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Not every word translates into liturgy

This week Opinion Editor John Allen continues his revealing coverage of the tension within the Catholic church over the seemingly innocuous matter of translations (see story). There’s more to translations, though, than meets the eye.

The context, for starters, is liturgy. While people join -- or stay with -- churches for various reasons, the liturgy gets very close to why there is a church in the first place. It’s all about the most intimate aspects of humans’ relations with their supreme being. Not by accident was it the first major area of reform at Vatican II. Not for nothing have progressive Catholic theorists labored to build on those reforms, just as conservatives strove to bring them to naught. Everyone knows there’s a lot at stake, the most basic act of religion: how we worship.

It’s an old truism that control of the language is a big step toward control of reality. Whoever can name things can bring the rest into line. Whoever can decide what sin is, for example, can bring the rest to heel.

Old as the church is, it is rather new in the translation business. Until recently the institution said what it had to say in Latin, and that was that, Roma locuta est, authority had spoken. Now that the church is practically universal and willing to speak to its people in their own languages, and now that the people are able and willing to speak back to the church, there is obvious concern over who has the last word.

There might be something we could learn from the wider world of letters. People are so busy gaining access to other desirables that they have no time to learn the languages that give access to literature. So translations flourish.

(Simultaneously, it seems, there is a greater urge than ever before by literary figures to translate the masterworks of yesteryear -- I hope it’s not unkind to suggest that when inspiration begins to sag, yet another poetic rendering of an ancient Greek or medieval classic helps keep the wolf from many a poet’s door. Never mind that the poet doesn’t always know the original language. There are famous cases, such as Ezra Pound translating from the Chinese.)

So there have been debates and skirmishes about translations. Milan Kundera, a Czech perhaps most famous for being a writers’ writer, left a publisher who changed his semicolons into periods (yes, sometimes translations come down to that). In an article in The New York Review of Books, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee points out that “a human language is not a neutral code like a computer language.” To be English, he goes on, is “to be embedded in the English language and the English language’s way of seeing the world.” Although this is dragged out of context, it gets to the nub of the church’s translation problem, and perhaps wider church problems as well. If the Vatican wants to lose its far-flung membership in a hurry, one quick way to do so is to impose the same clunky, wooden words on all languages, cultures and sensibilities.

A good translation lets a little extra light in between the words. So, of course, does a good theology.

Sure, most of this is about control. And, it seems, the settling of occasional old scores. But in a milieu where God gets credit for giving us imaginations, the imposition of one cast-iron template on everyone’s thinking is a sure formula for eventual irrelevance.

That applause you hear in the distance is for Arthur Jones, currently NCR’s Washington-based editor-at-large, who on Jan. 5 celebrated 25 years with the paper.

Without a doubt one of the most colorful characters in Catholic journalism, Jones arrived as NCR editor in 1975 from the very different world of Forbes magazine. Since then, he has had practically every title the company has to offer (and a few we think he made up himself), including publisher and chairman of the board.

Asked for impressions of the 25 years, he said:

“One of the high spots was also a low spot because it was tragic. When Oscar Romero died, at least 50,000 people in the United States understood what that meant to us as Americans and as Catholics. We at NCR had stayed close to Romero. We ran a prayer in English and Spanish across the center spread. That prayer was taken up by the Salvadorans and was pasted all over the airport and other places in El Salvador. That was a high point, not because we were so great but because we showed some humility. We had understood. We had shut up long enough to listen. That moment crystallized NCR post 1975.

“Another moment was when I was in Alberta, Ala., where I interviewed a couple of elderly sisters who were running a health care center in a trailer in the middle of a loblolly pine forest. I was getting ready to leave and as an afterthought I asked: ‘What do you charge?’ Two dollars a visit. ‘The people are very good,’ one said. ‘They pay a dollar at the time of the visit and pay the rest off on time.’ And this was in the 1980s! That has kept me on the beam on poverty.”

Until we recently became technically equipped, we kept everything in our clip files. Jones’ material fills 85 envelopes, big bulging envelopes. For comparison consider that stories about John Paul II have so far filled only 39 envelopes. A little mathematical prestidigitation by the staff, and we figured Jones has written about a million and a half words for the paper. If this leads to the impression that, all these years, Jones has practically single-handedly been putting out the weekly paper, he himself will be quick to agree with you.

He has yet another book, New Catholics/New Century, coming out at the end of the month from Thomas More Press.

An exhibition of the work of Janet McKenzie, winner of NCR’s Jesus 2000 contest with her now-famous “Jesus of the People,” opened Jan. 7 at the Visions Gallery, 40 N. Main Ave., Albany, N.Y. For those lucky enough to live in that exotic neck of the woods, this is a great chance not only to see the original work that has been reproduced in newspapers around the world, but also to see some of McKenzie’s other striking paintings. The works will be on view for two months.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000