The Mass in All Its Glory

Literature Professor Offers Insights Into the Poetry of the New Translation

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By Kathleen Naab

PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, SEPT. 29, 2011 ( Literature professor and translator Anthony Esolen has written what could be called a doorway to the new translation of the Roman Missal.

A commentary by Esolen can be found in the Magnificat Roman Missal Companion, a 200-page booklet that costs less than $4, and that offers a profoundly insightful introduction to the prayers the faithful are about to have on our lips, and hopefully, in our hearts.

As the new translation is set for implementation in less than two months, ZENIT spoke with Esolen about his insights into the new translation and how we can better understand the reasons behind the changes.

ZENIT: To serve as introduction, why did Magnificat pick you to give a commentary on the new translation?

Esolen: That’s a good question. I said to them, “I’m not a professional theologian!” But they wanted instead someone whom they could trust to speak about the beauty and the subtlety of the sacred poetry that the prayers of the Mass are. I’ve spent my adult life, after all, reading and teaching poetry, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to modern times. I’ve also worked a great deal as a translator myself, rendering poetry from Latin, Italian, and Anglo Saxon into English poetry. That work includes editions of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, and the three volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I’m also somewhat conversant in New Testament Greek and in Hebrew. So I suppose those considerations helped to determine the choice.

ZENIT: You suggest that a translator is hired to be humble, regardless of what he’s translating. Explain this and how it applies to the liturgy.

Esolen: The translator, I believe, must adopt as his motto the words of St. John the Baptist, referring to Jesus: “He must increase, and I must decrease.” It wasn’t my job, when I was translating Dante, to intrude my personality into the poem. It was rather my job to bring out Dante’s personality, his concerns, his acerbic wit, his devotion, his passions.

Now if this is true of what Dante called his “sacred poem,” it is all the more true of the liturgy. Here, we must consider the words of the Mass not simply as the work of excellent human poets, but as a gift of God, mediated through the Church, to his people. At all costs, then, the translator must wish to render the words of the Mass with precision and power, respecting the literal and figurative meaning, the poetic and rhetorical form, and the beauty of the original. For instance, it is not the job of the translator to omit words simply because they strike him as too redolent of the Church rather than of the street corner — to translate words such as “sacratissimam” and “sancte” and “venerabiles” as simply nothing. It is a sin against the whole community, thus to impose one’s individual taste.

ZENIT: People have complained that the sentences in the new translation are unwieldy, with many phrases strung together. You defend this practice. Why?

Esolen: I do not defend unwieldy sentences. This complaint has as its basis one sentence in the first Eucharistic Prayer, which is long and complex in the Latin, and now also in the English. What I defend are well-constructed sentences, as elements of oral poetry. All the old prayers are so constructed. When you break up those sentences into three or four separate sentences, the effect is to be disjointed; the essential relations between words and images and Scriptural allusions are lost. These phrases are not “strung together.” Anyone who makes that allegation has a wholly mistaken, and I may say a childish, understanding of the Latin. 

For example, one of the prayers for the Feast of the Holy Family is built upon the image of the “domus,” the house or home. We consider first the home of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and we pray that we will imitate them in our own homes — in “domesticis virtutibus,” which the translators happily render as “the virtues of family life” — so that we may enjoy the glories of the house of God. To translate that three-part prayer, which is one tightly constructed sentence, into a three-part prayer in one tight English sentence, is not to “string phrases together,” but to reflect artistic unity by artistic unity.

ZENIT: You also offer three defenses for preferring a literal translation of the Latin. One of those you describe as “unlocking the figurative meaning beneath.” Could you give an example?

Esolen: Every translator of poetry knows that the choice is not between the literal and the figurative, but between a loose or general rendering and one that is both literal and therefore sensitive to the figurative meaning also. It is a constant concern. Take the word occurrentes in the collect for the First Sunday of Advent. The loose paraphrase from 1973 merely grasps for the general idea behind the text, that Jesus will meet an “eager welcome” when he comes again. But the literal, concrete meaning of the word is rich in Scriptural allusion. The root of the word comes from the verb currere, to run. If we keep the notion of running in mind, we recall — as the prayer intends us to recall — the parable of the five wise virgins, their lamps filled with oil, who ran forth to meet the bridegroom as he came. The translators have now rendered the line in such a way as to bring out both the literal and the figurative meaning, and thus also the Scriptural allusion: We pray to the Father for “the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ.” That’s what I call a translation. The other was a paraphrase.

ZENIT: You frequently note the vast difference that comes with a seemingly slight change in wording. For example, in the Creed, we will express faith in God, creator of all that is “visible and invisible,” which you say is quite different than “seen and unseen.” How so?

Esolen: The 1973 text was often deaf to the precise meanings of English words. It wasn’t simply that the paraphrasers misconstrued the Latin. They misconstrued the English also, or they were not paying close attention to the English. The example above is a case in point. The Latin visibilium et invisibilium is not the same as visorum et insivorum. When we say “seen and unseen” in English, we mean those things we happen to see and those things we happen not to see. So, for instance, I have not seen a certain planet in the heavens, nor have I seen the mother of St. Peter, or the stone rolled before the tomb where Jesus was buried. But all those things are visible, provided there be someone at hand to see them. When we declare that the Father is the creator of all things visible and invisible, we are affirming the existence of things that no one can see with the eyes of the body, unless God chooses to make them manifest: angels, for instance; but also such immaterial objects as the moral law. 

ZENIT: How would you suggest using this commentary?

Esolen: The Mass must increase, and I must decrease! I’d read the commentary as a way of becoming familiar with the beauties and the subtleties of the text — as if walking through a doorway — and then I would put the commentary aside and meditate upon the prayers of the Mass themselves in all their glory.

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