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Quanta dementia est

The much-discussed English Mass will leave many lost in translation -- for quite some time, at least

  • Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • November 29, 2011
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Last Sunday, most Catholics who celebrated Mass in English experienced the new translation for the first time. It will clearly take a few weeks for congregations to learn the new wording of familiar prayers and greetings, but it will probably not be too difficult.

The same cannot be said for the various prayers that priests say. Because the prayers follow Latin rather than English sentence patterns they are convoluted, making the comma and the semicolon new symbols of our faith. As I tried to practice and then pray them, I wondered if introducing the pronounced punctuation of the Danish-American humorist Victor Borge might help.

Certainly help is needed.

Because Latin uses grammatical endings and gender to show connections between words and their modifiers, these modifying words and phrases can occur at various parts of a sentence yet the connections remain clear.

In English, though, a modifier is placed with the word or phrase it modifies. The new translation follows the Latin slavishly, even in the placement of modifiers.

For example, in the Prayer after Communion last Sunday, the Latin prays that the mysteries we have celebrated might teach us to love the things of heaven. However, in English we wound up praying for the relativism that Pope Benedict claims is destroying faith: "As we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven." Will we have to start responding, "Lord, don’t hear our prayer" instead of "Amen"?

In addition, because Latin tends to pile up words and phrases to emphasize ideas, a priest needs to prepare for the liturgy by doing deep-breathing exercises so that he can get through phrases in a single breath, the norm in English. I ran out of breath before I was able to get through the first part of the solemn final blessing for Advent.

While practicing the 64-word sentence that forms the core of the Preface of Advent, I wondered if the Major General’s patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance might help and recommend it to other priests as a breathing exercise, though I am not musical enough to have found a way to match the words of the preface to that tune.

Apparently, the sole deviation from the rule that translations must exactly follow the Latin is at the end of Mass, when the priest or deacon says, "Go forth, the Mass is ended" or something similar, instead of the actual Latin "Go, she has been sent." So when the Latin makes sense, it is translated into nonsensical English, but when the Latin makes no sense, it is translated into sensible English.

One cannot help but wonder what Jesus, who warned against piling up words in prayer and said it was his disciples’ privilege to simply pray "Abba, Papa" rather than using high-flown phrases, would make of the new Missal. Might he wince when we claim that our prayers are offered "through Christ our Lord"? And that phrase, by the way, is no longer in a sentence, but simply a few words tacked on after the prayers.

So, what is going to happen? In fact, what is going to happen has already begun. Priests who want to help their communities pray will gradually, but increasingly, begin to rework and reword the translation we have been given.

Instead of an authorized new translation from Latin such as was approved by the world’s English-speaking bishops in 1998, we will now get an unauthorized plethora of ad hoc translations from gibberish.

I am not saying that should happen, but it shall happen.

 
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