Translating Elevations on the Mysteries has been a major project for me, now it is done. Some explanation as to why I did it and how I did it is in order.
Let’s start with why: my introduction to Bossuet was first through Meditations on the Gospel. In a sense the Elevations are a companion work to the Meditations. Both were products of Bossuet’s last years, both were more pastoral and inspirational than theological or polemic, although elements of the latter two are there, especially in the Elevations. The Elevations start with God and the creation and end with the beginning of Jesus’ ministry; the Meditations pick up with the Sermon on the Mount and take us to Calvary.
Getting down to the basics, the “why” is simple: I needed to be inspired by good preaching, something that seemed to me in short supply. By “good preaching” I not only mean preaching that not only inspires but also informs. As someone whose intellectual formation as a Christian was in Roman Catholicism but whose ultimate foundation is Biblical, Bossuet’s philosophical and theological background in the Scriptures, Fathers and subsequent theologians spoke more directly to me than what we have today, which is either geared towards solving problems of a purely personal nature or a social one. Also, as someone who has never bought into the “perfect life” aspirations that are so rampant in our society, Bossuet’s awareness of the part of suffering in life also resonated more with my experience and walk as a Christian.
I started this translation in late 2014 with a translation of The Beginning of the Gospel. I never really intended to do the whole thing. Bossuet was well known in the English speaking world during the nineteenth century and I figured that, since the Meditations had been translated for the most part, so would the Elevations. It took a while but I realised that the Elevations had never had a complete translation into English! So I took on the task. In 2014 I was pursuing my PhD, and between that and my other responsibilities I didn’t have time to make the kind of progress I wanted to make. The COVID pandemic forced me to realise that this needed to be done, as I myself approach “the last hour” as Bossuet did while writing this work. So in 2021 it was done, the delay in publication due to the twice-a-week serialisation I chose to use to publish the work.
Bossuet has a justifiably notorious reputation to be hard to translate. The seventeenth century was the century of religious writers (such as the dissenters Avvakum and Pascal) writing works in clear prose when ornate had been the style. Bossuet is in that tradition, although he is more of a traditional preacher than Pascal was. His prose is usually straightforward but hard to render into English; his use of the French language is masterful but hard to reproduce for us across the channel, to say nothing of us across the ocean.
Additionally, to really grasp what Bossuet is saying requires two additional weapons in the arsenal. The first is a knowledge of the Bible. Bossuet doesn’t as much quote the Scriptures as breathe them; some of his Scriptural references are so deeply embedded into his prose it takes a sharp eye to find them. Catching them makes translating his work much easier than it would be for someone who was unfamiliar with the Bible.
The second is a good working knowledge of the Greek philosophy based Catholic theology of the Fathers and mediaeval theologians. While I wouldn’t claim to be the person most familiar with this, that type of theology has gone out of fashion in many circles. The knowledge I did have was very helpful in grasping the concepts he presents, especially in the early part of the Elevations.
Turning to the issue of text, I used two sources for this:
- Bossuet, J-B. Élévations a Dieu sur Tous les Mystères de la Religion Crétienne. Avec un introduction par Emile Chavin. Paris: Debécourt, 1842.
- Bossuet, J-B. Élévations sur les Mystères. Étude critique avec introduction, text et variantes par M. Dreano. Paris: J. Vrin, 1962.
The first one was used to extract the beginnings of a French text. The second one was to bring that French text up to a more critically acceptable base for the translation. In using both, one thing that became evident was the unfinished nature of the work. The Elevations break off abruptly at the end; moreover, the two editions show organisational changes which reflect both Bossuet’s work on it and those of his editors who put the work into print after his death. The Elevations are not unfinished to the extent of, say, Pascal’s Pensées, but they have the “aliveness” of a work that has not yet been “put to bed.”
With the two texts in hand, I proceeded with the translation. My methods had some changes during the process but for most of the work I started by cleaning up the OCR text from Chavin. This forced a first look at the text. Then I ran it through Google Translate, which I know will bring a cringe moment to some. My intention in doing this was a) to save some time and b) to have an “assistant” to suggest translations that I would have not thought of. In some cases the best way to get through Bossuet’s prose was simply to render it literally (or nearly so.) But I reviewed it all, rewriting it frequently and checking it against Dreano’s critical text. I would then go back and look at it again before posting it, and in a few cases afterwards.
So it is done. With God’s help I have done the best I know how. Perhaps it will inspire someone else to do better. I have enjoyed translating this magnificent work and hope you enjoy reading it. As he famously said in Elevations on the Mysteries, Continuation of the Mysteries of the Childhood of Jesus Christ: 3, Who are the Magi? “I did not take pen in hand to teach you the thoughts of men…” and hopefully neither did I with my keyboard and computer.