Changed in translation


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


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.


Can I do Catholic-lite?

When I looked into becoming a Catholic, I thought that I could do Catholic-lite. I wanted to take the parts which were most similar to the Protestant tradition, such as the Gospel teachings, and leave out the uncomfortable extras such as saints and devotion to Mary. It was a bit like choosing a diet version of a cheese spread which claims to have half the fat, and expecting it to have all the taste and goodness of the full fat version.
In the last few months, it’s become increasingly clear that Catholic-lite isn’t an option, as I’ve been gently nudged towards the things I find most challenging.
A few months ago, I was browsing a Catholic blog on the internet and was astounded to find out that the Rosary contains a series of meditations on the Gospel. That might seem obvious to people brought up Catholic, but I didn’t really know anything about the Rosary apart from a vague idea that it had something to do with ‘praying to Mary’.
The same still voice which had planted the desire to become Catholic now made the suggestion that I should learn to pray the Rosary. By this time, I knew better than to argue with this voice, even though this idea was very challenging for someone brought up in a very reformed tradition. I tried to compromise. Acquiring Rosary beads was just a step to far, they were just too Catholic a symbol, but I would learn to pray the Rosary.
I began meditating on one mystery a day, praying while I was walking the dog, or at night when I couldn’t sleep. I used my fingers to count off the prayers. I was surprised, and even slightly embarrassed, to realise that I found this method of prayer comforting, and not in the least repetitive or boring. As a Protestant, I hadn’t given much thought to Mary’s role in the Gospel story. Because I was saying the Hail Mary, it seemed natural to imagine some of the Gospel scenes from her point of view, and I gained new insights. I also realised that I have sometimes viewed Christ as a vague divine figure who floated around first century Palestine with his feet hardly touching the ground. Praying the Rosary has helped me to consider Christ’s humanity as well as his divinity.
Although I began to see all these benefits, I still resisted getting the Rosary beads. However, they came to me without me even trying. My husband was away on a work trip and the night before he came back, I woke up in the night with a very strong image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It was so vivid that when I got up in the morning, I looked up the passage in John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. That evening, as my husband unpacked his bags, he tossed me a plastic case with a brightly coloured picture of Pope Francis on the top. Inside were Rosary beads and on the crucifix was a tiny image of Christ carrying a lamb with a flock of sheep behind him.
I laughed, with joy because I realised that I was finally ready for these beads, with humour because my husband had probably deliberately given me the most Catholic-looking symbol he could find, and with thankfulness for the image of the good shepherd which seemed to be God’s way of saying that it was okay for me to pray the Rosary, even if I had been brought up Protestant.