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Friday, April 1, 2011

Plate Glass, Plate Glass, on the wall...the importance of translations.

I adore fairy tales.    I love the reliable beginning of "Once upon a time" and the predictability that all will end "Happily ever after".   I even like what Disney has done to some of them, although I prefer the more authentic versions collected by the Brothers Grimm and their cohorts.

Recently, while hunting and gathering in Walmart, I paused to peruse a copy of Snow White.  The book, an adorable little pop-up, was opened to the famous scene in which the evil queen demands an answer of the looking glass, "Mirror, Mirror, on the wall...who is fairest of them all?"  It was the word "fairest" that caught my attention, and it called to mind a minor annoyance from a recent Mass I attended, involving, gasp, a hymn.

The hymn was "Beautiful Savior",a translation of an old German hymn, Schönster Herr Jesu. the opening lyrics as follows:

Beautiful Savior, King of Creation
Son of God and Son of Man!
Truly I’d love You, truly I’d serve You,
Light of my soul, my joy, my crown.

Compare the above to Fairest Lord Jesus, a slightly different translation:

Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature,
O Thou of God and man the Son,
Thee will I cherish, Thee will I honor,
Thou, my soul’s glory, joy and crown.

The two translations both convey sentiments about the beauty of Jesus in comparison to the created world, and they share the same lovely tune. It boils down to a mere matter of preference which version to use, does it not? After all, one word is just as good as another.  Beautiful is just another way of saying fairest, isn't it?

Uh, no.

Beautiful is an adjective, and it can be applied to multiple people, places, or things and still allow for an equality among what is being discussed.  She is beautiful.  HE is beautiful.  THEY are beautiful.  Fairest is an adjective in the superlative form.  Only one can be fairest.  Only one can be the most beautiful of all, and in the second version of the hymn, it is the Lord Jesus who is fairest, who is the ruler of all nature.

Ruler and King also convey very different ideas.  To rule is to exercise authority, to be obeyed.  To be King (since we've lost the Stuarts at least!) is to be figurehead, perhaps a ruler, but most likely merely something for the masses to adulate, or, as the case may be, to despise.

Cherish versus love?  Cherish is to hold dear, to desire. It requires one to grasp in some way that for which he longs and to bring it into contact with his very being, as we do each Sunday when we receive our Lord.   Love is a more passive emotion, something that can, and often is, done from a distance.

There is a difference in the focus of the first and second versions, as well.  Beautiful Savior focuses on the singer.  "I" would love.  "I" would serve.  Fairest Lord Jesus emphasizes what is to be cherished and honored.  "Thee would I cherish, Thee would I honor, Thou, my soul's glory, joy and crown."

Some might say that it still comes down to a matter of taste, of preference.  Yet there is one final and deciding factor that must be explored.  There is an original text, in an original tongue, and it opens in the superlative form, which gives the second hymn the added advantage of being the more faithful mirror.  It reflects the Fairest, not simply the Beautiful.

As those of us who are Catholics are aware, there is a new translation of the Mass coming forth in Advent of this year.  Many of us have seen examples of these changes, and I, for one, find them pleasing.  They are poetic, they are graceful, they are more accurate.  They restore to the Mass some of the subtlety and nuance that was lost in the earlier zeal to be understood at the visceral level that seemed so important forty years ago.  It is still in the vernacular, that corruptible everyday language that is born and dies with each passing generation, but here is an effort to frame the rites and prayers in more beautiful phrases that move our focus and thoughts toward the altar rather than toward ourselves.  These are important changes and will lead us to focus on important things, to call to mind that this is Christ's Sacrifice before us, His Body and Blood, His Truth and His Beauty, and all of it has been provided for our salvation, for our good.  Surely there is something to be said for wanting to convey such things in the most beautiful way possible.  Once upon a time Christ died for us, so that we could live happily ever after.  Not all beautiful stories are fairy tales.

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