).

It's interesting to note that St Paul, when quoting Old Testament passages, didn't seem bound by the convention of formal equivalence. And yet, his letters are inspired.

Thank the good God that there are so many means through which to encounter His Word through various expressions of the Word.

Matthew Doe said...

The article makes a simple mistake, it confuses *liturgy* with *scripture*.

We are not at liberty to determine the style and tone of scripture. As with all proper translations, one must represent the style and tone of scripture in its original languages as faithfully as one can in the target language of the translation.

It is of course possible that our knowledge of the original language and/or the context of the writings is insufficient to determine the style and tone that we must adopt. Then we are free to choose within the boundaries of our limited knowledge. Then we may well choose to make it as grand and formal as reasonable (or as colloquial and lax as reasonable). But if we do know how this must have sounded to a native speaker of the day, then we must capture that as much as we can in the translation. Anything else is simply falsification of scripture, if subtly so.

To the extent that the DR of KJV went beyond this proper remit of a translation, according to what was already known in their days, they are plain and simply wrong. I do not have the knowledge to judge whether such an accusation is fair though, or simply anachronistic.

Anyway, if we talk about the liturgy - where it does not consist of reading scripture - that's simply a different case. Almost all of the liturgy is at the Church's disposal, to arrange as she wishes for her purposes. So a discussion of what liturgical language should be like is strictly impossible without a discussion of the purpose of liturgy. Furthermore, the "speech performance" of liturgy is not solely located in the semantic content (the meaning of what is being said). Indeed, the liturgy is closer to theatre than to news commentary or bedtime stories. So a discussion about appropriate liturgical language simply has to be kept at a different level. It is completely possible, for example, to argue that a "foreign language almost nobody understands" - say Latin or Old Slavonic - works better for the performative purposes of liturgy than the language that the people involved actually speak. Whereas this simply cannot be argued for a translation of scripture...

Jerry Mc Kenna said...

I love Knox's writings but in this a disagree with him. I don't want to know how an Englishman (or an American) would say this, I want to have a better idea of what the Bible says.

Know was of a generation that learned Latin, I assume many educated men and women translated ancient documents into some form of English. He's used to the idea of a full translation. Our generations don't usually learn ancient languages. I don't want the clunky metaphors smoothed out.

Many years ago I read a bargain basement translation of The Confession by St Augustine. It was a very dynamic translation and to my mind anachronistic. I felt I was reading the translators words and not the original.

Matthew Doe said...

Jerry McKenna, I think you are misunderstanding Knox there. I'm no friend of "dynamic" translations that amount to paraphrase. But I don't think that Knox is arguing for that. Let me try to illustrate with a German example what I think he means:

1. The German original: "Dieses Auto gefällt Michael sehr!"
2. Making this German talk English: "This car pleases Michael very much!"
3. What an Englishman would have said: "Michael likes this car a lot!"

I'm a native speaker of German, and I'm reasonably fluent in English. In a situation where I might have said 1 in German, I would say 3 in English. I would not say 2, even though it more closely renders the German expression into English. Because in English 2 is odd or at least very specific, whereas 1 is just regular German.

In fact, if I now tried to back-translate
"This car pleases Michael very much!"
into German, I would not use 1 from above. I would try to capture how this is not such an ordinary sentence in English, and perhaps write in German
"Dieses Auto macht Michael große Freude!"
which in turn translated by "making this German talk English" would be
"This car brings Michael great joy!"

I hope you get the picture...

Jason said...

Thanks for that.

I think that was a pretty good example.

Bob said...

One side note that Knox makes in Englishing the Bible is that it doesn't have to be so that religious language is archaic language.

He point out that the KJV was translated not in the language of their day, but language that was already outmoded.

He points out French and perhaps Spanish as languages that have always had the bible in the language of their day. This makes me wonder--have those language changed as quickly as English? I know that English vocabulary changes much faster than French, which has a smaller vocabulary in general, but I wonder if their language is more stable, by some measure.

Anyway, this is what I see as the crux of the issue.

What makes a language sacral? The fact that its of God and to God? Or is it something within the language itself.


Matthew Doe said...

I think this excerpt from "Holy Writ" by H. L. Mencken (from the Smart Set, October 1923) is worth thinking about:

Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life wherever English is spoken. They did their work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics. They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was deliberately artificial even when it was new. They thus dispersed the mob by appealing to its emotions, as a mother quiets a baby by crooning to it. The Bible that they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds upon the ideas in it. To this day it has enchanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally. Paine has assaulted them, Darwin and Huxley have assaulted them, and a multitude of other merchants of facts have assaulted them, but they still remember the twenty-third Psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, they are still moved beyond compare (though not, alas, to acts!) by the Sermon on the Mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unashamed in the story of the manger. It is not much, but it is something.

Surly Hermit said...

Matthew Doe, that's an EXCELLENT piece to think about. Especially coming from an atheist (if I remember correctly) like Mencken. I believe Hitchens or Dawkins felt the same way. Something we Christians really ought to consider more, especially if it's seemingly obvious to those outside the Church.