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The Roman Catholic Church in the English-speaking world adopted a few years ago new translations for liturgical use. Since Rome is the giant of the Christian world, the texts in question will influence other Churches and are important for us all. The Roman Church’s adoption of the vernacular for liturgy after Vatican II displaced the English Prayer Book as the primary literary influence over the liturgical language of other Christians. For over 40 years that influence, alas, was baleful. Happily, the recent, new forms are a major improvement over those in use since 1970, which holds out hope that some of the earlier damage may be reversed.
An example might help to illustrate my point. The 1970 Roman Catholic translation of the collect for what we would call Stir-Up Sunday is as follows: ‘Father, we need your help. Free us from sin and bring us to life. Support us by your power.’ This translation is typical of the 1970 Sacramentary. It favors extremely short, choppy sentences and avoids subordinate clauses. It also favors extremely simple vocabulary, even to the point of avoiding standard theological terms. In this particular case the traditional opening words, ‘Stir up’, were simply abandoned. And finally, in another typical tendency of modern liturgy, this prayer, with its bare declarative sentences, seems to share information with God (as if he did not already have it) and then to demand things of him with a bluntness that seems positively rude. ‘God: we’re going to tell you something you don’t already know. Then we will tell you what you need to do about it.’ God’s people appear to serve him in a mainly advisory capacity and do so without even saying ‘please’.
Another problem with the 1970 collect just quoted is the way it will sound in the mouth of a sloppy speaker – and, God knows, the clergy are capable of sloppy speech. The Mass-goer listening to Father Mushmouth might well hear a rather startling petition that God would ‘bring us to life support’. Only as the prayer continues will the auditor realize that we are not in fact asking for a ventilator or similar life supports. Often prayers from the 1960s and the two decades following seem remarkably clueless as to how they actually sound when spoken or misspoken.
The new translation of the prayer in the Roman rite restores the traditional translation of the opening word (Excita): namely ‘Stir up’: ‘Stir up your power, O Lord, and come to our help with mighty strength, that what our sins impede the grace of your mercy may hasten.’ The sentence abandons choppy, short sentences for a slightly more complex sentence structure: two parallel main clauses and a subordinate clause. It also uses a couple of words that go beyond baby-talk vocabulary: ‘impede’ and ‘hasten’. The new translation is more euphonious and still perfectly clear. In every way it is an improvement over 1970.
Of course the best translation is that of the Prayer Book: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded.’ Here too the meaning is clear. The vocabulary is simple, particularly to anyone familiar with Prayer Book worship, in which ‘beseech’ is a commonplace word. The only word of more than two syllables in the collect is ‘plenteously’, and its repetition makes a large part of the beauty of the composition. This prayer is a perfect piece of English prose.
This Prayer Book translation is quite similar to the standard translation of the pre-Vatican II people’s missals used among Romans: ‘Stir up, we beseech You, O Lord, the wills of Your faithful people: that more earnestly seeking after the fruit of good works, they may receive more abundant helps from Your mercy.’ (Saint Joseph’s Daily Missal, 1959) This earlier Roman translation does not repeat ‘plenteously’ (or ‘earnestly’), and in that respect is in fact closer to the Latin original, but then in its literalness it also misses something of the perfection of the Prayer Book version. Nonetheless, this is a real prayer, rather than a bossy bestowal of information to and of demands upon the Almighty, and it makes good use of parallelism and of vocabulary that is neither difficult nor childish.
Three of the translations above are fairly close to each other. The odd man out is the 1970 mess. Sunday collects, of course, are only heard once a year. The more noticeable changes in the new Roman translations are the things that are constantly repeated in the ordinary of the Mass rite. There too the new translations are both an improvement over the 1970s usage and also closer to the Prayer Book tradition.
The most obvious example from the Mass ordinary is in the response to the salutation, ‘The Lord be with you.’ The Prayer Book, of course, has the reply as ‘And with thy spirit’, which is a literal translation of the Latin, ‘Et cum spiritu tuo.’ The use of ‘thy’ accurately translates the Latin familiar pronoun. In the 1970 Sacramentary Rome changed the reply to ‘And also with you’: which is neither literal nor modern nor a phrase any actual human being would spontaneously utter. The new reply abandons this absurd, artificial confection and returns to a more literal translation: ‘And with your spirit.’ This is an accurate rendering of the Latin original, except in its surrender to the modern English abandonment of familiar second person singular pronouns. The new translation is not classical liturgical English, but it is an acceptable modern translation which need not embarrass its speakers.
In almost every respect the new Roman translation returns to something closer to our own Prayer Books and missals. By not changing we have outlasted the badly conceived forms of the decades that followed what some call The Great Disruption. We have, by not changing, held on to that which is both more timeless and also more accurate and beautiful than the passing fancies of the now superannuated ‘progressives’. Our motto may be: Back to the future!