US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Give me a literary, not literal, translation

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Translation at its best requires a sense of poetry, writes a former Latin teacher.

Guest blog post by Bernard J. Lee, S.M.

Once upon a time I taught a high school Advanced Placement course on the poetry of Virgil: the Georgics and the Aeneid. I always required an accurate literal translation, and I also invited students to try for an English translation that matched the literary beauty of the Latin poetry (especially the Georgics). The inventive students often took me up on it. It’s a lot more work and demands some literary intuitiveness.

A literal translation of Latin liturgical texts into English is a literary tragedy, for beauty captured in Latin is not transmittable literally into any other language. It takes English literary genius to capture Latin literary genius. When ICEL (International Committee on English in the Liturgy) was kidnapped from trained liturgists, the literary disasters with which we are now confronted were predicable.

I am not talking about bad will. I believe that everyone who has a love for good liturgy wants to make it come out right. And I understand the desire for English texts to be faithful to the Latin text. I simply want to propose that “literally faithful” and “literarily faithful” are different expectations. For the sake of the beauty of liturgy, the “literarily faithful” deserves, in my opinion, to be a liturgical preference.

The difference between “literal” and “literary” is not minor. One cannot bargain with the literal meaning, but can take some liberties to match a literal rendering with literary beauty. Some of my young students were uncannily inventive. Poetry never traffics literally between languages. That’s why there are so many translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey and of scripture.

No translator, however good, is ever utterly free of presuppositions even while trying to translate literally. That is why there are so many translation of the New Testament. I’d wager that Catholic and Protestant translations of Paul’s Letter to the Romans will never be identical.

I first read Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in French. The poetry and dramatic images are spectacular. I then read an English translation that was flat. It had none of the comic and tragic beauty of the French text. It was close to dull.  Someone suggested that I read Brian Hooker’s English translation, which I did, and the magic was back. Hooker must himself have been a fine poet who caught the poetic spirit of Rostand’s comic-tragedy. Good translation is not interchangeable with literal translation.

We do the best we can in getting meaning and context from one language into another. Et cum spiritu tuo has become almost a battleground. The literal translation is “and with your spirit.”  But that, frankly, is probably not even a good literal translation, even though spiritus and spirit are cognates. Spiritus functions differently in Latin than it does in English, as does its closest Greek approximation pneuma, or its Hebrew approximation ruach. All translation are approximations, and cognates do not guarantee that meaning from one language has best been named by the same sounding word in another language.

Poets have a critical role to play in getting meaning from one language into another. Literalists can damage meaning if not in community with poets, just as poets can damage meaning if not in dialogue with the literalists. I personally opt for a substantially dialogic poetic voice that is kindly and dialogically disposed to the literalists.


Guest blogger Bernard J. Lee, S.M. is a professor of theology at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas. He is author of The Becoming of the Church (Paulist Press) and editor of Alternative Futures for Worship and Eucharist (The Liturgical Press).

Read more about the liturgy here.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.