Friday, April 6, 2012

O Sacrum Convivium and the Perils of Translation

The choir is singing James Biery's "O Sacrum Convivium" (words by Thomas Aquinas). It's one of those pieces that drains you: 95% of the notes for the basses are the same but to keep on pitch is like standing still in an ocean of other tones that push and pull you different ways depending on the chord. It's quite a discipline just to sing that same note! And when you're done you're physically tired from the intensity of it all. A great example of what music can do to the musician, not to mention the listener.

I'm glad we're singing it in the original Latin because the translation they offer shows the limitations of facile translation.

In Latin:
O sacrum convivium!
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius:
mens impletur gratia:
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.

Thankfully I can't find the bad translation they had in the music itself, but it did things like eliminated the reference to the "feast", which is the whole point of the music: it's a song for when you're eating the Eucharist! But even the best translations have their limitations. Here's an average one:

Wikipedia translation:
O sacred banquet!
in which Christ is received,
the memory of his Passion is renewed,
the mind is filled with grace,
and a pledge of future glory to us is given.

There's a few things that are left out, and without knowing Latin it's very tricky. Here's what stands out to me with my half-forgotten and "intuitive" Latin translation abilities:

-- "Convivium" contains "life" (viv) within it. It is more "comes together in life" than a huge buffet line or something. With "banquet" it's easy to lapse into the same mistake the Corinthians made in making it a big party-meal (See 1 Cor. 10-11). It must involve eating -- but it's not eating to get full. It is a multiplication of life, which seems a lot simpler at heart, like the word "convivium" itself.

-- "Sumitur" means "is taken in" and has a direct connection to Eucharist and eating itself. Every bit of food is "taken in", which I think shows your involvement in the process better than the (at least in modern usage) anemic "received."

-- "Mens" is mind, yes, but is more "alive" than that. One site puts it as "the personification of thought." "Soul" in many translations fits the way we may use the word a little better, but "soul" doesn't have the rational aspect in common usage, quite the opposite, which is unfortunate. We need a word with the rationality of mind but the personality of soul. Why not just say "mens"? These "interior" words are the hardest to translate, and I'd prefer to try and sit in the way they thought than to take the way they thought and try to make it fit my categories.

-- "Pignus" is "pledge" but in my mind it always takes on a tinge of "sign" as well as "promise" (although that may be because of the "ign" in it!). I prefer thinking of it as both a promise and a sign. According to one source, it means "mortgage" as well! Obviously current promises (and mortgages) are somewhat devalued, but this is saying that the bread and the wine is the real, non-devalued promise, and the true sign pointing to the real reality of what's going on: we are feeding on the life of Christ.

Bottom line: Knowing the language allows you to see the original connotation and to think of things as "both/and" when that's appropriate and "not THAT" when that is appropriate. So learning language makes the poetry that much richer. I think Barfield's right when he says the language you use and the way you think and the way you KNOW are much more closely related than we think!

No comments: