Saturday, June 17, 2006

Thoughts on the proposed revised translation of the Creed for the Roman Rite

The US Bishops have been meeting, and the Latin Rite Bishops have been discussing the proposed revised translation of the Holy Mass.

(I wonder what the Eastern Bishops have been doing to kill time during this ordeal. Dominos? Backgammon?)

I've read quite a bit on the proposed new translation of the Creed. Closed Cafeteria includes a link to what purports to be a pirated copy of official study text the Bishops have been considering. Curiosity, and a deep-seated desire to see our brethren of the Roman Rite have a more wholesome and accurate translation of the Latin original, led me to examine it.

Now, I'm not a Latin scholar. However, knowing that the Latin "substantially" agrees with the Greek original (and the word is in quotes advisedly), I find several points of concern. One of these has received a fair amount of attention, but not the others. As they have to do with the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, I consider it not inappropriate for me to stick my big Byzantine nose in to this decidedly Latin business.

Concerning the Incarnation of God the Son, the Latin reads:

"et in unam Dominum Iesum Christum,
Filium Dei Unigenitum,
et ex Patre natum ante omnia saecula."

The proposed translation has:

"I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only-begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before time began."

I have no problem with the change from "and in" to "I believe in" as this sublimes the meaning in English better than the Latin preference for dependent clauses. What concerns me is "born of the Father before time began."

Here is a case where word for word translation could clarify the meaning of the original. God the Father did not give birth to God the Son. Hence, "born" does not function appropriately to convey the 'begottenness' of the Son of the Father in this phrasing. The fact is that the Latin obviously seeks to translate clearly what is in the original Greek. It states belief in "one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten born of the Father." To further prevent the potential English misunderstanding that the Father gives birth to the Son, the translation could validly state, "the Only-begotten, begotten of the Father."

Note, however, that if the Latin word order were more accurately followed, the "born of the Father" would still make theological sense. This is because "et ex Patre natum" is intended to follow "Unigenitum." We could validly say He is "born of the Father" precisely because He is the Only-begotten. This preserves the distinction in English that males ‘beget’ while females ‘give birth." Thus, He is "born of the Father" because He is the Only-Begotten.

Note: There is a very scholarly discussion on the Creed at Wikipedia that discusses the use of the term "Only-begotten."

And finally, the Latin phrase concludes with "ante omnia saecula." This is a direct rendering of the Greek πρό πάντων τών αιώνων, which literally says, “before all ages.” “Before time began” approximates what the Greek and Latin state, but only approximately. The term “ages,” and the underlying concept it so beautifully and poetically conveys, is that God Is before all things exist. This relates both to the spiritual realm and to the material realm. This relates to the things "visible and invisible" referred to in the opening clause. Translating the phrase as "before time began" does not preclude that "there was when He was not." And since the Creed had its origin in the Arian controversy, we might safely conclude that the Council Fathers chose "before all ages" for the express purpose of excluding this possibility. (Remember, it is – and was – possible to say "before time began" in Greek!)

All this being said, a more precise translation of this passage should be either of the following:

"I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all ages."


"I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Son of God, the Only-begotten
born of the Father before all ages."

This brings us to the following translational issue:

The Latin states

"Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato;
Passus et sepultus est,
Et resurrexit tertia die, secumdum Scripturas,
Et ascendit in caelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria,
Iudicare vivos et mortuos,
Euius regni non erit finis."

This is translated as:

"Crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate,
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
In accordance with the Scriptures;
He ascended into heaven
And sits at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
To judge the living and the dead
And his kingdom will have no end."

I would simply note that "Crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate" does not need "also."

In addition, stating that our Lord "suffered death" is a noble but perhaps misguided attempt to clarify that "passus" indicates a "suffering unto death," not the sense of the term currently in vogue indicating a state of being vexed. Precision – not to mention the wealth of catechetical opportunity it would provide – would argue either a straight forward "He suffered and was buried" or even the previous ICEL text "suffered, died and was buried."

Other nits I could pick would include leaving out "men" in the translation of "qui propter nos hominis et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis." This is a case where attempting to be inclusive (PC) risks reducing the inference to allow the misconception that the Son "came down from heaven" for us – the assembled community, as opposed to for all humanity.

"People" won’t work in this context as in many areas it tends to indicated a specifiable group of humans (e.g., "You people, get outta my yard!").

"Humans" still sounds stilted and unwieldy.

"for all humanity...?"

Oh, and no matter what you say, it is clear that precision would truly require "qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur" to be translated "will be poured out for you and for many." Argument in favor of "for all" because someone might think that ‘certain people’ are not included is but a theoretical shibboleth. It is similar to the misguided theological paranoia that a Tabernacle on the Altar, or behind it, would confuse the people at Mass.

Having said all this, I’ll take my big Byzantine nose and move on.

Κύριε 'ελέησον !