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Lost in translation?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Traduttore – traditore (the translator is a traitor) runs the Italian play on words, and its own English translation already gives us an example of what it’s talking about: the English words don’t sound as similar as the Italian, and so the wordplay doesn’t work as well. The translator faces a huge challenge in trying to convey the fullness of the original text, and inevitably something has to be compromised: perhaps the translator will feel the need to sacrifice the conciseness of the original, for example, in order to make the text more intelligible, or perhaps the importance of preserving the poetic form will be placed above the exact literal meaning of the words.

Furthermore, there is no hard and fast rule for which elements of a text should be best preserved, and where the translator ought to compromise: it depends on the genre of the text, the target audience and the purpose of the translator, to name but a few factors.

All of these issues, then, have been at play in the question of liturgical translation, too, and it’s a different judgement of the best balance of these competing elements which has resulted in the differences we find in the new translation. To take one of the most obvious examples, the Latin et cum spiritu tuo with which we respond to the priest’s Dominus vobiscum (‘The Lord be with you’) has been changed, in the English translation from ‘and also with you’ to ‘and with your spirit’.

The old translation is clearly further away from the Latin original, and we can get a sense of the translators’ attempt to make the text more immediately intelligible and sound more like something we might say in “normal English”. At the same time, we see that the translators have gone, as it were, a step beyond what the Latin says to try and convey what it’s talking about.

Now, that approach to translation is certainly justifiable in itself. However, at the same time it’s clear that ‘and also with you’ is not the only thing the Latin could mean: by going that extra step from what the original says to trying to explain what it means, the translators have been forced to exclude other possible interpretations that et cum spiritu tuo bears, such as references to the Holy Spirit we share through our baptism, or perhaps the particular charism the priest has received in the sacrament of Holy Orders.

As I understand it, the new approach to vernacular translations which the Church has adopted in the light of her experience over the last 40 years recognises the importance of preserving as far as possible this range of meanings of the original Latin. In many cases, that has resulted in something less immediately and easily intelligible because, as it were, the translators have done less work, and left us more to do ourselves: rather than settle on one possible interpretation (which would have enabled them to make the language simpler), our liturgical translators have given us an English text which is open for us to explore in the light of the Holy Spirit: as we pray the common prayer of the Church, we can find in the liturgy a means of deepening our understanding of the common faith we profess.

Gregory Pearson OP


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