Translator's Notebook: The Mission Church and Its Furnishings

Translator's Notebook: The Mission Church and Its Furnishings
By Norman Neuerburg

Practically anyone who becomes seriously involved in studying any aspect of the California missions will eventually come up against the necessity of consulting original Spanish documents of which only a few have been translated. Researchers come to the task with varying degrees of preparation, from native speakers or those who have studied Spanish for many years to those who are totally innocent of the language and hope to attempt translation simply by using a bilingual dictionary. That is foolhardy at best, but there are obstacles that can catch the unwary even if they are fluent in modern day Spanish. Deciphering the handwriting can be difficult for anyone and there is no short-cut. What is required is perseverance and close study until one learns how the author forms each of the letters of the Spanish alphabet.

Spelling is another problem: Spanish is a phonetic language, but sometimes several letters sound the same and the writers of the documents were not always consistent--even on the same page! However, one can give a few hints which should help. As in modern Spanish, "b" and "v" are interchangeable. "C", followed by "e" or "i", and "s" and "z" are interchangeable (the Castillian pronunciation of "c" or "z" as "th" appears not to have been current in early California). "G", followed by "e" or "i", and "j" and "x" are interchangeable and all had the sound of "h". Double "1" and "y" are interchangeable. A final "i" can take the place of a final "y". A capital "Y", followed by a consonant, is actually a capital "I"; followed by a vowel, it is a "y". If any word using any of these letters cannot be found in a dictionary, try substituting one of the other letters of equivalent sound.

Of course, there are simple misspellings as well as transpositions of syllables and these can cause problems. Another difficulty comes from the frequent use of abbreviations; these simply must be learned with practice. Once one has deciphered the handwriting and straightened out the spelling, one comes to the question of what the words really mean. Even for someone fluent in modern Spanish, this can be a problem. Words change their meanings over the years and often the meaning in one region is not the same as in another. Also, there are technical words that can cause the greatest of problems. Often more than one dictionary must be consulted and some words may never be found, though those are relatively few.

One firm rule about translation: if it doesn't make sense, it's probably wrong. Perhaps the words have been mistranscribed or the wrong meaning has been chosen. There could be an error in the original, but that is less likely than an error on the part of the translator.

The Church Exterior

iglesia, Iglesia (usually capitalized)

a smaller structure or connecting roomwhere Mass is not necessarily said daily

fachada, frontispicio, frontis
front of the church

upper part (the pediment) of the facade[or occasionally the whole facade]

pórtico, at San Antonio, atrio (atrium)
a porch (San Luis Obispo)

a bell-tower

a four-sided bell-tower

a pierced bell-wall (San Diego or San Gabriel)
*Espadaña should NOT be used to describe the gable of a church unless that gablehas arches for bells. Baer and others following him are incorrect on this point

The Church Interior

nave, in Spanishcon crucero a tres naves
in California, usually a single nave
a cruciform nave, with transepts
a basilica plan (San Juan Bautista) - nave & aisles

el cuerpo de la iglesia
the congregational part of the church

the sanctuary or chancel

barandilla, balaustrada
the altar railing

a single baluster, but also used for the whole railing and the railing of the choir loft, el coro

adjoining side-balconies (San Miguel & San Juan Bautista)

complex of altar table & reredos, or reredos alone

altar mayor
the main altar

mesa de altar (mensa -Latin)
the altar table

ara consagrada
altar stone containing a relic set in the top of the altar table

reredos (a French word of TWO syllables with no Spanish cognate)
altar, retablo (corateral)
This last means a side altar reredos, but in California it can mean any altarpiece.

colateral mayor
the main altar reredos

colaterales (plural)
the side altars

altar de lienzo
a canvas reredos, a sort of scene painting representing a carved wooden altarpiece done in perspective

dossal, dosel
a docel, a cloth hanging behind the altar

a hanging or a tapestry used to cover the walls or to cover the reredos and its images during Lent

a tabernacle--also refers to the parish chapel of the cathedral, but such a meaning is irrelevant in California

tabernáculo, trono
the throne, used for the display of the Blessed Sacrament for benediction or adoration

a small temple-like structure, often round, also used to display the Blessed Sacrament, or to shelter an image

steps or gradines beside the sagrario on which were placed candlesticks and vases of flowers

sotabanco, predela
lowest element of an altarpiece

tarima, alfombra
wooden platform in front of the altar & the carpet covering the platform

niche, not only a cavity in a wall but also a free-standing structure to contain a statue

niche enclosed in glass, especially if the image is dressed

shelf or bracket

pedestal or statuebase


imagen de lienzo, de pintura
a painting

imagen de bulto, de talla
a carved statue

a frame

con su media cana
a frame with a half-round molding

de enrollar
a portable painting which may be unrolled

a flower vase

a bouquet of artificial flowers

a turned wooden false vase to hold flowers

a missal stand or lectern

a large book stand of the sort used in the choir

palabrero, sacra
an altar card, usually three in number and framed

large candlesticks
processional candlesticks

fanal, farol
a lantern

candil, araña (literally spider)
de madera
de cobrede
chandeliers of wood
of copper
of crystal
-Wrought iron seems not to have been used.

chandelier arms, also a wall sconce

a wall sconce with a faceted mirror back
elaborately framed flat mirror
simple mirrors
-Mirrors were extensively used in the mission to multiply light and add glitter.

vía crucis
a set of the fourteen Stations of the Cross

a set of pictures of the Apostles,may include Christ and the Virgin as well

a pulpit
its soundingboard or canopy

a confessional

a large panel of canvas on one or more stretchers showing figures in an architectural perspective; used on Holy Thursday to hide the main altar

pila bautismal
pileta de agua bendita
baptismal font
a holy water font