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Catholic Voice
  September 19, 2011   •   VOL. 49, NO. 16   •   Oakland, CA
Bishop's Column

What’s behind the new English translation of the Roman Missal

(Note: on the First Sunday of Advent this year, the new English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal is due to be implemented. This is the first in a series of liturgical catechesis offered by Bishop Cordileone in preparation for this new translation.)

In 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) — the department of the Holy See responsible, among other things, for overseeing and regulating the celebration of the liturgy — issued the instruction Liturgiam authenticam concerning the translation of the Mass into the major languages of the world. This is the most recent directive to emanate from Rome on the translation of the liturgy into the vernacular, as provided for by the Second Vatican Council.
It was article 36 of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Dec. 4, 1963), that allowed for the local language of the people to be used in the texts of the Church’s worship. It states, in part:

Same Mass, new words

Go to the US Catholic Bishops’ website, www.usccb.org, or

for more information on the Roman Missal, Third edition
Since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters. . . .

Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority . . .

Shortly thereafter, in October 1964, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) was established and its norms and statutes approved. The membership of ICEL consists of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences in countries where English is used in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy according to the Roman Rite. Its purpose is to prepare translations from Latin into English of liturgical texts and propose them for approval by the member Episcopal Conferences, who then present them to the Holy See for formal recognition.

Already on Nov. 13, 1969, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved the translation of the Order of Mass of the new Missal issued by Pope Paul VI, which was then granted formal recognition on Jan. 5, 1970. Four years later the NCCB approved, and the Holy See confirmed, the new Sacramentary for Sundays and Other Feasts.

The translation of this and other liturgical texts followed the principles established in the first Instruction on liturgical translation, Comme le prévoit. This instruction directed that, in translating liturgical texts, one must take into account not only the literal content of what is said in the original text, but also who says it, to whom it is said, and how it is said. Translations, then, must consider factors such as the way the meanings of some words have evolved over the centuries (especially in the Latin language itself) and the cultural sensitivities of the society in which the translation will be used.

Some commentators consider Comme le prévoit to have encouraged the approach to translation known as “dynamic equivalence,” in which the translation does not adhere to the literal text of the original, but captures the sense of its meaning in modes of expression more readily familiar to the native speakers of the language into which it is being translated, and this is the approach that guided the first translation of the liturgy into English. While Comme le prévoit does not actually state this explicitly, much less use the term “dynamic equivalence” itself, one can understandably be led to infer this principle of translation from the directives it gives.

At any rate, in the rush to translate the Mass into English from what until then had been the universal and exclusive use of Latin, the opportunity to give in depth deliberation and widespread consultation did not present itself. Recognizing its shortcomings, already in 1985 ICEL itself saw the need to retranslate the texts of the liturgy, and set to work to do so. The newly translated Sacramentary was submitted to the Holy See for official recognition which, however, never came — perhaps due to the foreseen issuance of Liturgiam authenticam (LA). It is clear from LA that the CDWDS recognized the need, with some 30 years of hindsight, to reconsider the vernacular translations of the Mass with greater serenity and detail, and so ordered a retranslation in all of the major languages of the world.

The CDWDS also understood that no translation would be effective without comprehensive consultation among the Bishops Conferences of the countries which speak the particular vernacular language involved. The following is a brief description of the lengthy and involved consultation process which led to the new English translation of the Roman Missal (taken from the USCCB website):

The process of translation was a highly consultative work of several groups. . . . The USCCB and the other member Conferences of Bishops received draft translations of each text from ICEL (called “Green Books”) and had the opportunity to offer comments and suggestions to ICEL. A second draft (called the “Gray Book”) was then prepared by ICEL, which each Conference of Bishops approved (a Conference reserves the right to amend or modify a particular text) and submitted to the Vatican for final approval. At the level of the Vatican (the Holy See), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments examined texts and offered authoritative approval (recognitio) of texts, granting permission for their use. The Congregation was aided by the recommendations of Vox Clara, a special committee of bishops and consultants from English-speaking countries convened to assist with the English translation of the Missale Romanum.

In addition to this consultation process, the Congregation also issued specific instructions as to how to go about doing the work of translation. Among the primary considerations was the fundamental philosophy of translation itself. At n. 20, LA provides the following general principle:

While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet.

Thus, the new translations are to follow more closely, although not slavishly, the principle of what is called “formal equivalence,” that is, as literal a translation as possible of the source text while preserving intelligibility in the target language. Such an approach is necessitated by both the technical theological meaning and the poetic forms encountered in liturgical prayers.

With our multilingual and multicultural diocese, many people here in Oakland can appreciate the fact that any translation from one language into another is, at least to some extent, an interpretation. Language affects, and is affected by, the cultural mindset of the people who speak it; certain shades and nuances of meaning cannot always be conveniently transferred from one language to another. The Italians even go so far as to say that every translator is a traitor: traduttore traditore. For example, the earnest hope conveyed in the Spanish expression, ojalá, cannot be perfectly captured in any comparable English expression, e.g., “let’s hope so,” “may it be so,” etc. As the saying goes, “something gets lost in the translation.”

With the first translation of the Mass into English, in an attempt to make the language of the liturgy more easily accessible to the people in the pew, certain words which appear frequently in Latin, such as “grace,” “soul” and “mind,” were dropped completely, or nearly completely, in English. “Grace” became “love,” “mind” became “heart” or “thoughts,” and so forth.

Accessibility is certainly an important consideration, but not the only one. Words mean things, and when technical words conveying precise theological meaning are eliminated, it will affect the way people believe. At other points entire phrases were simply eliminated, such as addressing God as the “restorer and lover of innocence” (innocentiae restitutor et amator — collect for Thursday of the Second Week of Lent — which will now be translated as “O God, who delight in innocence and restore it”).

The concern, though, goes beyond any particular text: the Latin language has shaped the theology, mentality and ethos — in essence, the very identity — of Latin rite Catholics for the last 1,700 years, and then some. Hence, we cannot simply set aside the integrity of the original Latin text — or the Latin language itself completely — and expect to achieve an authentic renewal of faith expressed through devotion and action among our people. Such a rupture would be detrimental to the desired goal.

Moreover, since the language of the liturgy is meant to convey sacred meaning, it is necessary to strike a balance by arriving at a form of English that is more elevated and poetic such that it is set apart from colloquial speech, but at the same time not too remote so as to be inaccessible to the people at worship. This is something of a tricky business, but not impossible to attain.

It may be helpful to give an example. The current version of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, written in the seventh century and originally prayed on March 25 (when the Annunciation and Good Friday were celebrated on the same day), is as follows:

Lord, fill our hearts with your love, and as you revealed to us by an angel the coming of your Son as man, so lead us through his suffering and death to the glory of his resurrection.

This is the new translation:

Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord, your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by his Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.

Sound familiar? Yes, this is exactly the prayer recited at the end of the Angelus, so easily familiar to us given the place it has taken in our lexicon of prayer. This new translation is certainly as “comprehensible” as the one currently in use, and is more theologically rich; in this case, it also has the advantage of linking our liturgical prayer with our devotional life, and shows how popular piety is rooted in the Church’s liturgical patrimony. It is also a helpful example to show how a specialized, sacred form of language does not have to be aloof, and can put us in touch with higher realities while acquiring a certain familiarity, and unique fondness, over time.

This kind of language will characterize the entire new English translation of the Roman Missal which we will be implementing in a few weeks. It is an important step — but only one step — in a whole movement of liturgical renewal that has been going on for over a century now. In the next column we will look at that movement, so that we can situate the new translation of the Missal in its proper context.

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