Cranmer for Catholics?

The Catholic Church has a problem with English. Quite why I am not sure. Vernacular versions of the Mass in French, German and Polish work perfectly well and achieve the dual aim of fidelity to the Latin and sense and poetry in the vernacular. English speakers have had no such luck. The 1973 English translation of the Mass, replaced last year, was full of flat and lifeless language, accompanied by a translation of the Bible devoid of poetry and imagination. It was long overdue for replacement.

It was replaced, but by something worse. Space does not permit me to go into the politics of the new English translation or consider why the proposed 1998 translation was shelved by the Vatican despite its approval by the relevant Episcopal Conferences. That is not the main issue. The problem is that English, a Germanic language, has been squeezed into a Latin straitjacket for the purposes of the translation on the spurious grounds that it is somehow more elevated. Sadly, bad English can never be elevated and bad is what a lot of the new translation is. It appears to be the work of people who are deaf to the natural cadences and rhythms of our ancient and beautiful language, so much so that you suspect that the involvement of people who are not native speakers. German and Polish, to name but two languages with excellent translations of the Mass, have clearly not been subject to such interference. Why English?

As a prime example of crass bad style look at the Gloria which, in the new version has no natural rhythm or flow. The credo has replaced ‘of one being with the father’ with ‘consubstantial’ which is a technical theological term not likely to be understood by many. If these texts did need to be changed why was the Anglican communion rite not consulted as an example of effective translation into English? Our Anglican brethren, by the way, say ‘of one Being’.

And talking of Anglicans, it is most instructive to look at the communion service of the Book of Common Prayer. This is substantially the work of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury listed on the board in Westminster Cathedral as ‘deprived for heresy’ but a man with a real ear for the English language. It is essentially a translation of the pre-Reformation Rite of Sarum so a good example of how to translate the Latin Mass into English. Look also at the Anglican service of Evensong described by Pope Benedict as among the treasures that the Ordinariate brings to the Church. Here is the Magnificat.

‘My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him : throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm : he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel : as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

Note that Cranmer does not eschew Latin words and there are many of them here. He does, however, understand that good English style, then as now, results from maintaining a balance and creative tension between the Latin derived and the Germanic lexicon of the English language. This point, known to all of the great English writers, has completely escaped those responsible for the new translation of the Mass. Cranmer may, indeed, have been a heretic but one from whom the Catholic Church could learn a lot in its perpetual struggles with the English language. In a small way it already has. Amongst the gaudy ostentation of over ornate and pretentious language a thing of beauty and simplicity has survived, even after the Anglicans have abandoned it:

‘Our father who art in heaven,

Hallowed by Thy name,

Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done

On Earth as it is in Heaven.

Give Us this day our daily bread

And forgive us our trespasses

As we forgive those who trespass against us

And let us not into temptation

But deliver us from evil’

Amen

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