Thursday, October 13, 2011

Column: Lost and Found in Translation

The new translation of the Roman Missal launches with the First Sunday in Advent this year — less than two months from now. There will be things I will not miss in the old translation (some of the institutionally prosaic opening prayers, for one) and others I suspect I will miss deeply ("one in being"). Fr. Jeremy St. Martin (in the video) works with the deaf apostolate in the Archdiocese of Boston. I learned some ASL when I was on leave at Livermore National Labs (a colleague was deaf), and kept it up (useful for communicating with children in public places). As a result, most of the neighborhood kids learned "stop" and "bother" (as in "stop bothering your brother!")

For another, more poetic (and yes, there is poetry in ASL), interpretation of a setting of the Lord's Prayer, see the video at the end! Play it with the sound turned off...

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 29 September 2011.

We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God. Acts 2:9-11

I hadn’t seen Israel for a couple of years when I ran into him while visiting my dad in California, but I was still greeted with a cheery “¿Como estas?” when he saw me on the path. We talked about the work we were doing and as I struggled to find the words to explain — in Spanish — the little book I was finishing, he good-humoredly noted, “Your Spanish has gotten a lot worse!” “Es verdad,” I sighed. It’s the truth, and I mourn the gradual decline of my second tongue. It hinders not only my conversation with Israel, but my conversation with God.

“To sing is to pray twice,” St. Augustine purportedly said. I feel similarly about having multiple languages to pray in — they lend a depth and a life to my prayer, much as a cathedral choir’s rich harmonies shimmer and dance above the assembly’s firm unison.

With more or less prompting, I can still manage to get from “Our Father…” to “Amen” in five languages. Each time I pray the Our Father, no matter what the language, the other four weave their harmonies over and under the melody line. Pater noster. Father, first and foremost. The assurance that sounds in the strong beat of santificada sea tu nombre. The unadorned ordinariness of unser Brot - our bread. The hand that moves from forehead heavenward in the sign language version, an embodied reminder of where I look for help.

I relish the murmurs of multiple English translations, too. Three years ago, when I went on retreat for 30 days, the instructions said to bring only two books along: a copy of the Bible and a copy of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. In my first meeting with the Jesuit would direct me in the Exercises, I sheepishly admitted that while I’d obediently left novels and science journals home, I’d brought not one, not two but three different translations of the Psalms along with me. The rich chorus of voices rang clearly amidst the silence of those weeks.

In mathematics, to translate something is to pick it up and move it to another place. In a few weeks time, we will move to use a new translation of the Mass. We will be reminded of our status as pilgrims — not curators of a static tradition, but followers of the living Word.

A part of me is braced for this journey into the wilderness, to a place where the words have yet to wear a smooth path through mind and soul. I will miss hearing aloud the words of the Eucharistic prayer that consoles me so deeply in my struggle to negotiate the demands of being wife, mother and teacher with the desire to “stone-still at God’s feet, listening to Him alone”: He stretched out his arms between heaven and earth. My tongue is sure to trip on the threshold of “consubstantial” — still hunting for “one in being.”

Yet I’m also looking forward to hearing new notes sounded in my prayer, to another layer woven into the glorious tapestry that is the Church’s public voice. No matter what language or what translation we use, how simple the melody or intricate the harmonies the words are set to, we are called to sound as a single voice. For we are a single Word, made flesh. The Body of Christ.

If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you are you respond "Amen” and by responding to it you assent to it. For you hear the words, "the Body of Christ" and respond "Amen." Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true. — St. Augustine

Another setting of the Our Father. Play with the sound off to better "get" the poetry of the ASL.


  1. I can see how you said, "play it with the sound turned off." My Spanish is also execrable; que lastima (accentless computer).

    I geberally dislike changes to what is familiar, even with a few good reasons. This was helpful.

  2. I have spent some time sitting here and pondering how much can be communicated in silence. That video was very moving to me... for many reasons.

  3. Fran, maybe it's that silence makes us look, so that perhaps we can see...

  4. As a musician, I'm not thrilled with the changes, because dealing with a "retrofitted" Mass setting is clumsy. Poetry and musical flow--destroyed. But we've got what we've got and we'll work with it. It would have been better if our music director had chosen a new setting written for the new words instead of a reworking of an old setting, I think.

    However, as a Catholic, I am excited for the changes because I'll have to get off "liturgical autopilot" and pay more attention.

  5. I think the thing I'm going to miss the most is this:

    "...peace in our day and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope...."

    For some reason, probably because I have Panic and Anxiety Disorder, I always felt that particular phrase was God speaking directly to me! And that this whole worldwide community of Catholics was praying for ME to be protected from anxiety.

    Now what will become of me??? LOL!

  6. you take me a back a few years to singing hymns at a UCC church after a new hymnal came out with changes that caused dissonance.