It’s not often that you find real-life uses for Latin, yet the Catholic Church is one of the few places where this can still happen. Take the example of the recent “pro multis” controversy, which gets to the heart of the question of what it means to translate something.
Prior to 1969, the Catholic Mass was said in Latin, and at the consecration of the wine, the priest said:
Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei…qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.
For this is the chalice of my blood…which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins.
The words “for many” come, with some modification, from Matthew and Mark’s Gospels, where they appear as περὶ πολλῶν and ὑπὲρ πολλῶν, respectively. After the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI released his Novus Ordo (the “New Mass”) and he retained pro multis in the Latin text. However, in the 1970’s, when the Latin text of Paul’s Mass was translated into English, pro multis was curiously rendered “for all.” This is the version modern Catholics are familiar with, and yet it is not an accurate translation of the original text. Some have accused that the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), the translation committee, does not translate, but editorializes. Traditionalist societies such as the Society of St. Pius X contend that this translation invalidates the consecration in the Novus Ordo. While I am not concerned with the theological question here, the linguistic one is interesting.
Multis is derived from the adjective multus, which means “much,” or “many.” How then could the ICEL possibly derive “all”? Traditionalists answer that the ICEL was infected with the disease of modernism, and that they chose to translate multis with “all” in order to promote the heresy of universal salvation, the idea that all men are saved regardless of the state of their souls.
Not so fast, says Father Max Zerwick. Zerwick was one of the great modern scholars of biblical languages. He authored the Grammatical Analysis of the New Testament, an invaluable reference book, written originally in Latin, which parses nearly every word in the Greek New Testament and gives detailed vocabulary and grammatical notes. Not only was Zerwick an expert on Greek and Latin, but he was also an expert on Semitic languages, and particularly on the effect these languages had on the Greek of ancient Semitic peoples. Zerwick argues here that multis by no means excludes omnibus, and that to the Semitic mind, “many” implied “all.”
So why did I label this a “recent” controversy? Well, recently the ICEL prepared a new English translation of Paul VI’s missal, a translation which returns pro multis to “for many.” The new translation, which will soon completely displace the old, has generated considerable controversy, with many (multi?) priests accusing it of stilted and unusable language.
Again, avoiding theological questions, what is the right approach to a translation? As literal a rendering as possible, leaving the reader to decide how to interpret it? Or a looser rendering, which imposes the translator’s view of the correct meaning? Is it the job of the translator to simply create a literal version of the text in the target language, with a minimum of interpretation? Or should he use his linguistic and historical expertise to produce a less literal translation that conveys shades of meaning that would be lost in a word-for-word rendering?
My favorite essay on translation is the preface to Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic. Bloom, whose translation is literal, eviscerates fellow translator F. M. Cornford for his non-literal version. For example, where Plato says that “argument mixed with music” is the safeguard of virtue, Cornford renders it “a thoughtful and cultivated mind,” obscuring the original words Plato used. Bloom’s discussion is well worth reading, and too long to reproduce here, but here is the crux: “Cornford thus improves on Plato, correcting him in what he believes to be the proper direction.” When the translator does that, he crosses from faithfulness to the text into intellectual arrogance.
Back to many versus all. Despite Zerwick’s argument, I could not find a single translation of the Bible that renders πολλῶν as “all”—even the modern translations render it “many.” He may have won out with the Mass translation, but it seems there were no takers among his fellow Biblical scholars.
In the end I suppose the traditionalists have a point. Say the Mass in Latin so we don’t have to argue about it!