Brian Friel’s play “Translations” was first staged in 1980. It was widely acclaimed, and went on to enjoy two major New York productions, off Broadway in 1981, and on Broadway in 1995.
The play is set in the Gaelic-speaking village of Ballybeg in the Ireland of 1833. The drama unfolds in the interaction between the local people and a team of British soldiers, army engineers, who are tasked with drawing up a detailed map of the Irish countryside, replacing the Gaelic place-names with their English equivalents. To succeed in this they need the help of some local people who are fluent in both languages.
The writer and the audience know that this apparent exercise in translating place-names is something far more serious. It is the beginning of a systematic process of dismantling a language and a culture.
The local people are suspicious, but some of them cooperate. The interaction between the soldiers and the locals leads to tension and humorous situations, especially when one of the officers and one of the local girls fall in love. He knows no Gaelic but would like to learn it; she knows no English but yearns to speak it. Their meetings without a translator but with misunderstandings lead to humorous situations in both languages.
I was reminded of this play and its tragic-comic interplay two days ago when I was present at the Saturday afternoon Mass. It was the Mass of the 6th Sunday of Easter, and the celebrant informed the congregation at the beginning of his homily that he did not understand the prayer he had just read for them from the Roman missal as the opening prayer of the Mass. He admitted that he was confused about what it actually meant.
Later on, after Mass, I was able to check the Mass text and the prayer. It left me undecided when I saw that we prayed “that what we relive in remembrance we may always hold to in what we do”.
I also checked the Latin text, and found it somewhat vague and convoluted. I then got the Spanish translation, and found it clear and simple. I wondered why the official Spanish translation could be so clear, while the official English translation was so vague. On closer examination I noticed that the English translator had translated the Latin text word for word into English, while the Spanish translator took the sense of the Latin, and translated that into Spanish.
I remember many years ago in Chile I was asked to act as translator for a visiting bishop who was addressing the people in English. At the time I simply translated what I heard him say as he preached his homily at Mass. Afterwards I realized that I had not translated him word for word, but I had taken the sense of what he was saying and translated it into Spanish.
I think that part of the dissatisfaction with the new English Mass text is that some of the translators simply translated word for word from the Latin text, without realizing that this does not always make sense in the other language. A good translator must have a thorough grasp of both languages, and particularly of the language into which the translation is being made.
Brian Friel’s “Translations” was not just about changing language. It was about changing people and changing history. In a similar way, the new Mass text in English is more than simply changing words. It is part of a process of changing attitudes towards developing greater conformity and unity in the faithful of today and in the generations of tomorrow.