Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Translating common sense

I was meditating a political post, prompted by the recurrence in Sarah Palin's speeches of the expression common sense, after finding it again in an article by a brilliant Italian journalist on Pope Benedict's speech to the Pontifical Academy for Life, where he proposed it to translate the more traditional expression natural moral law, itself a translation of the simpler lex naturalis, which, people used to know, implies a moral law.

Ah, misery and splendor of translation: traduttore traditore, is a common Italian pun.

It is not simply that what is natural and hence commonsensical for one, isn't so for another: it is worse; we don't mean the same thing by "natural" and "commonsensical".

And though, don't we know what common sense means? In a way we do, because the expression belongs to the common repertoire that is for us our language: it means, because we so use it, an appeal to our audience, an audience we'd like to be as wide as possible.

So, while I was pondering such thoughts, I ran into a large diatribe launched by Father Zuhlsdorf about the translation of the creed, from Latin into English, specifically where it says of the only-begotten son of God that He is… well, what He is, i.e. "one in being with the Father", or "consubstantial with the Father".

Father Zuhlsdorf made a substantial question of the choice between these translations of the Latin consubstantialem Patri. Meaning with this that… – hoops, here I am: needing to translate substantial. If I need to do so, can it then be a third alternative that of translating the original Latin expression with "of the same substance"?

It looks like we know, whichever translation we choose, what is a "substance"; or perhaps that we know what is the ousia contained in the original Greek homoousios , that consubstantialis translates into Latin.

Knowing as a matter of course how all these expressions translate from one language to another, it follows that we should be equally able to evaluate the correctness of each one of them!

And that would make a difference in what we hold as true, by way of which we define our Catholic identity!

Perusing the great number of comments provoked by Father Zuhlsdorf, I run into one that seems to be coming from palinian common sense. I copy it just as I found it:

I'm sorry to play devil's advocate here, but I sort of find it hard to believe that many Catholics will "stop and think" when they come across the word consubstantial. as a poorly catechized Catholic, I certainly didn't "stop and think" about anything that I didn't understand. do you think most Catholics without a solid faith foundation understand the reference to the bloodless sacrifice of Melchezidek? or what precisely "with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father" means? or how about even "hallowed be thy name". no, most simply recite it as a script. "Oh, this is when we say the Our Father". I once had a non-Catholic friend come to Mass and asked another Catholic about the order of things and finally this person said "OK and then we sing the Holy, Holy, Holy". When the non-Catholic asked why, the answer was, "i don't know, that's just when we do it." Similar responses to why the bells, why the incense, etc. why stand for the Gospel? I really don't think that simply changing the language is going to get people to stop and contemplate without explicit urging from their shepherds. in fact, I would imagine that most people who are Mass-going regulars who are confused on the issue would simply think "oh, consubstantial means 'one in being'". I'm not saying we're incapable, I'm just saying that I don't think the typical person who isn't grounded in the faith is going to step up and investigate without good solid homilies and catechesis.
Just a few comments. The Mass-going regulars might not be sufficiently grounded in the faith to be able to sort out what all the things referred to by lux_perpetua mean. But they might be sufficiently attuned to common sense to know what natural
moral law requires - and might perceive that faith nurtures this natural understanding of theirs.

I am sorry. I disagree with Father Zuhlsdorf. Word by word translations, be it "one in being" or "consubstantial", are always betrayals of the original meaning.

The correctness of the meaning comes from the overall translation of the liturgical action, the purpose f which is to communicate to us who Christ is (which is to say, communicate His being to us), and why it makes sense to say that as the Son he is other than the Father, and that at the same time they are not other, being with the Holy Spirit the same and one God.

Does it sound as a riddle? Well, in a way that's what it is: the riddle of life, which we humans sense in the experience we make in common, of being one and many, diabolically torn by hatred or united by love in the Deus qui est caritas.

Liturgy, preaching, catechesis, are with the example of any saintly man given in order to introduce us to such common sense.


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