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.
At 8 o’clock this morning I officiated at the blessing and distribution of ashes for a packed congregation in a small country town in New England. We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced country in the world, but our faith and history enable us to continue an ancient ritual which the Catholic Church has been celebrating annually for more than 1200 years.
Recently on television I saw an archive picture of Pope Benedict XVI receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday last year. The officiating Cardinal followed the Roman custom, and sprinkled the ashes on the Holy Father’s snow-white hair. While we moisten the ashes, and dab them on the person’s forehead, the Roman custom with clerics is to sprinkle the ashes on their tonsure, that small circle shaved on the crown of the cleric’s head.
I remember my first year in the Philippines, when I was fresh from my studies in Rome. One of my assignments was to be chaplain to a large convent school. On Ash Wednesday I remember telling the Sisters that the Roman custom was to sprinkle the ashes on the veil covering the nun’s hair. Since these Sisters wore beautiful white veils, they absolutely refused the Roman custom, and insisted on receiving the ashes on the forehead, the same as their students.
In the olden days the ashes used in the Ash Wednesday ceremony were acquired by burning the palm branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday. At the present time, many parishes are buying commercially produced ashes. Church suppliers estimate that one ounce of commercial ashes (cost about $10) will provide ashes for 250 foreheads.
My first year as a missionary in Chile, my pastor decided to get the ashes the old way. Two weeks before Ash Wednesday he asked the people to bring in the palms they kept from the previous year, so that they could be burned to provide the ashes for Ash Wednesday.
The people did as they were asked, but reluctantly, because they had the belief that the blessed palms were a protection against earthquakes. The palms were duly burned, and the pastor assured the people that they had the best possible ashes, produced as the Church authorities prescribed.
You can imagine the pastor’s dismay when, the following Sunday just before the evening Mass which I was preparing to celebrate, there was a one-minute 6.75 earthquake which led to the collapse of the main wall of our church, and left many parishioners with collapsed or damaged homes. Needless to say the people felt betrayed, and vowed never again to give up their old palms until they had received the new ones.
Even if I failed to find a connection between blessed palms and security against earthquakes, I had to admit that the people had a case when they insisted that their traditional beliefs are to be respected, and there is a price to be paid if they are not duly observed.
Fortunately your observance of Lent does not depend on the quality of the ashes on Ash Wednesday. If you can add some prayer, fasting or almsgiving to your daily life during these forty days, you will arrive at the celebration of Easter with a joyful heart and a renewed spirit.