Thursday, April 1, 2010

A New Translation: A Shift in the Lex Credendi?




Welcome to this latest edition of "New Translation Thursday."

As the Triduum unfolds at St. James, my parish, I will be listening more attentively this year to those texts that will be prayed in new translation beginning in a few years. We are entering the three days during which the adage lex orandi lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief) comes into the fullest force. I have often told people something like this: "If you want to know what Catholics believe, come to a Catholic parish for the celebration of a Triduum." I imagine what a ritual anthropologist would say as s/he observes our liturgy during this time. As s/he listens to the prayers, watches the ritual movement, and notes the timbre of the music and the texts sung, how would that person answer these questions:
Who is this God that these people sing and pray about?
Who is this person, Jesus Christ, who seems at the center of all of this?
Who do these people understand themselves to be as they worship?

I am not advocating that you put on your "ritual anthropologist hat" during your celebration of the Triduum. Just be aware that what we do and what we pray express the reality of who we are as Roman Catholics in these three days most poignantly.

This has lots to do with newly translated texts. The big question, of course, is whether or not the newly translated texts will somehow reshape the lex orandi lex credendi principle. Some have argued that the new translation will significantly alter the answers to the questions posed above.

Take, as an example, the following.

Here is a section from the current translation of Eucharistic Prayer III:

And so, Father,
we bring you these gifts.
We ask you to make them holy
by the power of your Spirit,
that they may become the body and blood
of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
at whose command we celebrate this eucharist.

This is my first stab at answering the questions I pose above:


Who is this God that these people sing and pray about?
Their God is their father.
Their God makes things holy.
Their God has a Son, Jesus Christ.

Who is this person, Jesus Christ, who seems at the center of all of this?
He commanded that these people do what they are now doing.
Somehow, what they are doing with the gifts has something to do with this person's body and blood.

Who do these people understand themselves to be as they worship?
They are active; they "bring" the gifts.
They are active; they "ask" for things from this father of theirs.

And here is the same section in new translation:

Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you:
by the same Spirit graciously make holy
these gifts we have brought to you for consecration,
that they may become the Body and Blood
of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
at whose command we celebrate these mysteries.

First stab at the same questions applied to this text:

Who is this God that these people sing and pray about?
Their God is a lord.
This Lord makes gifts holy.
This Lord has a Son who is another Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Who is this person, Jesus Christ, who seems at the center of all of this?
This Jesus Christ commanded that these "mysteries" be celebrated.
Who do these people understand themselves to be as they worship?

Somehow, what these people are doing has something to do with the body and blood of this Jesus Christ; there must be something distinct about this body and blood, because the two words are capitalized, but I would only know that if I saw the text; no difference in the hearing.

Who do these people understand themselves to be as they worship?
They are subjugated to this Lord of theirs, implied by the words "humbly implore" and the descriptor "Lord" to describe their God.
They are active; they have brought the gifts.

Please don't see this simple exercise as any more than a simple attempt on my part to get to the heart of the theology celebrated here. We have been saying all along that "The Mass is staying the same; it is the translation that is changing." But is it really as simple as that? Within the lex orandi lex credendi way of looking at things, when the lex orandi shifts because of new rules of translation, then there will be a shift in the lex credendi; one can't escape this. And of course, there are those who will say that our current translation is not a full expression of the lex credendi of the Church because the translation is somehow faulty, with its applied translation principle of "dynamic equivalence." Since the new translation is closer to the original Latin, the argument goes, then the new translation is closer to the actual lex credendi of the Church as expressed in the Latin language, the source of all translations.

We could spend days talking about this. Does the new translation, with its translation principle of "formal equivalence" actually better and more accurately express the law of belief, the lex credendi? Some would say, "Absolutely, simply because it adheres to the original Latin more closely." Others might say, "Sure it does, but the problem is that the average person in the pews will have difficulty actually comprehending what is looking more and more like a quite awkward translation to proclaim and to understand. What's the use of a new translation if it prevents people from getting to the lex credendi in the first place?"

You know, folks, when I started the "New Translation Tuesday" and the "New Translation Thursday" posts several months ago, I wondered how much time it would take for me to keep this going; would I run out of steam, out of things to say. Well, it looks like that is far from happening. 

Thanks for following this blog and thanks for reading my words today.

Let's keep one another close in prayer as the paschal mystery unfolds in the next few days.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.

4 comments:

FJH 3rd said...

Interesting exercise, Jerry. I plan to go through the side by side comparisons at the USCCB site and do the same. And I think the "lex orandi lex credendi" issue is precisely the point. The current translation HAS affected our belief over the last 40 years, and not for the better. We SHOULD "humbly implore" God for whatever we might request of Him. I can "ask" my wife for another bowl of ice cream. But for something as wonderful and, yes, mysterious, as the transubstantiation of the bread and wine, "humbly imploring" sounds about right! And it sure seems appropriate to acknowledge that He "graciously" makes them holy.

I remain sold on the new translation, and just wish it were much closer to implementation.

A Blessed Triduum to all!

jdonliturgy said...

Thanks for a thoughtful exercise, Gerry. This is certainly food for thought. And I agree that the average person in the pews may have a certain level of difficulty with this. Using words that have not been current in American culture for a hundred years (when was the last time someone "implored" you for anything?) is going to distance people from the prayer - and from understanding. In theory, I am OK with the new translation - I just wish it used more contemporary words. I think children and young people are going to feel even more distanced. Just the way we boomers feel about Bible translations that use "Thee and Thou."

Anonymous said...

Okay, but is the point of liturgical texts to TEACH us about our faith? I think that a prayer as sophisticated as the Eucharistic Prayer pre-supposes a considerable degree of knowledge about the faith, and should certainly do so! It is, after all, a prayer to GOD, not to the lowest common denominator of the assembly. If it takes us a year, or two, or ten, or twenty to really come to understand it, then we have spent those years well.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Good morning, Gerry.

"whether or not the newly translated texts will somehow reshape the lex orandi lex credendi principle"

There is a question which must precede that, I think: did the CURRENT English translation already somehow reshape the lex orandi lex credendi principle?

I agree it's good to look at the prayers and see what questions they answer about our faith, but just taking a chunk of EP III in isolation won't provide a fair or balanced or even view of the faith. We call God "Father" sometimes, "Lord" other times.

As for being "subjugated", we ARE "under the yoke" of our Lord, Whose yoke is easy and Whose burden is light.

jdonliturgy - I'm less than 100 years old, and I've heard (and used) the word "implore". If students still read "The Raven", they've heard it. If people were taught a decent vocabulary in schools, we wouldn't be afraid of using such words as "implore".

Anon - Right: although the liturgy has a teaching aspect to it, catechesis is not its primary aim. That doesn't mean the prayers must be obscure (and I don't think they are), but the Mass is not the end-all and be-all of instruction in the faith.