lördag 22 augusti 2009

Language in the liturgy - new translation

The definitive liturgy for the Catholic church is always in Latin, and the vernacular translation normally used are translations from the Latin. The English version was prepared by a body going by the initials ICEL and dates from the late 1960s. It is, to put it mildly, a free adaptation rather than a translation, and the authorities have requested that a new translation be made, faithful to the Latin. This is due to be introduced in a couple of years.

It is an improvement on the present one, there is no doubt about that. How well it will be accepted is another matter. It has a curiously seventeenth century ring about it. That will make it difficult for many to accept on account of its evident strangeness. This applies not just to people in the UK and US with English as their mother tongue but poor command of the language, but also in ex-Commonwealth countries. I can't see it going down well in those oddly mixed congregations that for some reason attend English masses here in Sweden, for example.

Vernacular language is political and that is why dead languages are used for liturgy, since they provide neutral territory. Moslems use Classical Arabic, Jews use Classical Hebrew, Hindus Sanskrit, etc. Language useage is always closely linked to social and economic class, with strong overtones of regional and ethnic loyalty. Vernacular language is inherently divisive. This is evident in Britain but more acutely even just across the Channel in Belgium.

There are also going to be difficulties over musical settings. The 1970s things need to be consigned to oblivion. But "Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" with 15 syllables is translated by "and on earth peace to people of good will" with 10. So the Gregorian settings can't be used. The same verse in Swedish is "och frid på jorden åt människor som har hans välbehag" has 15 syllables. The translation was made long ago for the Lutheran church and makes it possible to use the original Gregorian settings, which is what happened. So when the Catholic church here adopted the vernacular, there was a mass of music available, based on the Gregorian chants, with the result that the liturgy is perfectly acceptable - the problem being that to many priests speak with a heavy German accent which makes it difficult for people to understand.

So the new translation leaves us without musical settings. If the old Church of England translations had been permitted as an option, this would at least have opened up the possibility of using the large body of Anglican music, though that has the severe drawback of having an irredeemably Protestant feeling to it.

What with the linguistic difficulty and musical problems, I am left wondering if it is even worth spending money on books. The same money could go towards buying a set of the simpler Gregorian chants and using the next two years to get congregations used to Latin. If one then takes account of issues such as the direction the priest is facing, the further question arises - whether to persist with the Ordinary form of the Mass at all? The EF form with a revised calendar appears to side-step the problems. It could be easier to spend the next couple of years getting congregations used to the EF mass, which would provide the opportunity for much-needed catechesis at the same time.

Sample texts for the new translation can be viewed here

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