Tuesday, June 1, 2010

New Translation Tuesday: Altering Texts

Happy "New Translation Tuesday" to you all. Friday's post was entitled "Gotta Score, Gotta Win," referring, of course, to the Chicago Blackhawks. Score they did, and win they did. What an exhilarating weekend for Chicago "Hawkey" fans. But, as they say, "it ain't over 'til it's over." Should be an interesting week in Philadelphia.

I have made it my own personal rule not to offer any criticisms of my own parish's liturgy on this blog. Many from the parish read this blog and I don't want to appear as a critic of my own parish. I am a "pew Catholic" at Saint James. I love the people of this parish and would do anything for them. However, something occurred on Sunday which does merit comment; so I am going to break my own rule. I make the comment not to direct a criticism at the parish, but to bring home a point on this "New Translation Tuesday." I don't want the good people of my parish to think I am sitting there week after week, looking for things to write about in the blog. But I honestly feel that what occurred on Sunday is a systemic challenge for many parishes, especially as we anticipate the upcoming new translation of the Missale Romanum.

First, some background. A few weeks ago, after a choir rehearsal for which I was filling in, a young twenty-something choir member approached me and said something like, "I'm not sure you're the appropriate person to talk to, but I have a question." I told him I would do what I could to answer his question. He said something like, "Why all the inclusive language at this parish?" I asked him what he meant exactly. He responded, "You know, like changing the word "his" to "God" in the refrain of the Gloria." I told him that this was something that had been a part of the parish's heritage for many years—at least as long as I had been attending Mass there. I then told him that the new translation of the Gloria would not include the phrase "and peace to his people on earth," so things would soon be changing. And, besides, the practice of changing the readings to inclusive wording had ceased in the parish a few years ago. So,  I left the conversation with this young man at that. I was tired; it had been a long day and a long rehearsal. I didn't have the energy to engage in a long conversation about the whole issue of inclusive language. And, I honestly thought that he was overreacting just a bit to this change of one word. 

Until Sunday. The choir has sung the traditional spiritual Come Let Us Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness for a couple of years. Here's a Youtube video of a Presbyterian choir singing this piece. As the choir began singing it on Sunday, it started to dawn on me that the words had been changed. The references to God as "him" had all been changed to "God" or something like "the one." I was totally distracted by this. When I looked in the worship aid, I noticed that, following the name of the composer of this piece, there was an additional phrase added in parenthesis, which read "New lyrics by . . . ," with the name of a choir member inserted there. Granted, I am a firm believer in creating texts that do not refer to God exclusively in the masculine, nor refer to God's people as "brothers" or "men." But I wonder how far, when dealing with established texts, is too far?

Of course, this brought me back to my days in the 1980's. I am being honest here. In the parish where I was music and liturgy director, we had the "inclusive language committee" of the liturgy commission that painstakingly moved through the Lectionary, with Wite-Out® and black pen in hand, purging the readings of any masculine pronouns referring to God. This group added "and sisters" in places and changed "man" to "human," etc. Frankly, it all seemed perfectly acceptable at the time; "everyone was doing it." When I think of some of the awkward phrases in the readings that resulted from this activity, I now cringe. What were we thinking? Followers of this blog know that I am not an advocate for "adjusting" the Church's official texts. Hearing the same readings and prayers as my parents do, as my siblings do, as my friends in other parishes do, as Catholics all over the world do, is something that helps identify us as Catholic. I believe this is a treasure. I regret having entered the practice of "altering" texts in those early days of my ministry. And what happens to the collective lex orandi lex credendi when parishes all over the world are hearing and praying altered texts?

What will happen when we implement the new translation of the Roman Missal? I have heard some pastors say that they will painstakingly move through the Missal, altering the texts so that they make better sense for them and for their people. I certainly hope that this doesn't occur. The Church in the English-speaking world needs to work together to make this new translation our own. And we need to work together, if need be, to make concrete suggestions to improve this translation. If what is being prayed proves to be awkward and unintelligible, it is our right and duty by reason of our baptism to address the issue. 

I want to tell you again how much I love being a part of my parish. I believe that what happened on Sunday was done with the best of intentions. 

Thanks for listening today. And, as always, comments welcome.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


Liam said...

I, like you, served many years in the trenches on behalf of inclusive language, and witnessed first-hand many differing (and often conflicting) approaches even among those who favored its adoption.

But, in the longer view, this puts the cart before the horse.

A translation is necessarily going to reflect *very settled* vernacular usage, for many practical reasons. Even with the fast evolution of English (and its more widespread progeny, Globish - which has a relationship to English like Romance did to the Latin of late antiquity), that means translations are going to be a few generations behind the evolution of the vernacular.

Inclusive language as you describe it is *not* yet settled universal usage in English. It is widespread in academic and certain institutional and media circles but hardly universal. (I even hear exclusive usage by PBS announcers and hosts and guests - zut alors!) We have yet to arrive at a settled and euphonious way of dealing with many different aspects of the issues.

Trying to make translations bear the burden of inclusive usage as a prescriptive rather than descriptive matter is to put the cart before the horse. Had we not tried to do that in the 1998 translations, perhaps we might not be saddled with the incoming translation. It might behoove those of us who promoted inclusive language as you describe to do some soul-searching for our own portion of responsibility for the current state of affairs.

Scelata said...

God bless you both.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

Fr John Farley 81506 said...

I continue to adjust language in both the Sacramentary and Lectionary when, in a string of pronouns, it's not quite clear to whom the pronouns are referring. Eg

Jesus said to them . . .
Peter replied . . .
Then he said . . .

Then I've already started switching "clergy" to "priests, deacons, and ministers", and using "in the unity of the Holy Spirit" rather than "Holy Spirit, one God".

Eating the elephant one piece at a time. This is going to take a while.