Friday, May 3, 2013

More on Latin translations...

I like to be helpful.  Knowing that the institutional church currently suffers from reduced donations, which in turn likely hinders expanding the hierarchy’s beloved Latin-to-English re-translation campaign, I decided to help.  Since I have studied Latin, I decided to re-translate a few important Latin hymns using literal translation techniques akin to those applied in re-translating the Mass.  

The hierarchy says the new literal Mass translation renders “more poetic” English text.  Thus, I’m confident hierarchy members will appreciate me re-translating some hymns, especially since people expect good poetry in song lyrics – perhaps even more so than they expect it in Mass prayers.  As you will see in the tables below, the literal translations of Tantum Ergo and Panis Angelicus impact their poetic quality comparably to how it impacted that of the Mass. 

I chose Panis Angelicus because it is so widely used.  Also, since taking my first Latin course, I’ve known the common English translation bears little resemblance to the ideas expressed in the original Latin.  With very little modification to the literally translated English text, the lyrics would not only fit the music, they would better align with the original Latin’s meaning. 

Perhaps if the hierarchy began by accurately re-translating this hymn it would have gained mind-share on the importance of accurate translations.  Of course the hierarchy also could have actually done an accurate re-translation of the Mass, but that notion seemed elusive as well…preferring a hack translation job instead.

I chose Tantum Ergo since it is more than just a hymn.  It is used during Holy Thursday Mass, the second most important liturgy of each year.  After the procession carrying the Blessed Sacrament from the altar to its place of repose, the congregation sings Tantum Ergo to begin Nocturnal Adoration.  

Many congregations sing the English translation of Tantum Ergo, “Down in Adoration Falling,” instead.  As they sing, they follow what sounds like instructions from the song; they fall down on their knees to begin adoration.  Even when the song is sung in Latin, many people not understanding Latin assume it says the same thing as the English text…to fall down on your knees in adoration.  Yet, the Latin actually speaks of only bowing one’s head in veneration. 

Because Tantum Ergo is part of a very important liturgy, it probably should have been re-translated with the rest of the Mass texts much like the Easter Vigil’s Exsultet was – which by the way – now gives a whole lot of credit to bees.  I’m sure the bees are extremely grateful and this probably ended decades of tension between the Catholic Church and the International Union for Drone, Worker and Queen Bees. 

I realize I digress but for your poetic enjoyment and context if you’re unfamiliar with the Exsultet’s text…and of course as appeasement to the bee community…I offer you excerpts from the Easter Vigil’s Exsultet showing the previous and new translations.

Exsultet Excerpts

Former Translation
New Translation
Therefore, heavenly Father,
in the joy of this night,
receive our evening sacrifice of praise,
your Church's solemn offering.

Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.
On this, your night of grace
O Holy Father accept this candle,
a solemn offering, 
the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, 
an evening sacrifice of praise, 
this gift from your most holy Church. 

But now we know the praises of this pillar, 
which glowing fire ignites for God’s honor, 
a fire into many flames divided, 
yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, 
for it is fed by melting wax, 
drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.

Sorry about that detour; back to Tantum Ergo.  Aside from the previously mentioned poetic impact, I think there is great value in using the literal translation for this hymn.  For one thing it could simplify the manner of veneration as described above. 

Also, the Latin implies a different relationship between God, Jesus and the Spirit.  The Latin text suggests the Spirit’s gifts proceed from God and Jesus, which makes the Spirit sound subordinate to them.  In contrast, the commonly used English translation turns the hymn into a Triniterian theme by including the Spirit and having all gifts proceed from all three members of the Trinity.  This places them all on equal footing.   

To most of the faithful, this might seem an insignificant point but the relationship between members of the Trinity is in fact a major reason for divide between Roman and Orthodox Catholics.  If the Roman and Orthodox hierarchies would agree that these poetic differences are trivial, we could be much closer to healing a great divide in the church.

I think the most significant difference in the literal translation is this concept, “And the ancient rules yield a newer rite.”  This was inaccurately translated into “Over ancient forms of worship, newer rites will soon prevail.”  I actually think the current English translation is more poetic than the literal one, but I think the subtle change in meaning is significant. 

Maybe it’s just the way the words resonate with me.  But, to me, the commonly used translation sounds like we have arrived triumphantly at the new set of static traditions.  However, the literal translation implies to me a continual renewal process without hiding behind the hierarchy’s favorite slogan of, “Tradition” to resist change. 

By the way, In formal logic, reliance upon tradition as justification for something is called argumentum ad antiquitatem or “the argument to antiquity/tradition” and is considered flawed logic.  What would the church be like if the hierarchy would loosen grasp on the flawed logic of “tradition” and allow long-held traditions to yield to newer ways?

If I may digress a second time, if you’re interested in reading about other logic errors committed by the hierarchy, one of my earliest blog articles examined this.   This article was published in December, 2010 just two months after I began this blog.  Subscribers have grown exponentially since then so some newer subscribers might not be aware of that post’s existence.

Anyway, this idea of yielding to newer ways is called “innovation” by the hierarchy.  Whereas innovation in society is often welcomed, the hierarchy fears and condemns it within the church.  No wonder the inaccurate translation stands.  Imagine the hierarchy encouraging innovation by having the faithful sing about it every Holy Thursday!

I encourage people to study Latin.  Beyond its value as the foundation for all romance languages, it is handy to keep priests and bishops on their toes.  Of late, it’s been the source of fun-filled entertainment for me re-translating the Mass to see the numerous translation errors wrought by the official new English translation. 

You can also send your favorite hierarchs greetings of “beata natali” (happy birthday), “exsultans Pascha” (Happy Easter), “felix dies festus” (happy feast day), or even just a simple “beatus martis” (happy Tuesday).  This likely will swell their hearts with joy because of their love for Latin.  It might also send them scurrying to find a Latin-English dictionary because many love Latin for the mystique of uttering words in a language they do not understand.  Your use of Latin could encourage them to improve their language skills.  Either way, it’s a win.

On a serious note, what are you doing to yield newer ways from ancient traditions and to encourage this from your local hierarchy members?  Which new ways are worth having and which ancient rules are worth keeping?  How does a community discern this?

I will offer some guidance answering that last question.  When I was in Loyola’s theology program, the program facilitator kept emphasizing the importance of exercising the “primary option.”  Our primary option is to do the loving thing.  So perhaps the better question to ask is “How does a community determine what the most loving thing is?” 


Literal Translation
Current commonly used translation
Verse One
Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

Verse One
Only thus the Sacrament
venerate with heads bowed:
And the ancient rules
yield a newer rite:
Faith supplies reinforcement
for defective senses

Verse One
Down in adoration falling
This great sacrament we hail
Over ancient forms of worship
Newer rites will soon prevail
Faith will tell us Christ is present
When our human senses fail
Verse Two
Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et jubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.

Verse Two
To the begetter and begotten
praise and jubilation,
salvation, honor, virtue also
and is blessing:
to the one that proceeds from both
comparable is one praise

Verse Two
To the everlasting Father,
And the Son who made us free
And the Spirit, God proceeding
From them each eternally
Be salvation, honor, blessing
Might and endless majesty


Literal Translation
Current commonly used translation
Verse One
Panis angelicus
fit panis hominum;
Dat panis coelicus
figuris terminum:
O res mirabilis!
Manducat Dominum
Pauper, servus et humilis.
Verse One
Bread of angels
Becomes the bread of humans;
Gives bread of heaven
The end figure:
What wonder!
Eat of the Lord
The poor and humble servant.

Verse One
Jesus our living bread
Great gift from heaven sent
Fulfill the signs of old
And be our nourishment
We humble people come
To eat your sacred food
In peace, joy, love and gratitude.
Verse Two
Te trina Deitas
unaque poscimus:
Sic nos tu visita,
sicut te colimus;
Per tuas semitas
duc nos quo tendimus,
Ad lucem quam inhabitas.
Verse Two
You threefold God
We ask of together:
So visit us
As we serve you
Through your paths
Lead us where we strive
To the light in which you dwell

Verse Two
O blessed Trinity
We praise and worship you;
Strengthen our unity
Our faith and trust renew
Lord lead us all our day
To heav’nly peace and light
Grant us rest, there, before your sight


  1. Anka, Reading, UKMay 4, 2013 at 4:32 AM

    Ummm, I don't want to sound terribly pedantic and spoil the fun, but The Ewe's knowledge of Latin grammar, especially the inflection of nouns, leaves something to be desired. It is, of course, in the nature of all languages (with the possible exception of the worthy but soulless Esperanto) that attempts at their literal translation usually result in renderings that are clumsy and/or hilarious at best and unintelligible at worst. But The Ewe's translation, above, of "Tantum ergo", is actually not literal. The Latin "Genitori, genitoque" means "To the begetter and the begotten", as the nouns are declined into the dative case. The same with "Procedenti ab utroque", which translates as "to the one that proceeds from both". So in this case the truly literal translation is actually not really as clumsy and comical as The Ewe makes out. Having said that, however, I must admit that the excerpts from Exsultet, with their reference to the bees, had me in stitches. Will I ever be able to listen to that piece again with a straight face? All the above does not change the fact that I usually thoroughly enjoy and agree with the questions, thoughts and sentiments expressed in The Ewe's articles. Thank you and keep them coming! :)

  2. Anka, yes, my Latin skills are not "top-shelf" and the intention was to produce a clumsy translation akin to the absurdities coming from the new Mass translation which was done literally. I'm debating whether to change the article based upon your corrections or leave the absurd errors in place. But, I'll probably make the corrections.

    However, even in my sub-optimal Latin skills, the concept remains constant doesn't it that Tantum Ergo speaks of God and Jesus and blessings proceeding from the two? Yet in the English translation, they flip it around to God, Jesus and Spirit?

  3. Oh, and thank you both for your readership but especially for your corrections.

  4. I am not a native English speaker and my level of Latin is not sufficiently high to make any corrections (I have studied it for one year but a long time ago). But I really appreciate your initiative. And concerning those Latin-other languages translations, the problem exists also in my native Polish. For example Tantum Ergo translated into English via Polish would go like this:

    "In front of such a great Sacrament
    Let's fall down together everyone,
    Let before the New Testament the time of old laws fade away.
    What is for senses inconceivable, let the faith in us fulfil (or literally even "top up").
    To God the Father and the Son let's carry a homage for all days,
    let a century carries forward to a century a hymn of triumph, thanksgiving and adoration.
    And to equal to them the Spirit let the eternal glory sound.

    What I have to add, that such translation is rather an old one, perhaps over 100 years, since the words and grammar used in it don't function in the contemporary Polish. And I am pretty sure that the knowledge of Latin was much wider at that time amongst educated people.