On Monday 9 October the Oxford Liturgists’ Seminar had a distinguished speaker in the Revd Professor John Barton, an Old Testament scholar and author of many books. After his most recent, The Word: on the Translation of the Bible he came to speak about issues in translating the liturgy.
John Barton has always been one of those speakers who can explain complicated matters in clear examples; and among the huge amount of translated text in liturgy he focussed on the issues around just two words, both in the eucharistic prayers. In the modern western church they were translated from the Latin Roman Canon.
Dicentes: saying. With this word the priest concludes the preface and introduces the Sanctus, but very often may instead use ‘singing’. (Indeed Common Worship italicises saying to allow some discretion.) Is that a legitimate translation? This is a classic example of the tussle between ‘formal equivalence’, preferring a literal translation in the name of ‘accuracy’, and ‘functional equivalence’ which seeks to convey a meaning which may otherwise be lost. Word for word translation if taken too far can distort meaning in translation: the German expression of sympathy, ‘du armer schwein’, would lose its sense if translated literally into English, ‘you dear pig’. The bottom line is that words can have a variety of meanings around their root sense (their semantic range), and dico in Latin can include other forms of utterance beyond merely speaking, so to translate it as ‘singing’ could be seen as perfectly legitimate. The difference between formal and functional equivalence is often portrayed as an absolute opposite, but really it all depends on the instance and on personal preference.
Multis: for many. In the supper narrative is Christ’s blood shed for many in the sense of ‘very many’ (an extensive, potentially universalist, meaning) or ‘many but not all’ (a restrictive meaning)? The Church of England has always just translated the word as ‘many’ so in a way the problem has never come to the fore. However the 1973 translation of the Roman Missal had ‘for all’, which was changed in 2011 to ‘for many,’ and the very act of changing the translation seemed to many to be a deliberation restriction of grace. At the time this caused much comment and not a little hurt. People often treat an older translation as ‘the original’ and resent it being ‘interfered with’, as translators of the Bible frequently find to their cost.
But in this case we have a saying attributed to Jesus himself, and multis is only a translation of the Greek huper pollon (Mark) or peri pollon (Matthew), which itself would have translated whatever Jesus had said in Aramaic. Now we are in the business of hypothesising, a dangerous business! But both multi and polloi can have both the restrictive and extensive meanings of ‘many’, and the common root word in Hebrew and Aramaic, rabbim and its use in the Old Testament has very often the extensive sense of ‘all’. (The interpretation of Isaiah 53.11 is very important here.) Doctrinal issues, and a denomination’s doctrinal position, can influence a translation. Barton suspected that this could be the case here, which as a Biblical scholar he felt ‘put the cart before the horse’.
Ultimately, said Barton, there are good and bad translations, but no uniquely right translation. Which may give us both humility and confidence in our endeavours!
The Oxford Liturgists’ Group meets a few times a year and welcomes anyone who can make it to Oxford for the evening. If you are interested contact the Revd Christopher Woods: [email protected].
Submitted by The Revd Dr Gordon Jeanes