Letters | Bad translations, considering death and putting it off



Gerald O’Collins and John Wilkins do an excellent job of pointing out the flawed preconceptions and resulting bastardized prose generated by Liturgiam authenticam (“English Is Not Latin,”  February 23). One quote from that document displayed for me the mindset that could produce such an embarrassment. Although they did not mention the group by name, one of the great accomplishments of the ecumenical International Consultation on English Texts was that by 1975 they managed to produce texts used in common by both Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. For the first time in almost five hundred years, the majority of English-speaking Christians in this country and around the world were worshiping in a common language.

That endeavor was not only ignored but denigrated in Liturgiam authenticam, for, as the authors quote, we needed to avoid “the manner of speech of non-Catholic ecclesial communities” in order that the Catholic faithful might not suffer “confusion or discomfort.” In other words, we are back in the days of admiration fidelium, the astonishment of the faithful, where the people in the pews were to be protected from anything that would disrupt their “simple” piety.

The presupposition, of course, is that Catholics are still living in Christendom, or at least, in America, in the ghettoes we occupied until the 1960s move to the suburbs. Protestants are no longer the Other; they are members of our families whom we love and respect. And when we were brought together by family events in one another’s churches, it was both an affirmation of our common baptism to be able to say the same words together and an encouragement to heal the last wounds that divided us.

The talk in the late John Paull II era and during Benedict XVI’s pontificate of a “smaller, purer church” through the Benedict or Dominic Options is not, I think, Francis’s vision of where Christ is calling his church to move today. One real step towards achieving the respect, openness and charity that marks Francis’s vision would be to abandon the recent translation of the Gloria, the Creed, and the Sanctus which were imposed on us and go back to the texts that we share in common with our Protestant brothers and sisters. The whole Missal is a major project. Three texts that a lot of, if not most of us, still carry in our heads would be simple.

Michael H. Marchal
Cincinnati, Ohio


I am grateful for O’Collins and Wilkins’s article that dismantles the word-for-word literal translation of the Roman Missal according to the mistaken precepts of Liturgiam authenticam. But just as dismaying as these lexical sins are the syntactical ones.

Because of its declensions and conjugations, Latin can master a complex disposition of its clauses and phrases that English cannot. Part of the unintelligibility of the present translation is due to its attempt to torture English rhetoric into Latin syntactical forms. We spent a whole year in my Jesuit seminary working our way through Bradley’s Arnold, which showed us ways to put Latin rhetoric into authentic English prose. Evidently the translators of the Missal were ignorant of this basic work. The result is unintelligibility created by misplacing the vocative, by the dislocation of phrases and clauses, and by overuse of relative clauses to produce lengthy and rambling sentences that good presiders break into two or more sentences. But the real problem of the present Roman Missal is not the translation. It is the theology. The sixteenth-century Missal was good for its time. In a time of religious wars, Catholics needed a hope of eternal peace in the final reign of God. In a time of a rejection of works done in faith, Catholics needed a vindication of works meriting eternal reward. In a time of hierarchical greed and theological ignorance, Catholics needed certitude about fixed forms.

This theology has undergone a balancing act in Vatican II, with its emphasis on the “here and now” reign of God, on the promotion of temporal justice, on an ecumenical acceptance of the gratuity of God’s grace, and on the whole Pilgrim People of God at prayer. Contrast the theology of the four new Eucharistic Prayers for Various Needs with that of the Roman Canon.

In short, what is needed is not just a new translation but a new Missal that will be faithful to what is blessed in the old and recaptures the meaning of Jesus in the past seventy-five years of Catholic learning. A better translation is simply putting new wine into old wineskins.

L. John Topel, SJ
Seattle, Wash.


The O’Collins-Wilkins piece on the dangers of translation is not restricted to ecclesiastics. The wonderful Italian expression is traduttore, traditore (“the translator is a traitor”). A sense of humor helps in the secular world as well. A movie by the distinguished Italian director Lina Wertmüller was titled Tutto a posto e niente in ordine (“Everything in place and nothing in order”), but called All Screwed Up in America. My favorite example, which may be apocryphal, is that of James Thurber in Germany. He was approached by a lady who gushingly told him how funny he was in German, to which he answered: “Yes, it’s true. My work loses something in the original.”

Harold Ticktin
Shaker Heights, Ohio


Terry Eagleton’s piece on death (“Cast a Cold Eye,”  February 23) is praiseworthy in its own right. And it is also a stimulant for illuminating reflection on our own personal lives.

From our earliest years, each of us has had now-deceased predecessors who continue to have large, distinct impacts on us. How do we respond to their impacts? With gratitude? Or indifference? Or prayer? Or with some some other set of attitudes? In short, how do we keep them in memory? And how ought we to do so?

Similarly, each of us has contemporaries who affect us in various notable ways. How do we deal with the prospect of their deaths? With grief? With relief? With pity? With enthusiasm? Or with some other set of attitudes? And again, how ought we to do so?

Of course, our attitudes are never definitively fixed. They change and we have some measure of control over how they do so. How do we exercise this control? How should we? No other part of our experience can substitute for the light that our responses to these deaths shed on who we are and what we stand for.

Bernard P. Dauenhauer
Montgomery, Ohio


Paul Johnston’s inquiring and provocative review of Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics by Roger Penrose (“In the Presence of Mystery,”  February 23) sets up an opposition between a doggedly atheist Big Bang theory and fundamentalist creationism. Doesn’t Johnston know—even if Penrose doesn’t—that the Big Bang theory was first framed by Father Georges Lemaître? This Belgian priest spent some time not only at MIT but also at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge (at the time a “hall” for Catholic priests). St. Edmund’s has a small but fine Faraday Institute of Science and Religion, just now celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of Lemaître’s theory of the expanding universe. His demurral, when Pius XII actually wanted to use Lemaître’s notion of the Big Bang as a polemical proof of the existence of God, should hardly put the faithful padre in the atheist camp.

Joseph Masheck
New York, N.Y.


We can roughly calculate the benefit to the global community of the life-extending measures that Mary McDonough describes (“Cheating Death,”  April 13).

About one third of the world is poor with a life expectancy of sixty-four years, one third is rich with an expectancy of seventy-eight years, and the remaining third can expect seventy-five years.

Extending average life expectancy in the rich world by only two years and bringing the rest of the world up to that standard yields greater benefits than if we extended life expectancy of the richest third of the world to over one hundred years and left everyone else where they are. We don’t need any new or expensive-to-develop medical or genetic technologies to do this, technologies that you know will only be available to those who can pay for them. Dozens of countries already have average life expectancies of eighty years or more.

If we would only share what we have with others.

Joseph Doran
Pasadena, Tex.

Published in the May 18, 2018 issue: 
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