Now then, Radio 4 listeners among you will be aware that some few days ago the thinking person’s wireless station devoted a day’s programming to the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible, with dramatic readings taking place throughout the day. This led to the usual bitching and whining from the pub bore wing of the atheist community, but I don’t want to talk about Terry and Keith today. What I want to talk about, briefly, is language.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that the KJV is one of the great masterpieces of the English language. We use phrases from it every day, often without realising we’re doing so. Much the same can be said of the Book of Common Prayer – one may take issue with the late Archbishop Cranmer’s Zwingliite deviationism, but his command of language is magnificent. In both cases, it’s the fact that the text was designed to be read aloud, and in the solemn setting of worship, that gives the language its extraordinary power.
It’s tremendously sad that, despite the KJV and the BCP being enshrined in English law as the standard texts of the Established Church, they’re scarcely to be heard in that setting any more, outside of the great cathedrals and some old-fashioned rural parishes. The good old C of E, one records with immense regret, seems much fonder these days of what some wag – it may have been Craig Brown – dubbed the Sid James Version.
Why should those of us of a resolutely unreformed bent be concerned about such matters? I will tell you why. As you’ll no doubt be aware, the new translation of the Roman Missal…
What’s that, Sooty?
Oh. All right. Well, some of you may be unaware that a new translation of the Roman Missal is due to be rolled out this year. You may be unaware of this because the Bishops’ Conference has done bog all to prepare the faithful for its introduction, notwithstanding Uncle Arthur Roche having just bowed to the inevitable and mumbled something about doing so at some future point. And that is an interesting story in and of itself.
You see, the spread of “yo dudes!” liturgies in the good old C of E is by no means an isolated phenomenon. It has its counterpart in the dogged attachment of the Catholic hierarchies of these islands to the 1970 edition of the Roman Missal in its English translation. In some cases, notably in the liberal Protestant dioceses along the south coast of England, this is for ideological reasons, with the 1970 text being identified as “modern” and “progressive”. If you’re wondering how a forty-year-old translation gets to be the epitome of modernity, look no further than the psychedelic vestments favoured by certain bishops.
More often it’s political, as is often the case in the Catholic world where you have nine parts politics to one part dogma. Their Lordships are great believers in uniformity, and have a nasty tendency to come out in hives when faced with things that aren’t uniform, whether it be the Ordinariate or Summorum Pontificum or those nice young priests in the Polish missions who are now supposed to be acculturated into the much more successful English way of doing things. Which is why the 1970 text has got to be such a shibboleth.
Which brings me neatly to this week’s issue of That Magazine We Don’t Mention. In its capacity as the Magic Circle’s house organ, the Suppository has been a-moaning and a-groaning about the new translation for some considerable time now. It’s even at certain points got in some proper translators to argue aesthetics, but more often than not we’ve just had Bobbie Mickens overfulfilling his fulminating quota.
In this week’s editorial column, we have – conveniently enough – a reflection on the KJV anniversary, which then morphs into a whinge about the new Missal, getting in a sly dig at the Douay-Rheims translation on the way:
But the Catholic version… stayed as close to the Latin Vulgate as possible. It introduced English versions of Latin words, and translated obscure passages equally obscurely lest any theological nuances were lost. The Anglican translators, on the other hand, sought – not always successfully – to resolve uncertainties of meaning rather than reproduce them, and they preferred words of Anglo-Saxon origin to Latin or Greek.
Ahem. Anyone who’s ever done translation work, should it even be translating a passage of Cicero at school, will know there’s a constant tension between being faithful to your source and rendering your translation in idiomatic English. That can never be avoided. That said, I think this account of the Douay-Rheims is a little tendentious – as Bible translations go, it isn’t really all that difficult compared to the KJV, and what you lose in immediacy you gain in accuracy.
But let us return to the Peppermint Spinster:
Differences of approach such as those between the King James and the Douay-Rheims versions are still alive today. Like the latter, the anxiously awaited new Catholic Missal in English has put literal accuracy above sensitivity to language, which is why many are warning that the rendering will be clumsy. [Though the old Missal isn’t exactly Henry James, is it?] At least the translation at present in use, whatever its shortcomings as literature [Told ya!], tried to stay closer to contemporary speech patterns, as did the translators commissioned by King James.
You what? “Contemporary speech patterns”, forsooth. One may argue that the KJV is somewhat less stilted than Douay-Rheims, but any fule kno that the language of the KJV was archaic even for its time, and deliberately so. Such was felt to be necessary for a translation of sacred texts.
I realise this may seem a bizarre idea to metropolitan sophisticates. Yet, even in today’s London, one can go to a Byzantine Rite Mass in the company of Ukrainian Catholics. Is their liturgy in the street slang of modern Kiev? No, it’s not even in Ukrainian but in Church Slavonic. One may also think of the other Eastern Rite Churches who use Byzantine Greek or Classical Armenian or Coptic or Syriac; not to mention non-Christian religious communities using Sanskrit or Pali or Avestan or whatever you’re having yourself. The notion of a sacred language is well enough established in human culture that the use of an elevated register of the vernacular shouldn’t be too baffling.
The Church of England has moved away from an Authorised Version style of language in its own liturgy. It would be an ironic twist if the Catholic Church in Great Britain – perhaps in reaction to unprepossessing translations emanating from Rome – longed to go the other way.
I know what the first sentence means, but the second has me scratching my head a little. Ma Pepsi’s organ has been running endless defences of the 1970 Missal – has she suddenly gone off message so completely that she’s now advocating something along KJV lines? Even leaving aside the implicit English Catholic chauvinism of the “emanating from Rome” reference… Well, I could see adaptations of the KJV and BCP having some purchase in the Ordinariate, as is the case in Anglican Use parishes in North America, but I can hardly see it going down well with the Val Doonican nostalgics in the Bishops’ Conference, for whom it’s always 1970.
But no matter. You know I like to be constructive, so I’ll just leave you with a modest proposal. Those priests who have a genuine, principled objection to the new translation have a simple alternative to hand. If they don’t like the new English Missal, they can just use Latin. After all, under the terms of Summorum Pontificum a priest of the Latin Rite doesn’t need anyone’s permission to celebrate Mass in Latin. And I’m certain those bishops who are uncomfortable with the new English Missal could hardly object. Could they?