Trials of a Translator
“Literal, reverent, faithful to the Latin original, suited to a sacred function like the Divine Liturgy”? Or “clunky, with run-on Latin sentences where the subject is long forgotten by the time one gets to the object, a misguided attempt to teach Latin grammar and vocabulary by means of what are supposed to be prayers”?
What do Catholics think about the translation of the Mass we are now using? I suspect most Catholics just accept it for better or for worse. The present discussions are nothing new. They are the latest developments in the long history that begins with the first translations of the Bible. Translation is a complex operation. For example, I have borrowed the title of this essay from a book written by Ronald Knox, a British priest who translated the Bible into English in the 1940s.
When Hebrew ceased to be the language of the people, rabbis read the Scriptures aloud in Hebrew and then paraphrased and explained them in the everyday spoken language, Aramaic. Some of these attempts at clarity and interpretation were put into writing early in the Christian era and are called the Targums (“translations”). Also, devout Jews who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, needed their sacred writings in the Greek that they spoke. Beginning about 275 B.C., scholars began providing the translation we call the Septuagint (from “seventy,” the number of scholars, who, according to legend, did the work).
Many Christians used this Greek Old Testament, and the New Testament was originally written in Greek. As more people spoke Latin, as early as the middle of the second century, churches were at work satisfying the need for the Bible in this language. By the end of the fourth century, there were so many of these homemade translations that Pope Damasus directed St. Jerome to make one reliable translation that could be used throughout the church. Jerome produced first the Latin Gospels and some years later translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin. Called the Vulgate, this was the Bible of the Western church for 11 centuries, when the task of translating it into modern languages would become a project throughout Europe.
The one who tries to convey all the nuances and color of language from one tongue to another faces an almost impossible task.
‘The translator is a traitor’: An old Italian proverb
The one who tries to convey all the nuances and color of language from one tongue to another faces an almost impossible task. According to the second-century Rabbi Judah, “If one translates a verse literally, he is a liar, and if he adds thereto, he is a blasphemer and a libeler.”
Unfamiliar translations of the Bible could set off fireworks. In Chapter 4 of the Book of Jonah, God causes a plant to grow and provide shade for the prophet. St. Jerome, based on the Hebrew text he was using, called the plant, in Latin, “ivy.” However, in the diocese in North Africa where St. Augustine was bishop, the faithful had gotten used to hearing about this plant as, in Latin, a “gourd.” There was such an uproar at Jerome’s change that Augustine wrote to Jerome to tell him that he would not allow Jerome’s version to be used. If there could be demonstrations in the streets because of the name of a bush in the Bible, we can imagine the conflicts over more significant changes.
A translation of Jerome’s Vulgate into English was published between 1582 and 1609 and named the Douay-Rheims after the French cities of publication. This version was revised by Bishop Challoner in England between 1749 and 1772. For almost 200 years, this was the Bible familiar to English-speaking Catholics.
The year 1943 marked a significant change. In an encyclical on Biblical studies, “Divino Afflante Spiritu” (“Inspired by the Divine Spirit”), Pope Pius XII called for translations of the Bible to be made from the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek rather than from Jerome’s Latin. American scholars undertook this task, which was completed between 1952 and 1970 and published as the New American Bible. Since then, it has undergone continuous revision.
With the Second Vatican Council, a whole new dimension was added to the field of translation. The Latin texts of the Mass and other centuries-old liturgical texts were to be proclaimed in the vernacular. Some guidance was necessary. The bishops at the Vatican had established a special council to oversee this project of great significance to the faith life of Catholics. They pointed the way in the document “Comme le prévoit:”
The purpose of liturgical translations is to proclaim the message of salvation to believers and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord. To achieve this end, it is not sufficient that a liturgical translation merely reproduce the expressions and ideas of the original text. Rather, it must faithfully communicate to a given people, and in their own language, that, which the Church, by means of this given text, originally intended to communicate to another people at another time.
This is a noble and idealistic statement, but the practicalities are something else again.
"The purpose of liturgical translations is to proclaim the message of salvation to believers and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord."
Hilaire Belloc, the English writer, once stated that the business of a translator is not to ask, “How shall I make this foreigner speak English?” but “What would an Englishman have said to express this?” This is where the following questions arise.
What kind of translation will this be? There are different theories of translation. A literal or formal-equivalencetranslation focuses on the original language. It aims to reproduce the grammar, style and feel of the original language as closely as possible, while still sounding like good, understandable English. A functional-equivalencetranslation pays more attention to the language into which the text is being translated. How can the translation be both faithful to the text and still sound like something one would hear or read today? The New American Bible and the Revised Standard Versionare literal translations.
Who will read or hear this translation? There are different audiencesto which a translation can be directed.Is this translation for general use or for scholarly study? Will it be read aloud, as at prayer or liturgical celebrations? In 1995, the American Bible Society produced the Contemporary English Version, a functional-equivalence translation originally intended for young people in grades one through three and persons for whom English was not their first language. However, it spread to a much wider audience when readers found that it made the Scriptures come alive for them.
A translation may be intended simply to be more faithful to the original or to be clearer for private use. Or the intention may also be to use the translation in the liturgy, as was the case with the American bishops’ New American Bible. The rule has been that the first type requires approval by the appropriate national conference of bishops while the second requires approval from the Vatican.
Finally, there is the issue of inclusive language, especially for the English-speaking world. God has no gender but is traditionally referred to as “he.” Should this continue as a universal practice? Further, masculine references and pronouns abound in the Bible, seeming to disregard women. “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
The American bishops have tried to deal with this issue of inclusive language in Scripture texts to be used in the liturgy. In 1990, two committees, Liturgy and Doctrine, of what was then known as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared guidelines, approved by the whole body of bishops by a vote of 183-35. The provisions stated that translations had to be faithful to the original text. At the same time, translations were to foster the “full, conscious and active participation of the church, men and women.” Exclusively male references like “men” and “brothers” were to be avoided when they were meant to include everyone. In cases where “he” was clearly meant to apply to everyone (as in Mt 16:24 above), it could be replaced by “you” or “they.” Finally, in sections where “he” referring to God was repeated many times, it would be occasionally permissible to replace “he” with “God.” At the time, no cautions came from the Vatican about following these provisions.
There are different audiences to which a translation can be directed.Is this translation for general use or for scholarly study? Will it be read aloud, as at prayer or liturgical celebrations?
English-speaking bishops at Vatican II established the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) to translate into English the Latin liturgical texts. The first English missal appeared in 1973. It was widely recognized that the translation had been done quickly and needed revision. After a process lasting from 1981 to 1998 and involving much consultation with the English-speaking bishops’ conferences and their approval, the work was completed and submitted to Rome. Whereas it had been understood that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments had the authority to confirm what the conferences had approved, the congregation’s prefect now took the position that he had to approve it—and he did not. Over the next years, the personnel of ICEL were replaced. One of the issues was the use of inclusive language. The congregation objected that “man” included all humankind and did not need to be further specified; it saw inclusive language as a concession to feminist pressures.
The translation approval process has long been one of trial and error. Translations were submitted and translators learned whether their methods were acceptable from whether or not Rome approved. On March 28, 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued rules for future translations under the title “Liturgiam Authenticam.” Three basic principles governed these guidelines:
1. All translations would be made from the original texts;
2. Translations would be literal rather than functionally equivalent;
3. The language of translations was to be of a style and dignity suited to the divine realities being expressed.
At the same time, the congregation would take a much more active supervisory role in the preparation of translations. And whereas previously a few translations had been approved for use in the liturgy in the same area, now for the sake of uniformity there should be only one translation for one language area.
While these stipulations could be understood and accepted, others were more controversial.
1. Attempts at achieving inclusive language were greatly restricted. After much negotiation, some adaptations were allowed in English. “All men” could be “all people”; “the man who” could be “the one who”; “Brothers” as the introduction to the reading of the apostolic letters could be “Brothers and Sisters.”
2. The church was not to be governed by academic standards of good language. It had its own language style.
3. Catholic translations should avoid wording or style that might be confused with the style of non-Catholics.
It was hard to know exactly what number 2 and number 3 meant.
To supervise English translations from then on, Pope John Paul II established a group called Vox Clara (“Clear Voice”) made up of bishops throughout the English-speaking world to guide further English translations.
These guidelines were very important, because all our liturgical translations since then follow them.
On Oct. 15, 2017, Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the congregation, reaffirmed the authority of conferences of bishops to approve translations of liturgical texts, which would include the parts from the Bible. He said Rome would ratify the decision of the conferences, presuming, of course, fidelity to the original language, even if the Vatican authorities might have preferred a different wording.
After this short version of a long and complex history of making translations, where are we today? The most contentious issues are the mixed reception of the liturgical translations already completed and the rules for future translations. On Sept. 7, 2017, Pope Francis issued some modifications (“Magnum Principium”)to the Code of Canon Law pertinent to translations. The most important result of these changes is that the conferences of bishops have clearer control in approving translations, even thoseintended for use in the liturgy. They have the responsibility to “ensure and establish that while the character of each language is safeguarded, the sense of the original should be rendered fully and faithfully.” Provided that the Holy See sees no basic problem in the fidelity of the translation to the meaning of the official Latin texts, it will no longer issue a formal recognitio of the conference’s decree but simply confirm the translation as submitted.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, commented that this new document did not change anything with regard to his Congregation’s having the final word to approve or reject translations used in the liturgy.
On Oct. 15, 2017, Archbishop Arthur Roche, the secretary of the congregation, responded that there was indeed a change. He reaffirmed the authority of conferences of bishops to approve translations of liturgical texts, which would include the parts from the Bible. He said Rome would ratify the decision of the conferences, presuming, of course, fidelity to the original language, even if the Vatican authorities might have preferred a different wording. As a result of these new directions, the prescriptions of “Liturgiam Authenticam” would require reinterpretation.
Does this mean that there will soon be a new English Mass translation to replace the one that many feel is problematic? Not likely. As noted by Archbishop Wilton Gregory, the chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, in an interview with America, the U.S. bishops do not “have the stomach to start from ground zero.” What might be helpful would be consultation with priests and laity. This could identify some of the most problematic issues in the current translation. Then the bishops could decide on any further initiatives. However, the new clarifications by Pope Francis should have an effect on any further translations.