A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Teach Us To Pray

I had the privilege today of observing the implementation of the new Roman Missal from the other side of the altar, so to speak. It was my turn to lead our weekly Word and Communion service at the county jail near the parish.Whatever we feel about the quality of these texts or the process by which they came to us (an issue that I have written about elsewhere), our challenge now is to bring them to life as the common prayer of the Church. Since the texts are no longer as familiar, that is going to require some real study and experimentation so that these prayers begin to sound like real prayers instead of merely recitations.Since I am not a priest and did not have to deal with the Eucharistic Prayer, I found that my major challenges were the Opening Prayer and the Prayer after Communion. This is not to say the difficulties were huge, but they required some thought. Consider todays Opening Prayer:Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,the resolve to run forth to meet your Christwith righteous deeds at his coming,so that, gathered at his right hand,they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.As you can see, the clauses we pray and almighty God break up the flow of the petition. While I obviously did not want to lose the address to God, I also wanted to make sure the congregation could follow the line of the argument, so to speak. In terms of voicing, I began strongly with Grant your faithful, then modulated my voice down a bit for we pray, almighty God, and then returned to the same volume level I started with for the the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ The hope was that by using the same volume level, the listener would connect the two clauses in their mind.The Prayer after Communion presented some additional difficulties. Here is the text:May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures.One of the issues with this translation is that the them in the second to last line refers in the Latin original to the mysteries mentioned in the first line notas many English listeners would assumethe passing things in the third line.Ill be honest here and say that I did not come up with a satisfactory solution. The best I could do was to emphasize the word mysteries and vocalize the phrase as we walk amid passing things almost sotto voce. I dont think it really worked, though.Peter Steinfels may be right that most of us in the pews do not pay much attention to the content of these prayers. That may be so. I think, though, that those of us who lead liturgical prayer need to do our best to convey that content. Id be interested to see what kind of solutions others have developed.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Our presider read the prayer as follows: "Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming,so that, gathered at his right hand,they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom."It was pretty good, I thought. There was no question in my mind when I heard him that "they" referred to the faithful and not to the righteous deeds. The "your" in "your Christ" didn't sound weird because the emphasis was elsewhere. I was surprised to see that the faults that jumped at me when I read the text disappeared when I heard it spoken. Maybe spoken English can be much more tolerant of errors than written English.

One priests was thrown by the "they" in the last line of the Collect and changed it to "we".

Peter, I don't think I'd be overly enthusiastic about conveying your sincerity to your listener. Let the words speak themselves. Listeners usually don't need our guidance, very much if at all. Children do, of course, but there probably aren't many children in your prison.In other words, "merely recitations" are probably fine, so long as the enunciation is clear.

One priests was thrown by the they in the last line of the Collect and changed it to we.

Doesn't change it a bit, does it?

The meaning is unchanged, but "they" is more elegant. However, do we really need to be catechizing the faithful in the use of elegant locutions such as "your Christ" and the use of the third person to refer to themselves?

Peter's selective modulation of volume amounts to verbally editing the hard-to-read text, and to good effect, for the constant interjections of " we pray" and addresses to "almighty God" come across as nervous habits that hinder communication. But why should the presider-- or the respondent in the pews-- have to do this to make clear-cut sense of the prayers?

Mr. Nixon writes: '...the them in the second to last line refers in the Latin original to the mysteries mentioned in the first line notas many English listeners would assumethe passing things in the third line.' But since pronouns refer to the noun most immediately previous, let's take "them" as indeed referring to "passing things"--a small incarnationalist subversion of the prevailing aim of the new translation, to render the Mass mysterious and otherworldly.

As Claire points out, there is the same pronoun problem in the opening prayer that there is in the prayer after communion -- and no possibility of the kind of paradoxical reading with which James Dougherty solves the problem in the second prayer."Faithful" translation is no excuse for errors of syntax, since translators must be as faithful to their target language as they are to the language of the original text. Susan Gannon is right: the reader shouldn't have to use vocal modulation to compensate for the confusion of the words on the page. I have nothing against periodic sentences -- or against using them (sparingly) in prayers -- but if you're going to pile on the phrases, you need to make sure they don't topple over. Fidelity is no substitute for lucidity.

Lucidity and fluidity are not the only values in translation, though, and they can be compromise fidelity in particular ways. There was a fantastic essay in the NY Review of Books on the Pevear and Volokhonsky War and Peace translation, and it deals with the problem of rendering syntax that is deliberately unusual. Here it is: think some of the same points apply. There are challenges when an unambiguous pronoun in Latin becomes ambiguous in English, to be sure - I would be shocked if there were not a few problems along those lines. But as for the "interruptions" of the line of thought to address God, this is analogous to the Tolstoy case. Here as there, why should we assume, as Susan Gannon does, that a completely flat reading of the text should be sufficient, or that a better translation will never involve some productive friction with our syntactic habits ? As Pevear puts it (I'm paraphrasing), a translation happens in the space between two languages. That is, it's not justified to require that the original syntax should always lose to considerations of syntactic ease and normality in the target language. I think what J. Peter Nixon is doing is exactly the right approach: in finding the intonation that conveys the meaning most fully and fluently, he is perforce carrying out some of the nuances of the prayer, e.g. he renders the prayer as a continuous thought while not omitting the worshipful address of God. A beautiful example of the way our prayer is shaped and in some sense brought about by and through the words of the liturgy, rather than being something already-formed that the liturgy merely conveys.

Joseph,Where in these two examples is the friction productive? How does parking a bunch of subordinate phrases and clauses between subject, verb, and object -- instead of putting those clauses and phrases before or after the main clause -- add anything of importance to the liturgical prayers? Or rather, anything so important that it justifies the inevitable confusion? I agree with you that Peter Nixon's approach is the right one. I also agree that "our prayer is shaped and in some sense brought about by and through the words of the liturgy," which is precisely why those words should be chosen and ordered as carefully as possible. The prayers do not need to reproduce the casual language of conversation; they do not always need to be syntactically simple; and, as you say, there are other values to consider besides lucidity and fluidity: the language must also be expressive. But again, to return to the examples Peter gives us, I do not see how the broken syntax makes either prayer more expressive. The first example isn't hard to fix unless you're wedded to the Latin word order -- or to the needless reminder that this prayer is being prayed. What would be wrong with translating the Opening Prayer thus:"Almighty God, grant us, your faithful, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, we may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom"?

To what does "gathered at his right hand" refer -- the deeds or us? Only when we progress to the rest of the sentence does it become clear.I find that such ill-tethered expressions are a primary cause of confused writing, they and not following the rules of antecedents and pronouns. They're all find-the-referent problems.

There's of course nothing really wrong with the alternative word order you propose. But I don't agree that the reminder that a prayer is being prayed is at all needless! That the words are directed towards God is something easily forgotten or smoothed over by habit. Think of the Eastern liturgy and the reminders, "Let us be attentive!" "Broken syntax" is tendentious, I think. There's nothing syntactically wrong with that Opening Prayer; syntactically unusual in most contexts, yes. But actually the complaints about breaking up the line and having too many commas are missing something else, I think: if we are not going to shorten the prayers significantly (which risks losing richness, imagery and scriptural references), then it is in fact appropriate to have pauses, and direct address is one way to do that. Reading these prayers aloud, I find, makes them easier to grasp syntactically than just reading them on the page. By the same token, it does involve the speaker in a different way than very short sentences do; while that's a concern, I don't see it as a cause for much worry. I think it's a kind of narrow view of the English language and English style to make such a totem of conciseness. Our language has many virtues and is extraordinarily flexible; it is not just the anti-Latin.

I give Peter kudos for his efforts at making the obscure, a little less so. It is too bad we cannot speak in plain English. The texts are confusing and if I were an English teacher (I am not), I would ask - what is your point? I do live in a non-English speaking country and I cannot imagine how any of my friends would begin to wrap their brain around this when they already think English is difficult.

Day 4 of the new regime. I am ignoring the new trans except for using edited versions of the new preces where convenient. I doubt if anyone is going to object.

Fr Zuhlsdorf is busy getting his groupies to stuff the polls: but you cannot vote a sow's ear into a silk purse:

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment