14 January 2012

New Translation, and Teaching of English

I'm enjoying the new translation of the Roman Missal, what I hear of it. The sound system in our church isn't great, and from the choir loft I don't always hear everything clearly. We went to daily Mass at our cathedral last week, and could hear much better. I think we have the smallest cathedral in the country, so it's easy to hear the priest from pretty much anywhere in the building, plus they've actually maintained their sound system...*cough*

As far as I can tell, there is only one real downside: it's difficult for non-native speakers. As I've mentioned before, our current parochial vicar is a native Spanish-speaker. His conversational English is very good. The old translation was, well, pretty conversational in tone and so it wasn't a problem. But language-learners these days don't spend a lot of time learning the more literary type of English that pervades the new translation. In the days when school boys learned a lot of Latin, I think that some of the sentence structure and word order of literary English was influenced by Latin structure in the way that our new, more literal translation also is. The sentences can be very long and there are a lot of subordinate clauses. Many of Dickens' sentences are as long as one of my paragraphs here, and some are longer than the page of a paperback of ordinary size.

For a native English speaker like me, who had very good English teachers and parents who supported my youthful impulse to devour all reading material within arms' length (Dad, an avid reader himself, made sure that the library and local bookstore were often within arms' length), this is not a problem. On the other hand, classes in modern foreign languages don't usually teach literary language, at least, not unless you take really advanced classes. This is very practical; a child learning his first language starts with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and doesn't get to Oliver Twist until about twelve or thirteen years later, at least. The adult learning a new language follows a similar pattern, and of course many foreign language learners stop taking classes when they reach a certain level of fluency. I know I did--I can get the gist of newspaper articles in French, but I certainly will not be reading Les Miserables in the original anytime soon.

Father R., I suppose, will continue to practice the texts of the new translation, and it will become as easy, in time, as the old one was. In the meantime, I will try not to wince when he stumbles over a clause, or reads aloud in a way that makes me think that he doesn't know where the sentence is going. After all, Msgr. is a native English speaker and a well-educated man, and he has had a few of those moments too.

I don't suppose Fr. R. will be interested in reading Dickens to improve his English, although it would amuse me a lot if he were.

As for native English speakers who are having trouble understanding, or who fear others might, may I suggest reading more old-fashioned literature?