“In Infernum Detrude!”
How to Improve the English Translation of the Prayer to Saint Michael the Archangel
The Romans, as any first-year Latin student can tell you, were in the practice of ending their sentences with verbs. Regina agricolam amat, for example. Literally, “The queen the farmer loves.” Unless you are Yoda, however, you would speak this sentence in English this way: “The queen loves the farmer.” (Something tells me this relationship is not going to work out.)
In any case, Latin word order often (not always) proceeds this way: subject, object, verb. In English word order often (not always) proceeds this way: subject, verb, object. Because Latin nouns are declined, that is, they are assigned distinct endings for how they function in a sentence, it is easy to identify the subject and the object.
The practice of ending sentences and clauses with the predicate is preserved by the Church. Indeed, here is a sentence from the Benedict XVI’s renunciation of the Petrine Office.
Nunc autem Sanctam Dei Ecclesiam curae Summi eius Pastoris, Domini nostri Iesu Christi confidimus sanctamque eius Matrem Mariam imploramus, ut patribus Cardinalibus in eligendo novo Summo Pontifice materna sua bonitate assistat.
And here it is in English:
“And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and implore his holy Mother Mary, so that she may assist the Cardinal Fathers with her maternal solicitude, in electing a new Supreme Pontiff.”
I’ve put the verbs in bold so that you can see where they fall in their respective clauses.
What’s the point of this little exposition on Latin syntax?
Well, sometimes a translator can alter the quality of a sentence, even unintentionally, by failing to appreciate how a verb at the end of sentence delivers a certain emphasis. Here is an example that you will know. It is the second sentence of Pope Leo XIII’s exorcism prayer that we know as the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.
First the Latin (with diacritics from the 1962 Roman Missal):
Ímperet ílli Déus, súpplices deprecámur: tuque, prínceps milítiæ cæléstis, Sátanam aliósque spíritus malígnos, qui ad perditiónem animárum pervagántur in múndo, divína virtúte, in inférnum detrúde. Ámen.
And here is the English:
“May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.”
Now, before I make my point about verbs, there are a few things about the English translation that are of interest:
“Rebuke” is not a strict translation of imperet, which really means rule or command, but rebuke gives a more militant emphasis to the prayer, so a gold star to the translator for that one.
“Wander…through” is a faithful translation of pervagantur (we find the same root in “vagabond” and “vague”), but I would have preferred “prowl” because it has an emphasis of menace.
“Divine power” would be a more faithful translation of divina virtute than “Power of God” (and you hear some people say that), but even “power” does not give the Latin sense of virtu, which really means something closer to “manly strength” and even “courage under fire” or “courage in adversity.” (For an extensive consideration of this concept of virtu and what it meant to the Romans, see Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy.) The fact is, however, that we really don’t have an English word, so “power” is about as close as we can come without hamhanding the translation.
But here is the main problem with the English. The ending of the prayer, we have to admit, is a bit of a downer. This prayer is a vigorous battle cry, and the English translation ends with an image of defeat, that is, “the ruin of souls.” Not inspiring, I’m afraid, and certainly not what Leo intended.
The Latin, however, ends with the action verb detrúde, from detrudere, which means “to thrust away.” In fact, I prefer “thrust into hell” to “cast into hell”, and “detrude” in English is a transitive verb that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “to thrust or force down.” Whether you like “thrust” or “cast,” the sense at the end of the prayer when it is said in Latin is one of victory not of defeat. We have an image of the vigorous warrior angel casting Satan and his demons into hell. In English we are left with an image of souls who are falling into perdition.
There is a canard about translations. They can be faithful or beautiful. Alas, here the translator has been as faithful as he can be while still hewing to the practices of English word order. If he wanted to preserve the sense of vigorous victory, however, he would have to get a little creative and add another verb, in this case, “bind.” Sure, he would have to take some liberty with the original Latin, but in so doing, I think he would better preserve the martial quality of the prayer. How about this:
“And do thou, o Prince of the heavenly host, bind Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls and thrust them into hell!“
Feel the difference? I think Leo would approve.