Applied Liturgical Linguistics

Ok—we’ve got enough accomplished Latinists who read this site and who fall on different points of the theological/liturgical spectrum that this should lead to an interesting conversation… (And non-Latinists are quite welcome to play along too, of course!)

Here’s the question. Given this as a base text:

Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris: et  accepta habere, sicuti accepta habere dignatus es munera pueri tui iusti Abel, et sacrificium Patriarchae nostri Abrahae, et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam.

Supplices te rogamus, omnipotens Deus: iube haec perferri per manus sancti Angeli tui in sublime altare tuum, in conspectu divinae maiestatis tuae; ut, quotquot ex hac altaris participatione sacrosanctum Filii tui Corpus et Sanguinem sumpserimus, omni benedictione caelesti et gratia repleamur. (Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.)

please consider these three translations:

Option 1

Look with favour on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchisedech.

Almighty God, we pray that your angel may take this sacrifice to  your altar in heaven. Then, as we receive from this altar the  sacred body and blood of your Son, let us be filled with every grace and blessing. (Through Christ our Lord. Amen.)

Option 2

Be pleased to look upon them with serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God: command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.
[Through Christ our Lord. Amen.]

Option 3

Vouchsafe thou also, with a merciful and pleasant countenance, to have respect hereunto : and to accept the same, as thou didst vouchsafe to accept the gifts of thy righteous servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our patriarch Abraham, and the holy sacrifice, the undefiled host, that the high priest Melchisedek did offer unto thee.

We humbly beseech thee, O Almighty God, command thou these to be brought by the hands of thy holy Angel unto thy high Altar in the presence of thy Divine Majesty, that as many of us as of this partaking of the Altar shall receive thy Son’s holy Body and Blood may be replenished with all heavenly benediction and grace. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

1. Which of the three best communicates the base text? Why?

2. Which of the three is the best form for English language liturgy? Why?

3. To what degree does being “literal” or “faithful” to a base text help or hurt a composition intended as a modern vernacular liturgy?

(And please note—nobody says your selections for questions 1 and 2 need be the same…)

Allez!

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20 Responses to Applied Liturgical Linguistics

  1. Caelius Spinator says:

    Option 2 is superior with respect to the base text. Option 1 tries to substitute content which is not there, particularly referring to the literal gifts of Melchizedek, whereas the text clearly expects you know there is direct metonymy between Melchizedek’s offering, Jesus’s offering at the Last Supper, and the Cross without telling you explicitly. It also tries to expunge much of the richness of the Latin: “sacrosanctum” is simply “holy”; “caelesti” is not translated. It completely removes the parallel construction between vultu and conspectu that fully connects the past sacrifices of the first paragraph with the present sacrifice of the moment.

    Option 3 reads like a 17th century slacker schoolboy translated it, and not a particularly bright one. “Vouchsafe thou also…to have respect thereunto” Why not translate “digneris” as “deign” if this is the language you are speaking? My other major objection is that it doesn’t treat “sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam” as a summary appositive referring to all three sacrifices but transferring to the singular and particular sacrifice being made here, since I think the text is actually saying all three sacrifices were pure, even if Hebrews is only specific about Melchizedek.

    In general, I don’t like how all three of them underemphasize the eating of the Body and Blood, which the text is quite emphatic about in “sumpserimus.”

    Next question: I still like Option 2 for the liturgy, but I’m not a priest. I don’t have to pray it, but listening to it, I find it most stimulating to the imagination but not so much so as to be off-putting.

    Texts like this aren’t a mere form of words, one-to-one, that need a little syntactical revision. You can be slavishly literal and completely excise the text of nearly all of its content. Liturgies are prose poems.

    Or so says the amateur.

  2. Rd. Kevin says:

    I don’t know any Latin, by the best translation, in terms of good and beautiful English, is, I think, Coverdale’s:

    Vouchsafe thou also with a merciful and pleasant countenance to have respect hereunto, and to accept the same, as thou didst vouchsafe to accept the gifts of thy righteous servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and the holy sacrifice, the undefiled Host, that the high priest Melchisedech did offer unto thee.

    We humbly beseech thee O almighty God, command thou these to be brought by the Hands of thy Holy Angel unto thy high altar in the presence of thy divine majesty; that as many of us of this participation of the altar shall receive thy Son’s holy Body and Blood may be replenished with all heavenly benediction and grace, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

  3. John-Julian, OJN says:

    I’m with Caelius Spinator all the way — for exactly the same reasons. Coverdale is fussy and prissy and so high-flown as to be unreachable.

    I’m reminded of all this by my present unpleasant task: when I was Guardian of the Order of Julian (for the first ten years), we used Jerusalem Bible (because of its beauty) and then switched to the Revised English Bible when it came out — and we’ve used that every since. It is a translation which was made with a special notice for public reading and literary style. Now I’ve been assigned to re-do (i.e., type and print out) ALL our readings (Offices and Mass) in New Revised Standard Version — and it is simply brutal! NRSV is utterly “American”, totally devoid of beauty of any kind, utterly insensitive to history or the subtle etymology of words, and reads like a fourth-grade primer. [Like Option 1 above.]

    I’m not at all sure that literal word-for-word accuracy should be the ultimate standard in liturgical language (i.e., ANY language used in liturgy — biblical or otherwise).

  4. I’m also with Caelius. While I do like the Coverdale there are some issues with it arising, perhaps, from a desire to be overly flowery.

    It’s interesting to note the shared resemblance between the second and third options, perhaps highlighted by the dissimilarity of the first.

    As you may have surmised, the first is the current English translation of the Novus Ordo, the second is the proposed new translation being bandied about at the Catholic Bishops Convention this weekend while the third is, in fact, Coverdale.

    The issue of fidelity and pray-ability is a complicated one. Liturgical language is and should be a close cousin of poetic language and I think there are similar issues in trying to capture and express both the letter, spirit, and feel of a text from one language to another removed from it by a space of over a thousand years.

    Option 2 has a fidelity to the letter of the original and, in this example certainly, captures the spirit better than the current option 1. But sometimes textual literality can fail to capture the spirit which is a complaint I’m hearing…

  5. As a side-note, I selected this section more or less at random, simply picking a bit of EP I that was identical with the Tridentine canon for the sake of the Coverdale comparison.

  6. Christopher says:

    None of the above. Invite some poets schooled in Latin to begin again.

  7. Ok, Christopher—go for it!

  8. C Wingate says:

    As a fourth comparison option, I’ve made my own attempt at “Rite-II-izing” the Coverdale, following the pattern applied to the collects in 1979. The result, hasty and inadequate though it is, looks something like this:

    Look with merciful and serene favor upon these our offerings, and accept them, as you once accepted the gifts of your righteous servant Abel, the sacrifice of our father Abraham, and the holy and undefiled sacrifice offered to you by the high priest Melchizedek.

    We humbly pray, O Almighty God, that you command your holy Angels to bear these gifts unto your high Altar, in the presence of your Divine Majesty, that those who partake of them shall receive your Son’s holy Body and Blood, and may be filled with all heavenly benediction and grace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

    It’s less than perfect because I don’t have a good BCP model for dealing with “vouchsafe”, and I’m not that happy with “serene”. And of course it’s rattled off quickly, without much revision.

    I was immediately able to pick the first out as the current NO, because it is so determinedly flat-footed; likewise the third is obviously Tudor English in origin. Almost anything is better than the first, but I would point out (by comparing mine with it) that the second has some decided defects. The most conspicuous is that “sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam” is misplaced; in English it has to immediately follow “sacrifice”, whereas as written it presents Melchizedek as the sacrifice. Also, the syntax of the final clause of the whole thing is painfully complex; I’m not even entirely sure that it’s grammatically valid. The lack of need for commas in Latin tempts one to forget that they are crucial to establishing the rhythm in English that gives sense and music to the clauses. The Coverdale version is fraught with archaicisms and a love of elliptical constructs, but mostly it’s clear what it says.

    There’s another issue hidden in the Latin itself, and that is that by the standards of modern English rhetoric, this is an exceptionally florid passage relying on a lot of metaphor. The first clause is indeed one of the hardest bits to render, and it’s not surprising in retrospect that the NO translators reduced the whole thing to “Look with favor”. This is the one clause where I was tempted to follow the degree of reduction that they took, because the number of sane people who can say “serene countenance” with a straight face has become vanishingly small. In that respect I’m open to a rather free “translation” because I’m not convinced that we need to be wedded to repeating particular rhetorical flourishes.

  9. The issue of the “a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim” is a live one. 1 drops it, 2 makes it awkward (as you note) and 3 seems to reduce it to being descriptive only of Melchizedek’s sacrifice, not seeing it as distributive of the three historical and the one contemporary offering.

    I’d be happier with 2 if it had a colon after Melchizedek, but even then it’s open to aural misinterpretation.

    What if the clause were placed before the patriarchs?

  10. C. Wingate says:

    Well, the phrase is singular, is it not? Therefore it cannot refer to the three offerings together. But how about

    …as you once accepted the sacrifice, holy and undefiled, of your righteous servant Abel, our father Abraham, and the high priest Melchizedek.

    This is not entirely favorable, as it does telescope the Latin a lot; but it’s really necessary to gather all the sacrifices together into a single word in order for the clause to relate to it.

  11. Charlie–you missed one, though: the current sacrifice.

    I’ll play with this a little later.

    Meanwhile, I note that Christopher took up my gauntlet and has put up his translation and is tweaking it with Caelius; I’ll try and do the same very soon…

  12. C. Wingate says:

    I’m having a bit of a theological problem attaching the problem clause to the current offering. Maybe it’s my lingering Anglican Calvinism, but it seems to me that the only way it can be “sanctum et immaculatam” is if God render it so. I mean, one could almost say

    Look with merciful and serene favor upon these our offerings, and accept them, holy and undefiled, as you once accepted the gifts of your righteous servant Abel, the sacrifice of our father Abraham, and the sacrifice offered to you by the high priest Melchizedek.

    …except that this tends to read as if the sacrifice were already “holy and undefiled” without benefit of this prayer and the divine response.

  13. C. Wingate says:

    I notice, BTW, that in the midst of all this, Rome is ending use of the ICET texts, which is yet another slap-in-the-face towards all the other churches (e.g. ECUSA) whose liturgies use those common texts.

  14. Umm—of course the sacrifice is holy and undefiled; it’s Jesus! :-)

  15. Christopher says:

    We should never have agreed to use those texts wholecloth. Some are not the best of translations imho.

  16. C. Wingate says:

    Not until God says so! That’s the whole point of my objection: this is a prayer that God will accept the sacrifice, so it is not “holy and undefiled” yet.

  17. Caelius Spinator says:

    “Not until God says so! That’s the whole point of my objection: this is a prayer that God will accept the sacrifice, so it is not “holy and undefiled” yet.”

    This is actually an analog of a common argument concerning the regeneration of those baptized, particularly infants. John Stott I think argues that the presumption of the Book of Common Prayer that the baptized are regenerate does not mean this is necessarily true, only that it should be true if things work out. (I only read the book once and gave it as a gift to someone else.) Liturgies are permitted to presume that God will do what we ask if nothing else because of Jesus’s teachings on prayer.

  18. Hmm. Many would suggest that since since the Verba have already appeared, that Christ is already present in accordance with his own blessed promise.

    That’s certainly the way I lean…

  19. Christopher says:

    Without getting into a “magic moment,” though I do think that in one sense Holy Communion is indeed magical–only God is the one performing, I lean toward God doing what God promises to do. And God, in identifying with us humans by becoming one of us, uses that means available, language to fulfill his promises. That language may not be able to capture the Mystery need not imply that it is less than sufficient for God’s purposes.

  20. Christopher’s having posting issues and sent this comment via email:

    Without getting into a “magic moment,” though I do think that in one sense Holy Communion is indeed magical–only God is the one performing, I lean toward God doing what God promises to do. And God, in identifying with us humans by becoming one of us, uses that means available, language, to fulfill his promises. That language may not be able to capture the Mystery need not imply that it is less than sufficient for God’s purposes. God speaks to us in the means we can comprehend, and makes those words living and powerful.

    I might add that the Roman Canon need not take on either transubstantiatory or Verba-change approaches. These are interpretations, but not the only ones, or even the only Patristic ones for the Canon. They seem rooted particularly in SS. Ambrose and Augustine as developed in the Medieval Western Church. Irrespective of our position on either of these, what is received is Christ’s Body and Blood. With that, we get agreement from the whole range of Fathers.

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