Changed in translation

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Today I am thinking about how meanings can be changed or given a different emphasis when we translate from one language to another, or even when we use a different translation in our own language.

I’m aware that there’s a big dispute going on just now about whether we will go on using the current translation of the Mass. I began going to Mass when the old translation was still in use and I had just got used to that when the new translation was brought in.

All change is challenging and I think it’s particularly difficult when it comes to something as close to us as prayer. Initially I felt as if I was going to a version of the Mass which had been put through the hands of a poor writer of science fiction, with clunky words like oblation and merit thrown in.

I’ve got used to it, over time. I can understand the reluctance to introduce another change, and yet it’s important to get language right. Our choice of words can present both bridges and barriers to our understanding.

Mary’s way

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The thing which set off me off on this train of thought was learning the Gaelic word for rosary. Thanks to Reidio nan Gaidheal’s thought for the day, I now know that it is Conair Mhoire. According to MacLennan’s Gaelic dictionary, conair means a path or a way. It can also mean a set of beads, or, interestingly, a crown.

Dwelly’s dictionary had an even more comprehensive set of meanings for conair. As well as a path or a crown, it can be a haven, a blessing, a help or a circle.

I am excited because learning a new word in Gaelic has brought a whole new set of meanings and connotations to praying the rosary. The rosary has been a haven and a blessing to me, a prayer where I can rest when my worried mind won’t give me peace to sleep or to pray in any other way.

It’s nice that the Gaelic word has other meanings and isn’t just used in a religious context. I read in Mitch Finley’s ‘Rosary Handbook’ that rosary comes from the Latin rosarius which means a bouquet of roses. This is another nice image, but I don’t get roses very often, only on special occasions, and yet I turn to the rosary almost every day.

I like the idea of the rosary as a way to Christ, conair Mhoire, or Mary’s way. We find the way to Christ through meditating on his birth, ministry, death and resurrection.

I usually say the rosary prayers in Gaelic although I sometimes deliberately switch to English just to get a different perspective. Words are only pointers to something much bigger and I find that hearing a prayer or reading a part of the Bible in another language can sometimes nudge me closer to an aspect of the truth.

This happened with the Hail Mary prayer. The first line is taken from the angel Gabriel’s greeting at the annunciation. In Gaelic, Hail Mary is ‘Fàilte dhut, a Mhoire’, which literally means welcome, Virgin Mary. Suddenly I have gone from Hail, an old-fashioned greeting where I imagine myself waving at the Virgin Mary from a long distance and shouting to be heard, to fàilte where she seems much closer. This soft word (pronounced faltcheh) has me visualising opening a door and welcoming the Virgin Mary inside.

A barrier or a bridge?

Words can intentionally or accidentally be used to give positive or negative connotations. I was brought up with the old-fashioned King James Version of the Bible and became used to hearing prayers where God was referred to using old words like thou, thee, thy and thine. Although the minister might have intended these words as a sign of respect or even affection, the effect was to make God seem very far away and hard to reach.
When I left home, I was shocked to encounter groups of evangelical Christians who treated God as a friend and even believed that he loved them and was interested in them. Sometimes this could seem a bit too cosy, but it challenged me. I can still remember the moment when I realised that I didn’t believe God loved me, and that it was almost impossible to believe in a loving God.
Language had contributed to this feeling, and language helped me to overcome it. On a trip to France, I bought a Bible in a modern French translation. This led to another moment of shock: God was addressed with the familiar form tu, rather than the formal form vous. In every language I have managed to learn, God is addressed using the familiar form. This includes Gaelic, where I spoke to my grandmother and elderly aunt using the formal form sibh. God, on the other hand, is addressed using the familiar form, thu.
My French translation of the Bible didn’t immediately result in me believing in God’s love. However, it gave me a neutral space. Reading the Bible in French, allowed me to put aside my fears and expectations and see what was there, rather than the tyrannical, oppressive God who seemed to stride through the well-thumbed pages of my KJV Bible.

Language diversity

Changing our choice of words within a language or switching from one to another can affect meaning.

These subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes which occur within or between languages argue for doing all we can to preserve languages and dialects. When we lose a language, we lose a large part of the culture that goes with it as well as a unique way of seeing the world.

When it comes to Scripture reading or prayer, we are particularly sensitive to the choice of words, because language points to a truth beyond our powers of expression. And yet Jesus came as the Word, and words can help us find the way.

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St Margaret of Scotland

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Scotland. Until I became Catholic three years ago, I knew her simply as Queen Margaret and to be honest, I’ve had very mixed feelings about her. Whenever anything is written about the decline of Gaelic, fingers are pointed at Margaret of Scotland.

Sometimes I think, read, write and even dream in Gaelic, but the language which I have learnt and love is spoken by less than 2 % of the Scottish population. It was once a national language spoken by all sections of society from the Scottish royal family down to the ordinary people. Placenames show that it was spoken in almost every corner of Scotland from the Borders through to the Western Isles.

Was Queen Margaret to blame for 1000 years of language decline?

Queen Margaret was born in Hungary and returned to England as a child where her brother had a claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne. After the Norman invasion in 1066, she set sail for the continent with her family, but a storm caused them to be washed up on the shores of Scotland. They were welcomed by King Malcolm Canmore (Ceann Mor or big head in Gaelic) who fell in love with the beautiful Saxon princess.

He eventually persuaded her to marry him and they had eight children together. He adored her and it is said that the language of the court was changed from Gaelic to Saxon to make her feel more comfortable. Many people say that this was the first step on a slippery road which led to what was once a national language being on the UNESCO definitely endangered list.

Because of this, I haven’t felt particularly warm towards St. Margaret. However, Scottish saints are quite thin on the ground and I feel that I should take another look at history.

Gaelic in the years following Queen Margaret

Is it fair to blame one lady for one thousand years of language shift? Both Queen Margaret and her sons encouraged Norman and English families to settle in Scotland, but many of them became Galicised (such as clann Fraser or na Frisealaich). Robert de Brus was one of these Normans encouraged to settle in Scotland by Margaret’s son David 1st.  He married a Gaelic speaker and his son Robert the Bruce, possibly Scotland’s most famous king, grew up speaking both Scots and Gaelic.

The 12th to 14th centuries, after Queen Margaret’s death, were a time when Gaelic culture enjoyed a golden age with the Lordship of the Isles, a semi-independent kingdom on the Western seaboard of Scotland.

Gaelic was spoken by the Scottish Royal family until almost five hundred years after Queen Margaret’s arrival in Scotland. King James IV (1473-1513) was the last Scottish King to speak Gaelic.

Other factors contributing to the decline of Gaelic

Many other things have contributed to the decline in Gaelic, such as the Iona Statutes in 1609 which stated that Gaelic chiefs had to send their eldest sons to be educated in the lowlands. They learnt a foreign English-based culture and eventually come to despise the culture they had been born into.

The schools act in 1872 brought in English as the sole medium of teaching. This was later modified in the early twentieth century to allow some teaching of Gaelic at the teacher’s discretion. However, Gaelic was still marginalised. My grandmother was fortunate to have a teacher who taught her to read and write her native language, but a generation later my father was taught to be ashamed of it. This was a major factor in not passing it on.

I’ve wandered a long way from St. Margaret of Scotland, but the point I’m trying to make is that it would be ridiculous to blame an 11th century Queen with Saxon origins for the fact that I grew up hearing Gaelic being bounced around above my head between adults without being able to speak or understand it myself. Many, many other things contributed to that situation, and my story is by no means unique. I know many people my age who have Gaelic speaking parents, but grew up unable to speak it themselves.

A queen who became a saint

So what made Queen Margaret a saint? She and Malcolm had eight children which just about qualifies her for sainthood in my opinion! However, she found time to do a lot of other things.

She rebuilt the Abbey set up by St. Columba on the island of Iona. She set up a free ferry from Queensferry in Edinburgh, so that pilgrims could cross the Forth and visit the relics of St. Andrew in St. Andrews. She fed the poor and introduced reforms to the Scottish church to bring it into line with the way things were done in the rest of Europe.

What was most important wasn’t just what she did (she sounded as if she was a very busy lady), but the fact that she tried to live a life of devotion and prayer.