Where Are the Linguists?

[Added: 10-2011]

A well-known tenet among professional linguists and translators is that of dynamic equivalency.  According to this basic translation principle, the aim of any translation is to convey the same meaning to speakers of the target language that the original text had for speakers of the source language.  It follows from this that a good meaning-based translation will require “dynamic equivalents” of certain words and phrases which appear to deviate from their more literal renderings.  Such deviation, within a meaning-based paradigm, does not represent infidelity to the source text but rather a greater fidelity to it: too literal a translation can end up saying something quite different from what was originally intended and thus confuse the meaning.  The more accurate translation, then, is sometimes the less literal one.

Observing with great dismay the decision, within this Church I have grown to love, to abandon a good and functional meaning-based translation of the Roman Missal in favor of an awkwardly word-based one, I had been wondering for some time: were there any actual linguists involved in this translation process?  The answer to my question came on reading the deeply contradictory Liturgiam Authenticam.  In the middle of Section II of this document, which lays out a series of fundamentally flawed translation principles (syntactic mimicry, avoidance of idioms, a snobbish presumption of theological deficiency in vernacular languages), the concluding sentence of paragraph 30 makes an audacious assertion: “Just as has occurred at other times in history, the Church herself must freely decide upon the system of language that will serve her doctrinal mission most effectively, and should not be subject to externally imposed linguistic norms that are detrimental to that mission.”  In other words, we don’t need any linguists to tell us how to translate; we’re the Church!

To this suggestion that the Church is somehow above the need for linguistic expertise, I counter that it is especially in such a significant matter as the mission of the Church that her members are most deserving of the best quality translations according to professional linguistic standards.  What is truly “detrimental to that mission” is to settle for anything less.  We thus do ourselves a grave disservice by rejecting the gifts that those with specialized training and skills in translation and linguistics, or for that matter in any field, have to offer.

Given that professional linguists represent a narrowly defined demographic, and given how certain troubling aspects not only of Liturgiam Authenticam, but also of the process of preparing the new Missal, have fanned the flames of an already polarized ecclesial climate, it is understandable that most critiques of the new translation have focused on ecclesiological concerns rather than linguistic ones.  Still, I can’t help but find it a bit curious that, while the quality of the translation itself has been the subject of much debate, evaluation of the translation principles underlying it has for the most part been a missing piece of the discussion.  To the extent that language issues have been discussed, the debate has largely revolved around the false dichotomy of accessible vs. elegant language.  To some degree, defenders of the new Missal do have a legitimate point when they argue for the preservation of a ritual aesthetic that differs in some ways from “ordinary” speech, yet this case is often overstated, and nobody is arguing for a Missal that employs dialectical slang.  What we really need in liturgy is a balance somewhere between the monotony of the familiar and the obscurity of the inaccessible.

What I find most problematic about this new translation is not so much that we are now erring on the side of the ornate, but that we are doing so in a way that often obscures the intended meaning of the text and thus is less faithful, not more faithful, to its Latin source.  Speaking as one who genuinely loves Latin just as I love all languages, when we mistake literalism for fidelity and make the former our guiding principle, not only do we end up with an erroneous translation, but we may even be making the language itself an idol.  And when we presume to be deepening the mystery while in reality we are merely obscuring it, we are robbing ourselves of a more truly authentic liturgy.

The Church universal deserves better.

Julia Smucker

September 2011