The problem with the problem with “And with your spirit.”

The new English translation of the Roman Missal is not without problems. There is much to recommend about it, and much to be concerned over. While I have chosen, after some early hesitation, to be a supporter (in my limited way), I have no doubt that most of those who feel called to publicly speak about their concerns are doing so sincerely.

However, I find some of their tactics (if you can call them that) and specific issues of concern to be seriously unhelpful generally, and (in some cases) particularly harmful to the cause of progressivism and liberality (a cause generally supported by critics of the new translation).

The type of frequently-raised issue that concerns me the most is the raising of conern over “too literal” Latin translations of specific phrases. I’m not talking about the stilted rhythm of translated Latin grammar, sometimes found in the Collects, Prefaces, and other longer prayers.

I’m talking about the phrase which has almost come to define the translation saga:

And with your spirit.

The problem raised is never bad translation or stilted poetry, but rather theology, ecclesiology, and (something like) pastoral sensitivity. “We don’t really think of (whatever) that way, so we shouldn’t translate it that way.”

This came up (yet again) in a recent Table Article:

But it [Eucharistic catechesis] does not supply a convincing reason why, for instance, “and with your spirit” is a better reply to “the Lord be with you” than the present form, “and also with you”. In the absence of any explanation for that and similar linguistic infelicities, people will feel bemused and no doubt somewhat irritated.

(BTW: “infelicity” is an odd word choice to describe literally faithful translation).

The writer here, and many other similar critics, act as if there needs to be a better reason than “that’s what the Latin says” in order to translate this very simple phrase. And others have argues that the new translation doesn’t really match present thinking in the Church about something.

But there’s a real problem with that: How exactly can you (sanely) argue that “the Church” doesn’t really think or beleive something that is said over and over in its ritual prayers for two millenia?

They argue that way because in the back of their minds (or the front, sometimes) they know or suspect that “And with your spirit” is related to a certain brand of clericalism which they decry, and which they think the Church has or should have moved away from.

But this is a serious tactical error on the part of progressivism.

By claiming that fidelity to the official Latin text is not a good enough reason to translate something, by demanding a well-thought-out theological rationale for this phrase, the critics are forcing the conservative defenders to spell out exactly what the liberals feared: an ultra-orthodox, cleric-centered justification for “And with your spirit.”

The progressives have then ceded control of the conversation, letting the traditionalists and reformers of the reform set the agenda for interpreting what the Mass is and what it is about.

Imagine you are asking a wise old Buddhist to explain some point of his doctrine, which you know little about. The old man speaks only Chinese, and you do not- so you brought along two interpreters who know Chinese very well and also practice Buddhism.

The old man says that the wisdom is just like a… a something. The two translators each say a different thing. One translates the word as “flower.” Wisdom is like a flower. The other says that the old man said wisdom is like a weed. You ask the old man to explain the saying, but he just smiles and shrugs.

You ask the first translator to explain. “Wisdom,” he says, “is like a flower because it is beautiful. It is good for looking at, but it dies very quickly.”

You ask the second translator to explain. “Wisdom is like a weed,” he says, “because it is everywhere. Always right where you don’t want it. And it is impossible to kill.”

While you’re pondering which of these ideas is true, the old Chinese master leans forward and says in English, “the word I said was flower. Weed is a very bad translation.”

Now, he could have meant that Wisdom is like a flower because they come in lots of different colors. He could have meant that they keep blooming no matter how many times you prune them back. Or that flowers and Wisdom are both useless. Or hard to cultivate. Or any number of things which could have mirrored or diverged from the philosophy of either translator.

But who’s interpretation are you now going to think is “right?”

And what if the seond interpreter tried to justify himself by saying, “Yes, well. Buddhists used to teach that Wisdom died quickly because the Buddha didn’t want us to attend to temporal things. But now, after the cultural shifts of the last 50 years, in response to changing attitudes towards Buddhism among the young, in English we translate the word to ‘weed’ because it better expresses are modern tend away from elitism and alienation.”

The old master repeats himself, “The word is flower. In India, flower. In Japan, flower. Vietnam, Korea, flower. And English-speaking Buddhists who split off 400 years ago- they also say flower.”

The old man still hasn’t interpreted the proverb for you – two lesser minds have offered their understanding. They could both be wrong. They could both be right. But, what would you think was the truest interpretation of the proverb’s meaning?

What about if you got an encyclopedic dictionary of Chinese linguistic history, and found out that the word the old man used definitely means “flower,” and has never, in history, been used to mean “weed.” And then, just for good measure, did a little more research and found out that the original proverb in Sanskrit also used the word, “flower.” And then you found out that translating the word into “weed” was started by a committee in the 1960s, many members of whom weren’t even Buddhists. What would your opinion be about the second translator, and his statement on what Buddhists beleive about Wisdom.

If progressives want their theological ideas to survive and influence the thinking of future generations of Catholics- whether about the nature of God, the Church, the priesthood, or anything else- they cannot yoke those ideas to a translation which was clearly incorrect in reference to the original.

And clearly, the incorrect ICEL version is not required in order to have a progressive understanding of the Mass or Liturgy. Every philosophical and theological position possible, from extreme orthodox to damn heretic, exists among every liturgical-language groups, including those who only ever experienced Mass in Latin. Progressivism is not unique to English-speaking Novus Ordo folks.

Those who have a problem with the way conservatives and neo-trads are doing liturgical theology these days need to come to terms with the new translation, especially with those sections where it is the most faithful to the Latin, and they need to find a way to ground their theology ever more firmly in the original and authentic prayer texts of the Church.

6 thoughts on “The problem with the problem with “And with your spirit.”

  1. Good points. I would have simply said that any one who makes an argument by using a phrase like “linguistic infelicities” is selling snake oil. And you don’t have to know what kind of snake, either.

  2. No, I think this is wide of the mark. The point at issue is whether a word-for-word literal translation of et cum spiritu tuo adequately conveys the meaning of the Latin phrase. And with your spirit is literally meaningless: to an English speaker it’s a random jumble of words that fails to express the actual meaning of the Latin, which is and with you. As a translation it’s a failure, in that you have to explain what it means before anyone can understand it.

  3. (What happened to my HTML italic tags? It says on this page that they can be used, but not that they’ll be ignored!)

  4. Adam, you haven’t picked the best or the most convincing criticism of the English MR3.

    Copernicus is right with his definition of failure.

    I’d also add this is a gang that can’t shoot straight with its own rules. Oops, we need to redo the ratio translationis. What’s with that?

  5. Well, I wasn’t trying to pick the best or the most convincing criticism. Just the one I seem to hear/read the most often.

    Most people aren’t going to notice most of the changes- the proper prayers and so forth. “And with your spirit,” is the “front line” issue- that phrase, probably more than any other, is where the rubber is going to meet the road with regular Catholics.

    There is no getting around that. And there is little to no chance of that phrase changing in any forthcoming re-translations.

    I’m not defending the translation here. Honestly, I have neither the theological nor the linguistic skills to make a case for any decision made one way or another.

    What I do know is that people who are not happy with the current trends toward conservatism and V2 revisionism are not well served by their current behavior.

  6. the critics are forcing the conservative defenders to spell out exactly what the liberals feared: an ultra-orthodox, cleric-centered justification for “And with your spirit.”

    This is brilliantly said. I had a very inarticulate intuition of the same thing recently, reading my local diocesan paper’s biweekly article on the new translation.

    I’m coming from the opposite side of the aisle here — at least I would never describe myself as a progressive — but I couldn’t help thinking that this long collection of words about why X, Y, and Z was a better translation, was just torturing the issue, when a simple “that’s what the Latin says” is all you really need. I tend to think that anything much more than that very quickly misses a great deal of the point about liturgy in general.

Comments are closed.