Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Panis Angelicus Translation and Commentary

As we have found in the case of the translations of Holy Mass from Latin to the vernacular, it is very easy to lose things in the translation, or diminish or hide them, especially if you want to. There is a certain difficulty inherent in attempting to translate anything, especially if there are fine points or subtleties that are expressed in the original that may not have parallel in the destination language. The difficulty becomes all the greater when a person tries to translate a song from one language to another - first you have to get the meanings across, and then you have to try to fit it back into the melody (or perhaps create a new melody). In any case, this isn't easy.

Now let us look at the Panis Angelicus, a famous hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century AD.
Original Latin Text:

Panis angelicus
fit panis hominum;
Dat panis caelicus
figuris terminum:
O res mirabilis!
manducat Dominum
Pauper, servus, et humilis.

Te trina Deitas
unaque poscimus:
Sic nos tu visita,
sicut te colimus;
Per tuas semitas
duc nos quo tendimus,
Ad lucem quam inhabitas.
Literal Translation:

Bread of Angels,
made the bread of men;
The Bread of heaven
puts an end to all symbols:
A thing wonderful!
The poor, servant, and humble person eats (gnaws, chews) the Lord.

We beseech Thee,
Godhead One in Three
That Thou wilt visit us,
as we worship Thee,
lead us through Thy ways,
We who wish to reach the light
in which Thou dwellest.
Current translation (1):

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.

O blessed Trinity,
We praise and worship you;
Strengthen our unity,
Our faith and trust renew.
Lord, lead us all our days
To heavenly peace and light;
Grant us rest there, before your sight.

Notice the shift here, from the literal to the used translations. The focus has gone from God to us. Suddenly we are the center of attention in a hymn that is meant to highlight the central mystery of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Transubstantiation. In his book Why Catholics Can't Sing, Tomas Day refers to this as Catholic narcissism. He uses for examples some of the more obvious songs (such as those that place the congregation as the voice of God), but the same phenomenon is present here.

Already in the first line, we have lost some of the significance of what St. Thomas wrote. The Latin verb "fit" (pronounced "feet" not "fit") means "coming to be" or "comes to be". What he is pointing out is that Jesus Christ, the "Bread of Angels" has become the "Bread of men1". In our new translation, Jesus simply becomes our "living bread" that was "sent from Heaven." Angels aren't even mentioned.

Then, at the end of the first verse, there is another loss: rather than the reference to the utter humility and servitude that Christ has reduced Himself to for us in the Blessed Sacrament, the "translation" focuses on US, a "humble people" eating Christ's "sacred food." First off, why are we focusing on us again? The focus is supposed to be about God. Second, I wonder if the translator didn't have some doubts about the Real Presence. How is it that we are eating "[Christ's] sacred food"?! Christ has no need of food. Christ IS the Food! When we receive Holy Communion, we are eating God Himself, not "His Food"!!

Finally, that last verse: no longer are we "beseeching" God to visit and guide us as we worship Him. No, now we are "praising and worshiping" Him, daring to demand that He would strengthen our unity, faith, and trust. The ending, while at least retaining the original meaning/intent, is still tainted by the demanding attitude that opened the verse.

This is one reason why it would be better for us to sing the hymns IN LATIN. Then you can keep the original meaning in what you are singing, and, if you are looking up the translation, you can get a real translation and not a self-centered attempt at translation that has been mutilated to fit into a musical setting.


1. For those who may be complaining about "inclusive language": the word translated men here is "hominum" which means "man" in the sense of all humanity)
2. The title in the missalette is "Jesus Our Living Bread" - again notice the shift from the transcendent to the immanent!


  1. First let me say great job on this first official post, and i'm looking forward to the new Blog.

    Secondly, you seem to imply that you think the INTENT of the translation was to make more immanent. In your opinion, is it possible that the actual intent was to merely make more understandable and that the immanence is an unfortunate "casualty"?

  2. That is certainly a possibility, and probably part of it either way

  3. Interesting that you should say that since "men" is translated from the Latin "hominum," there is no problem with gender inclusivity. However, the very thing you are griping over in this blog is the fact that translations do not carry the same meaning as the original. In English, "men" refers only to those of the male gender. Therefore, the word "hominum" cannot be literally translated as "men" in English. And, if you're going to make the claim that it is acceptable to use "men" anyway, why not use "women"? It would be a closer match to the number of syllables.

  4. The problem with using "women" would be the simple fact that "women" has never carried the meaning of 'all of humanity.' The human race has historically been referred to as 'mankind' or similar terms, hence the reason that 'man' is used to render 'hominum' in many translations. However, one could use 'people' if he/she so desired. It seems awkward to me, but perhaps that's just because I'm used to 'men.'

  5. And perhaps the fact that you are used to "men" is because you are a man. Speaking from the perspective of a woman, I can tell you that when "men " is used instead of a gender inclusive word, I always notice, regardless of what people tell me about it carrying the meaning of "all humanity." The simple truth is that, in English, the meaning most commonly associated with "men" is "those of the male gender." Perhaps gender discrimination is something that we need to stop being "used to."

    1. Perhaps this is even MORE evidence of our own personal narcissism.

      You don't like the word "Man"? Offer it up!

      This is a love song to Our Lord Jesus Christ! Concentrate on HIM - forget yourself.

      PS I'm a woman! I don't have a problem with "Man" being used - only weird self obsessive people would quibble throughout history NO-ONE has complained about this issue - it seems that people today think to highly of their gender and not highly enough of the Lord of all who died for their sins INCLUDING those of pride, neurosis and obsession with political correctness! Christ has no need of this treatment - He is the star of the sacred song, sing it with pride in HIM, who died for you - not in resentment that "You" are not significant enough in the words of the translation.

    2. God was made to be less than a worm

      YOU on the other hand are petulant at being classed along with the rest of "Mankind" Take my advice, don't give in to personal narcissistic statements - it is a trick of the devil to fill us with the sin of pride.

      Just venerate GOD - we are nothing HE is EVERYTHING!

  6. Fair enough. In this case, it would probably be acceptable to use 'people' or 'humanity' or something else that flows well. When the option is presented (i.e. 'hominum' or similar words), then I don't really have any objections.

    If the word, however, is something like "eius" ("his/hers/its") it has to be translated with gender reference to the antecedent. (e.g. we can't substitute "God's" for "His" in the Mass's a different word..."Dei" vs "Eius" (or "sui"))

  7. If "eius" translates to "his/her/its," then it seems that it would be perfectly acceptable to use "her" instead of "his" in the Mass prayers. Right?

  8. No, because it is a pronoun - it has to be translated with correct reference to the gender of the antecedent, which is generally Deus (a masculine noun).

  9. If the sentence had a feminine antecedent, such as this: Maria filium se/eius Jesum amat, then "se" would be translated as "her" (in the sense of "her own"). "Eius" could also be used there with the same translation, except without the reflexive reference.

  10. Your note about the translator posibly doubting the Real presence is apt. It seems like a Protestant-ready version (and I say this as a Lutheran). Missing in both translations, moreover, is the real sense of "manducat" which refers to the way animals eat -- gobble up, if you will (cf. the German "frissen"). we poor humble servants are invited to give in totally to our hunger for God's grace.

  11. I'm afraid your translation of the last two lines of the first verse is not correct. As a Latin hymn afficionado , my literal translation was different. I consulted a Latin expert (degree in Classical languages, translating awards, etc.) Here is her translation: "the poor, the servant, and humble (person) consumes the God."

    Here's her analysis: "Notice that the adjectives pauper, servus, and humilis are in the nominative (subject) case.  That means that they must refer to the subject of the verb manducat  --- they refer to the one doing the eating.  Dominum is the accusative (direct object) case.  Thus, those adjectives cannot possibly be modifying Dominum. "

    To tell you the truth, I wish you were right! The greater glory given to God, the happier I am, not that He needs my glorification of Him. I really appreciate the general point your are making, but when you are not accurate in pointing out the errors of those whom you are criticizing, your credibility on other points is weakened. Many blessings!

    Here is a great source for literal translations for singers:

    1. Thank you very much for your correction. I have changed it accordingly. It's a good point that I should have noticed.


I welcome your thoughts and contributions to the conversation. Just remember to be polite and civil. Thanks!