German prepositions are the bane of my existence as a nonnative speaker. I know the “obvious” prepositions (the ones that function just like their American English counterparts) and the commonly used ones, such as the prepositions used to distinguish between “going home” and “being at home,” and the ones that sound spectacularly odd when translated literally into my native language, such as “I am allergic against penicillin.” Apart from these exceptions, my use of prepositions in German is largely a matter of (a) guessing, and (b) hoping that the person on the other end of the conversation is not only sympathetic but also creative enough to extract meaning from a potentially meaningless utterance.
It’s not particularly surprising that I struggle to use prepositions correctly in my second language. Even in my native language, especially when I spend too much time overthinking the selection of prepositions available to express a certain meaning, I can quickly become confused by prepositions. These unobtrusive words, by their very nature, are confusing. Used to express both literal and figurative relationships between objects, concepts, creatures, and any combination thereof, prepositions are difficult not only to define within the context of one’s own language but also to translate from one language to another. Yet these elusive words often play a vital role in understanding a text.
In St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, the preposition per plays just such a vital role. Appearing in almost every stanza of the Canticle, per is a key player: “Laudato si, mi Signore, per sora Luna,” “Laudato si, mi Signore, per frate Uento,” “Laudato si, mi Signore, per sor’Acqua.”
Prepositions tend to retain their meaning over time and across varieties of a given language, so it’s likely that Francis’ 13th century Umbrian per had roughly the same meaning as the modern standard Italian word per. This modern standard Italian preposition is commonly translated into modern standard English with one of the following options: “through,” “by means of,” “on account of,” or “for.”
These options give the translator a good deal of power to influence the reader’s understanding of Francis’ Canticle. The translator’s choice shapes the reader’s understanding of Francis’ relationship – and perhaps the reader’s own relationship – with the creatures named in the Canticle.
Three of these translation options – “by means of,” “on account of,” and “for” – set the speaker or reader apart from the non-human elements named in the Canticle. These options suggest that the natural world may be a tool of sorts, by means of which humans can contemplate our God and the vastness of God’s universe. Or perhaps the natural world is a material good or a gift, on account of which or for whose presence humans give thanks for God’s generosity and goodness. Or perhaps the natural world is a helpless object or entity on whose behalf humans must intervene to ensure its continued health and even existence.
The remaining translation option – “through” – does not set the speaker or reader apart from the natural world. Rather, this option immerses the reader fully within creation, recognizing that humans, too, are a part of the natural world. This translation option suggests that God is fully present in the sun, moon, water, and other elements of life and the natural world embodied in Francis’ Canticle. Just as God is present in these non-human elements of creation, so is God present in the human elements of creation. In such a way, the preposition “through” tells the reader that all of creation is bound together by the essence of the Divine.
Translation is a tricky business, and no one other than Francis himself can really be sure what preposition Francis would have chosen, given the opportunity to translate his Canticle into modern standard English. However, it is notable that Franciscan scholars and translators have consistently favored the preposition through: the lone translation that sets humans not apart from, but as a part of, creation. Eight hundred years after the fact, do we still favor this interpretation?
As the US commemorates Earth Day – a day to pledge our respect and care for our sister Mother Earth – it is good to reflect on prepositions. It is good to reflect on the relationship(s) expressed in prepositions. It is good to reflect on, question, and understand the human relationship with the natural world.
Are we apart from the natural world? Or are we a part of the natural world? Do we act upon creation as if the world and its resources are tools to be used in gaining our own ends, no matter the cost to our non-human and human brothers and sisters? Do we intercede for the natural world, assuming that we know what is best? Or do we interact with all elements of creation as brothers / sisters / mothers / fathers with rights and dignity of their own?
Peace today and every day to all of our brothers / sisters / mothers / fathers.
– Lori Randall, Earth Day 2022