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Latin Lover August 1, 2011

Posted by J. in FYI, Genius.

Only in my mind. And sometimes the car.

I love languages.  I wish to God I had a precociousness when it comes to speaking and understanding foreign tongues.  I can learn languages after a fashion, and I’m lucky that it sticks with me long after I’ve learned it.  In a way, it’s sort of how I am with music.   I’m sure if I had the opportunity to practice communicating in another language on a regular basis I’d probably be pretty passable at it.  Not proficient.   I mean, I’m better at reading music and staying on key better than I’ve ever been in my life, and I’ve lost my self-consciousness about singing in public, but I’m not Beverly Sills and won’t ever be.

Such is the case with languages.  I took three years of French in high school and two advanced classes in college, but even at my most immersed, I was only passable, and I never really felt confident speaking it, though I can still understand it well enough to follow directions or laugh at an overheard dirty joke.

I’m a word nerd.  I love the English language.  It is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary.  I don’t know who said that, but I love it. It’s big and bold and it doesn’t give a shit.  You have a better word in your language for something?  We’ll take it.  We’ll change the way you say it.  And spell it.  We’ll combine two other words if there’s not one good one handy.  Hell, we’ll make one up on the spot.  We drop words we get sick of.  We learn the rules of grammar and then break the shit out of them, because we can.

As a native speaker of English, the process of translation is fascinating to me.  We had to write reports to present to the class in Sr. Eugenia’s French class, and because I’ve never been fluent at thinking in French, I would write the report in English and laboriously translate it into French.  I learned about the importance of idiomatic expression in translation.  For instance, if I’m talking to a native English speaker and I refer to the straw that broke the camel’s back, my friend would know I wasn’t talking about broken camels.  But if I wanted to relate the same idea of being past the limits of tolerance to a French friend, I’d refer to la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase, or literally, the drop of water that overflowed the vase.  Same idea, different expression.

Translation comes up in my life again these days because the latest translation of the Roman Missal from Latin to English is finally done and we’ll start using it at Mass in November.   There aren’t a lot of changes that the great unwashed masses of us in the pews will have to deal with, but the clergy is going to have their hands full.

So today, I got to feed my inner word nerd and my latent theological tendencies with a double-whammy wet dream of a introduction to the new translation.

In a nutshell, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Mass was said predominantly in Latin with a bit of Greek thrown in here and there.   Latin is the official language of the Church because Jesus put Peter in charge and Peter set up camp in Rome.  But ever since the Council of Trent, which took place after the Protestants stomped out angrily yelling, “Hey, Luther, wait for us!” the Church has allowed for certain groups of people in certain places to say certain parts of the Mass in the vernacular language of the area.  It became more widespread into the 20th century, and after Vatican II in the 60’s, the vernacular was in and Latin was out.

All along we’ve been using the basic translation of the Latin texts prepared by the Church back in the early 60’s.  (This is where my example about idiomatic expressions come in handy.  I hope you were paying attention.)  Latin doesn’t translate well into English.  It’s no problem with French, or Italian, or Spanish because those are Romance languages and their sentence structure and basic grammar rules are all very similar to Latin.  In short, shit that makes sense in Latin also makes sense in Latin-based languages.  It stands to reason.

Ah, but then there’s English.  She’s a dirty whore of a language.  If you translate the Latin precisely and literally, you wind up talking about overflowing vases when your English audience understands straw and broken camels.  So the guys translating the whole thing into English the last time used a time-honored method of translating that captured the basic ideas expressed in Latin and rearranged things so that they flowed better when spoken in the English tongue.   The Mass went from being in Latin and unintelligible to most, to being in English, easily understood, and all things considered, the prayers and responses have been rolling trippingly off our English-speaking tongues for more than 40 years.

Well, with this new translation, the scholars and theologians and linguists working on the new text have been charged with restoring the original Latin that was lost.  I think it was Pope John Paul II that put forth the notion that a lot of shit was getting lost in the English translation and he thought a new one was in order.  And this time, instead of trying to make it sound pretty, he thought the dudes with the Latin-to-English dictionaries should make accuracy a higher priority this time, never mind how ridiculous it sounds and I don’t care what the other Pope told you to do last time.  This is now, fellas.  Get cracking.

Now, you'll be able to pick out a real Catholic by saying "May the Force be with you." If he replies, "And with your spirit," you've a got a Papist on your hands. Tag and release only, please.

Honestly, I had no idea why it was important.  It seemed to me that we should be making the language more relevant and recent, not taking it backwards with awkward and cumbersome expressions that don’t translate to English.   But that’s because before today I didn’t really grasp what had been lost in translation, as it were.

That, of course, is my own fault for not learning Latin in the first place.

The long and short of it, as Fr. explained it to us, is that much of the patrimony of the Mass will be restored.  There are phrases used during the Mass that are part of history, and to change the words changes the meaning.  He used the example “We, the people.”  To an American, those three words mean something profound.  “Us guys” means the same thing, essentially, but in changing the words, the profundity of the words is lost.  It means the same thing, but it doesn’t say the same thing at all.

One example of that is during the Eucharistic Prayer, there is an exchange between the priest and the congregation.  He says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” and we respond, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”  Nothing wrong with that.  We said we agree with you, Padre.

Now take the more literal translation.  When Fr. says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God,” we will respond instead with “It is right and just.”

Huh.  What’s the problem?  Doesn’t that say the same thing?  We’re still agreeing.  Letting all in earshot know that we heartily concur that it is a good thing to give thanks to God.  So why change it?  Patrimony, that’s why.  Where does the phrase “It is right and just” come from?  From the Roman senate.  Back in the day, when the Roman senators were done hashing out their ideas and they had it in a final form to be presented to the people, they expressed their support for the new law by saying “It is right and just.”  Early Church fathers adopted that phrase, well-known to the citizenry at the time, and incorporated it into the Mass.  It’s a small piece of verbal history right there that forty years of translation forgot.

I'm not convinced this isn't a more accurate representation. Well, if heaven is anything like they promised, it is.

The Nicene Creed is changing too.  That was written in Greek, originally, and that particular ecumenical council was where they really nailed down Christ’s divinity once and for all.  Jesus IS God.  God is Jesus.  The Holy Trinity is not, as Fr. reminded us today, an old guy, a hippy, and a damn bird.  They’re all God, and the Greek Creed says it plainly, if you read Greek.  Translate it to English and the strongest wording we have of the belief of  God becoming human, the incarnation of God, is watered down.

I didn’t know.  Who the hell did?  The new translation is closer to the Greek.  The words are awkward, and consubstantial is going to be a new fifty-cent word for a lot of people, but the theology is more clearly expressed, with no ambiguity.

So on the one hand it fills me with joy to see the ancient origins and foundations of our liturgy more clearly expressed, and as much as I love getting elbow deep into studying this stuff, when it comes to my daily routines, I still don’t like change.  Mass is going to feel different and weird, like when you go to Canada and it feels like home, but with just enough things being different that you know you’re in a strange place.

So if you were wondering what I did today, I learned lots of cool new Church stuff.  I finished a hat and a pair of booties, got three new hats ready to list this week, and finished most of my two Sunday crosswords.

Now it is 12:30 in the morning and I was going to go to bed early tonight.  Sleep, dream, and be merry, for tomorrow I bake.



1. Yorkie - August 1, 2011

All I could think through this whole article was about the Latin Lover, this guy who used to work at the newspaper office where we did our monthly paste-up in HS, back in the days when you actually cut and paste your newspaper with Exacto knives and waxing machines on large tables. He was about 5′ 3″, swarthy, moustachioed, shirt opened to his waist over his round belly, gold chained, and always completely marinated in cheap cologne. He’d give we teenaged girls leers and winks, and my friend Chip would always nudge me in the ribs and say in a strong accent, “The Latino Lover is waiting for youuuuu…”

So as I read your very enlightened and reasoned article above, all I kept thinking was how much more fun Mass would be if the priests said the whole thing sounding like Speedy Gonzales. My deepest apologies because I’m certain that’s not the impact you intended, but to be honest, I did learn a little something here, and I *was* very amused. Consider it a Pyrrhic victory.

2. MouthyMavensMusings - August 1, 2011

It’s so funny that you wrote this today as I’m studying the origins and original translations of the bible right now. It’s fascinating!

We don’t share the same denominational faith (I’m non-denominational) but it’s all the same God 😀

…at least that’s what it sounds like…you could be a catholic satanist for all I know…

…you would do that poops. Just to fuck with people.

I have now convinced myself that’s what you are. Now there’s no going back. Fuck you – you dirty catholic satanist.

….I’m kidding of course – I have had WAY too many meds today…

3. Pippa Posey Peanut Butter Pants - August 1, 2011

You take my breath away Poops. You’re so friggin’ smart! If I’d had someone like you teaching me this shit when I was a kid (instead of a group of humorless and long suffering nuns who basicly wanted nothing more than to slap us silly and get back to the nunnery and do…whatever) I might have actually enjoyed it. Maybe even retained it too.

Better late than never – but I’m still not going back to church until the next wedding or funeral…and then won’t I be so confused?! Thanks for the heads up.

BTW: Are they retaining the part of the mass where I have to hug or touch total strangers and wish them well? Hate that part…it wakes me up and forces me to pay attention.

4. Cindy in Happy Valley - August 2, 2011

Hope I’m still around when they decide this version is too wordy and cumbersome, makes people feel even less connected than they do now, and change it back…….I’ll be chuckling my ass off.

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