The Latin of the Latin Mass, II: The Problem With English

When the Novus Ordo was imposed by the Vatican hierarchy, the biggest losers were probably the English-speakers.  As everyone knows, the official version of the NO Mass is in Latin, and the translation into English was not only poorly and ineffectively written but it was filled with errors, some of which, I suppose (to give the plotters the benefit of the doubt)  may have been only the product of their theological ignorance combined with a limited grasp of  English.  

Some of the errors were corrected at the insistence of Pope Benedict, and American Catholics are no longer required to recite the erroneous and heretical (at least in the sense it would generally be taken) “one in being with the Father,” but the suspicion remains that the proceedings of the Council were rigged from the start to promote the aggiornamento that has devastated the Church.  Fairly recently historian Roberto de Mattei has shown the interconnections between radical elements of the Church and participants at the Council who were regarded as moderate or even conservative.  And, early on, the author of Iota Unum (Romano Amerio) made the important point that the documents of the Council were written in deliberately ambiguous Latin as if they were anticipating the many abuses that crept in almost immediately.  It is something like the 14th Amendment:  a bad idea to begin with and passed by illegitimate means but far worse were the layers upon layers of reinterpretation issued by ignorant and tyrannical judges.  Even with the corrections, the NO remains a travesty.  

An American Catholic familiar with the Tridentine Mass or even the Latin version of the NO will not fall so easily into mistakes encouraged by the poor translation and by the creative misinterpretation of various documents; his mind will have been formed on a better model.  Even some knowledge of the more accurate French or Italian translations would help. I was once pushed into interviewing a bishop in Northern Italy.  I asked him about nostalgia for the Tridentine Mass.  He said it existed, but the fact that it was available in a variety of places coupled with the accuracy of the Italian translation made it less of an issue. He added, quite sagely, that the English translation was terrible.

Few Americans know any language but English.  I do not say unequivocally that most have never taken a class in a foreign language, Spanish, for example, nor am I restricting knowledge to fluency.  One of my Greek professors used to say that fluency meant that native speakers would not detect you as a foreigner, though he claimed fluency in French and German.  His life depended on it, when he worked in army intelligence in France and Germany in the years following WW II, posing one day as a Frenchman in East Germany and the next day as a German in France.  My minimalist definition of language knowledge requires familiarity with the structure and grammar, some acquaintance with the national literature in its original language, and the ability to carry on the sort of conversations on which survival and comfort often depend.  Apart from scholars and writers with particular interests or hybrid Americans with a foreign parent, I have run into very few Americans who have knowledge of any foreign language in this sense.

 This is a pity, since our own language, English, is one of the most difficult languages to use correctly.  While the core of the language consists of Germanic and Scandinavian roots, at least two thirds of the vocabulary comes from Latin either directly or indirectly through French.  What’s more, this Latinate vocabulary tends to be the words we have trouble with.  Everyone knows such simple words as tree and cow, earth and field, wild and sharp, but we are not always so sure about arboreal and bovine, terrestrial and agrarian, feral and acute.  Since much of our children’s worldly success depends—at least in some learned professions—upon the proper use of English vocabulary and even on passing IQ and academic achievement tests that include vocabulary sections, there is nothing more practical than the study of this dead language.

But there is more to be gained from studying Latin than a larger English vocabulary.  English once had a formal syntax, with verb conjugations and noun declensions, but as it decayed into Middle and Modern English, most of this structure was lost, though we still say I am, thou art (at least some people know this, though not Quakers, he is; and many of us  still distinguish between I, my, and me.  Illiterate people, however, are tempted to say “I be” and “he don’t”, to say nothing of the Midwestern “a girl like I.”  Even college-schooled  people have forgotten the past and future perfects, to say nothing of the subjunctive.  In some cases, the mistakes are simply indications of ignorance, but in the collapse of the system of tenses and moods and in the habit of mixing dead metaphors, speakers of contemporary American cannot communicate clearly.  I suspect the problem is that even they do not even know what they are trying to say.  Just look at Facebook or listen to Biden or Harris or Niki Casey or Donald Trump. 

(As an aside you may feel free to skip, Trump’s diction reminds me of an episode of Cheers in which Latka Gravas (Andy Kaufman), who has spent his vacation listening to talk radio, turns into Vic Ferrari, addicted to every commercial cliche possible, beginning with “Hey, I Love you guys, you’re beautiful.”)

In the earlier centuries of Modern English, however, the language was able to hold onto precise grammatical distinctions, because English grammar was dominated by Latinists, who expressed the rules in classical terms.  It is very hard for someone who knows neither Latin nor German to have even a clue about how English really works, and in an age when the schools teach no grammar, Latin is the only vehicle possible for arriving at a knowledge of good English.

People who have studied 4 years of Latin are far more literate than those who haven’t, and tests can prove that as little as one hour of easy Latin a week for one year can raise a sixth grade pupil’s English score by a grade level, compared to his peers of equal intelligence and background.  Latin also trains the memory and inculcates sound habits of study and mental discipline.

It is not difficult to understand the application of this argument to the study of the Scriptures and to understanding liturgies.  Christians are faced with the choice of either reading the older translations, the Authorized Version (the best English translation available for many reasons) and the Douay-Rheims, or they may find themselves reading USA Today versions like the Good News Bible or something even worse.  

The main problem of modern versions is not simply that they are written in an impoverished and imprecisely used vocabulary or that longer sentences are broken into little bits, the way bread is broken into fragments and soaked in milk for babies, but that modern translators work on the principle of translating what they think the sense of a passage is.  Even if a modern translation is relatively accurate, it is still the opinion of some individual or a coterie with an agenda.  The same strictures apply to the wretched liturgies inflicted upon Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans.

If they are wise, Christians will turn to one of the classic translations of the Scriptures but they will find them bewildering because they do not really know the English language.  This does not prevent uneducated laymen from posing as experts on the Bible.  John Lofton, a smart journalist but also a Rushdoonyite Calvinist, used to chide me for quoting Aristotle more often than Jesus.  I always told him that he was not entitled to have an opinion on the New Testament, because he did not know Greek. 

One caveat:  So long as laymen are willing to follow the dictates of their Church’s tradition, without sticking their own oar into the water, they are entitled to feel secure.  This was almost entirely the situation for the laity during  the ten centuries that followed the Germanic coup of 476.  After the Renaissance, a fairly significant proportion of men of the upper classes learned at least Latin, and, eventually Greek.  Unfortunately, that was a period that experienced a decline in Christian faith.  The trouble comes when every Church is overrun by imposters, and the public face of the Church, promoted through the media,  is not the learned and temperate Fulton Sheen but the grinning pop theologian, Robert Barron. How can a simple Catholic distinguish authentic representatives of that tradition from the pseudo-prophets and pseudo-scholars who dominate their “markets”?  

There is no infallible test to determine the sincerity of a cleric, but there is one that can be used to begin the sorting process.  Does a bishop or priest, college president or professor, general or President, grin, when there is nothing funny going on?  Then he is almost certainly a confidence man of some kind.  In monkeys and apes, the grin generally expresses fear, and in humans, it is either part of laugh—a response to something funny—or an attempt to persuade the suckers that the grinner is harmless.  For me, it is the sound of the rattle at the end of a snake. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

11 Responses

  1. Dom says:

    Is the Vulgate at all useful in discerning the original meanings of the Scriptures?

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    To a limited extent, but of some value, since it tells us how the Church–and not just the Western Church–interpreted texts in the 4th century. It is also far easier to translate Greek into Latin than into modern languages, and Greek, far from being moribund in Jerome’s time, was the dominant language of the Church, which meant that even Augustine had some Greek. In the Renaissance, when vernacular translations were being made, Greek was a fairly rare accomplishment in the West, and hardly anyone spoke it as bilingual Romans would have in the Middle EAst.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Pastor Lloyd Gross responded to the email with this comment: Generally I think St. Jerome did a magnificent job. Only it bothers me that “arton epiousion” was translated as “panem quotidianum.” The Evangelists did not write “arton ephaemeron.”

    Yes, it is a problem, but it is my understanding–perhaps erroneous–that this was one of those passages of the Old Latin version that Jerome was not allowed to change. This may have been a wise decision since there is no consensus on what the Greek text means. In our podcasts on the Lord’s Prayer, I proposed my own interpretation and explained why I viewed “supersubstantial bread” as too theologically technical–by far! I don’t know what Martin Luther thought of the phrase and had trouble locating a text, but in his hymn paraphrasing the prayer (presumably using the same language), he was content with the traditional error that makes little or no sense: “Gib uns heut unser täglich Brot.”

    There are two reasons to study the Vulgate: First, it is the most intelligible translation and authoritative for the Catholic Church, and second, because in general it is easier to convey the sense of the Greek literally in Latin than in English.

  4. Dom says:

    If “one in being with the Father” is heretical, then it is hard to see any doubt by which the translators might benefit. Getting there from “consubstantialem”, instead of to the obvious and natural English cognate, seems like a “mistake” on par with accidentally jumping over a fence.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Or maybe the so-called Texas suicide: When a business huckster was about to testify against LBJ he was found to have shot himself in the back multiple times with a shotgun–I believe a single shot. But the kindness and refusal to pass negative judgments on people I dislike, for which I am justly famous, may have misled me.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Of course it is possible to interpret consubstial as “one in being,” but since we know what furor the debate aroused and had to be settled with the Nicene Creed, it seems to bizarre to reintroduce the controversy by a translation.

  7. Dom says:

    Thank you Dr. Fleming.
    I could not have an opinion, from a linguistic standpoint, when the retranslation was issued (well, still can’t). I do recall that at the time, certain circles viewed the change to “consubstantial” with alarm. There was some concern about the laity’s ability to understand it.
    At mass one day I noticed that my toddler son, who was just then learning to say the prayers, rolled right through that part like it was the most natural thing. In my cynicism, I figured then that something more sinister was behind the debate. But who knows? Ignoramuses like me do well to follow your example of charity.

  8. Roger McGrath says:

    Meanwhile, quite a few colleges have dropped their undergraduate foreign language requirement or have allowed other courses to substitute for it. PhD programs traditionally required two foreign languages. That has generally been reduced to one. Our entire educational system has been corrupted and compromised.

    I took three years of French in high school and was tortured each semester because my pronunciation and accent were godawful. I took two years of Latin (classical) in college and loved it. Although speaking Latin was not emphasized, it is, of course, easy to pronounce and there are many good reads, e.g. Caesar’s War in Gaul. Most importantly, though, Latin taught me as much about English as any English course I ever took.

  9. Allen Wilson says:

    I wonder if there are any English grammars written by those old Latinists available for download? It would be interesting to see how they are arranged.

    I wonder what editions of the Vulgate would be best to use? Probably any would do, though I suspect one should prefer the older ones?

  10. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    As you might expect, I know far more about the development of Greek and Latin grammars than English. Most modern English grammars are the corrupted by the linguistic theory on which they have been based. Faced with the complete mess made by mind-destroying English curricula based on generative/transformational grammar–a theoretical approach developed by ignoramuses like Noam Chomsky who gives no evidence of knowing any real language–conservatives wax nostalgic for the English teaching of the 40’s and 50’s, but that was based on the theories of structuralist grammarians, hence all that sentence diagramming, which was a complete waste of time. Of course, the structuralists actually studied real language and maintained objective standards, but they initiated the fundamental error of linguistically based English teaching: They thought language is the way people talk, and the purpose of linguistics is to analyze the processes and draw conclusions. But language is the fundamental human art, and, while understanding how it works is interesting to a few people (me included), the purpose of teaching and studying languages is to learn them competently.

    Basically one did not have to teach English grammar to students who were learning Latin. A language community has standards set by its best speakers and writers, both at a national and local level. If you look at 19th century schoolbooks, you will find little nonsense of the sort “subjective complement” etc. Nouns are treated as having cases–nominative or subjective, possessive, and pronouns get three. Try to talk someone out of saying, “A girl like I” today and you will find there is no common language you can use in the argument.

  11. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I know all too little about the history of the Vulgate. Jerome’s version was a massive revision of the Old Latin version, but he was required to retain old mistakes that had become engrained in liturgy. Various corrections have been made over the years but what we have is largely Jerome’s work. Like many saints, Jerome was a disagreeable person, vain about his linguistic knowledge and ready to criticize others, e.g. Ambrose. As a classicist I find some of his usage strange, like objective clauses introduced by “quod.” Still, it is better Latin than the Greek of the New Testament. But, where there is inconcinnity between the Greek original and the manuscript tradition of the Vulgate, it is usually a much safer bet to rely on the Greek.

    I am no text critic, and it has been decades since I did any serious study of the NT Greek text. I do always, when reading any Greek or Latin text, pay attention to the apparatus criticus to make sure I am not blindly accepting a learned conjecture–most widely learned conjectures are almost certainly true, but it is best to check.

    Finally, Jerome did create a bit of a problem in privileging the Hebrew text of the OT over the Septuagint Greek text drawn up by 70 Alexandrian rabbis. Ordinarily, I’d agree that the original text is to be preferred, but we have three problems in this case:

    First, in many instances the Greek version is older than the later rabbinical texts in Hebrew and done at a time when Hebrew was more widely used and known by Middle Eastern Jews.

    Secondly, it is the Septuagint text that is most often cited by Jesus and the authors of Acts and the Epistles.

    Third, if we follow Jerome’s logic, then we might be tempted to make the mistake made by many Protestant sects that have eliminated OT books they did not like, either because the only extant texts are in Greek or because, as in the case of II Maccabbees, because the rogue texts anticipate Christian teaching.

    But in raising these questions I have gone beyond my level of competence.