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!