Latin nouns, missed opportunities

As a teacher, I have some tricks up my sleevecase studies and object lessons for when the right opportunity arises. One favorite that I learned somewhere along the way goes like this: OK, everyone take out a scrap of paper. I have a question for an important class discussion. Who have been the most important men in your life? The students write down mostly expected answers (Dad, brother, etc.). But through many repetitions of this exercise, not one person has ever written Momor any other womans name, for that matter. And so it is an efficient lesson to demonstrate that men doesnt normally mean human beings or people or men and women. In current English usage, the nouns man and men refer to adult males.I was thinking of this during the first Mass with the new translations. As a scholar of the Bible, teacher of ancient languages, and devotee of liturgical life, I was prepared for some recovered biblical imagery, Latinate vocabulary and syntax, and even a freshness in my own prayer. But what jumped out at me most, as I was reading the new Creed, was what did not change. For us men and for our salvationand became man.What a missed opportunity to render the Latin text faithfully!Translating the Latin homo as man and homines as men is wrong on all counts. First, it fails the test of formal equivalence. Latin and Greek each have nouns meaning adult male or man (vir / anr) and other nouns meaning human being (homo / anthrpos), the latter of which were in the 4th-century creeds. Its even likely that human is etymologically Latinate (related to homo, -inis), while man is Germanic in origin. By its own rules and tendencies, then, the translation team should have acted differently. Second, it fails the test of functional equivalence, which my classroom lesson demonstrates. But there are myriad other ways to prove this. Who goes to the Mens Breakfast Bible Study at your church? Who goes to the Mens Room after Mass?Third, the new translation fails to be coherent with itselfand this is the most surprising point to me. Later in the Mass, the priest offers the fruit of the earth/vine and work of human hands (manuum hominum). And the new translation of the Gloria, which we will begin to use soon, prays for peace to people (hominibus) of good will. Was there a peculiar subcommittee for the Creed, one that followed different translation principles?These are not just questions of interest to language geeks. The Mass translations ought to enable prayer. In Rita Ferrones words, they need to sing. I want them to sing for our daughter, who will grow up with these words as her vocabulary of prayer. Shouldnt she think of herself as one of these men for whom God intervened? Why is she a man here and nowhere else in her life? For this and other reasons, many people already drop the word men from the Creedits clunky in any case, and to whom else would us refer? (The animals present on the Feast of St. Francis?) But if every word must be translated, then homines in the Creed should have been translated men and women, just as the phrase is used in the third Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs (you gather men and women, whom you made for the glory of your name), and just as brothers and sisters is used frequently to translate fratres.As for homo factus est, the Latin noun itself carries the wisdom of the Incarnation: and became human. Gods becoming human is the point of the prayer anyway, in this liturgical season most of all.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads