The Honor of It All

It was just 40 years ago this spring that the documents of the Second Vatican Council first appeared in English translation. The 791-page, 95-cent paperback was chiefly the joint interfaith production of America Press and the Y.M.C.A.’s Association Press. The general editor was Walter M. Abbott, S.J., an associate editor of America in the mid-1960’s. The sales manager was Harry Costello, agent for the giant company Western Printing. The introduction was penned by Baltimore’s Lawrence Cardinal Shehan. I was the translation editor. So The Documents of Vatican II became the Abbott-and-Costello, Gallagher-and-Shehan version.

Thanks to the work of Father Abbott, each of the council’s 16 documents was accompanied by a Catholic commentary and a non-Catholic appraisal. (The latter caused trouble with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.)


How It Began

When the council convened in October 1962, I was an editor at Baltimore’s diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Review. When I read the galleys for one of the first documents issued, I was aghast at the poor quality of the translation. Some sentences were actually heretical: “Having sinned in Adam, God the Father....” “Mary, conceived by the Holy Ghost....” Others were puzzling or ambiguous.

By April of 1965, 11 more documents awaited voting and promulgation at the council’s fourth and final session. During that month I paid a social visit to the New York headquarters of America and its associated America Press. There I learned that the staff shared my distress about the translations.

The editor in chief, Thurston Davis, S.J., took me aside and told me that America Press had been asked to prepare a book on the ultimate 16 texts. But he too was concerned about the translations. Could I commit myself to making or finding better versions? Having studied and read Latin for many years, I felt—with all modesty—that I couldn’t do worse than the first translators.

Working in Rome

On Nov. 2, 1965, I flew into the Eternal City for a 36-day workathon. At Villa Nova, a nun-run pensione in north central Rome, I rented a smallish room on the top floor. Though clean and serviceable, the site was sunless, the floor marble, the lamp bulb weak and the radiator anemic. My busy typewriter was a rented Olivetti, now to be mauled by a man who had never learned to type properly.

Usually I spent most of my time alone in my room poring over various preliminary documents. I would eventually type sections of a translation. At about 5 p.m., I would call a cab and take my pages to a professional typist, a British woman who lived near the Spanish Stairs. She had the charming name of Pamela Charlesworth.

Pamela would give me the pages she had retyped from yesterday’s “foul text.” After a taxi-ride home, I would scrutinize her pages, make textual changes and mail them to Father Abbott in New York. He would speedily send me the resultant “fair copy” for last-minute corrections.

Apart from meals and taxi rides, the only daily break I allowed myself lasted from about 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The many Americans residing at Villa Nova rented a large room there and made it a hospitality center for ourselves and any visitors.

The room was always well stocked with spirits and snacks. As word spread about the complimentary gathering place, increasing numbers of distinguished visitors arrived to refresh themselves and discuss the latest Vatican Council rumors. The flamboyantly secretive Jesuit Malachy Martin was one such visitor. The journalist John Cogley wrote a whole article about the celebrated place for Religious News Service.

The refreshment room was such a mesmerizing gathering spot that I had to discipline myself strictly as to when I would arrive and when I would leave, no matter who was revealing what. On the final night of the council, Dec. 8, 1965, the last lingering visitor happened to be another RNS writer, Ed Duff, S.J. Chicago’s Father Bill Ganey and I escorted him to the exit. We exchanged post-midnight farewells before the door slammed shut. For me, that conclusive sound symbolized the end of the 21st ecumenical council.

My last weeks in Rome were uniquely intense. The final version of the 24,000-word Gaudium et Spes had become available less than two weeks before the council’s end. I had been working feverishly on a penultimate version. Now more than 743 lines had been altered, dropped or relocated.

To handle this last-minute crisis I had to cancel my plane tickets to Istanbul, where I had hoped to witness the reconciliation ceremony featuring Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and my own cardinal, representing Pope Paul VI. (As a papal chamberlain, however, I had a ringside seat at St. Peter’s altar for witnessing the corresponding Roman embraces.)

Dealing with such delicate topics as economics, modern marriage and nuclear bombs, Gaudium et Spes was no run-of-the-mill, churchy text. The classical Latin authors had no need to use the word “billion.” But the council fathers wanted to mention the world’s population, so they came up with an expression in words for the number two billion: vicies milies centena milia (20 times 1,000 times 100 units of 1,000).

The chapter on the purposes of marriage cited the begetting of children as “the” purpose or “a” purpose of matrimony. Latin has no simple word for either article—you mostly have to depend on the context. In this case, part of the context was the following statement: non posthabitis ceteris matrimonii finibus.

Ah, a dilemma! Traditional theology had long distinguished between the primary and secondary purposes of marriage. The above-cited phrase just could mean “not putting second the other ends of marriage”—or “not giving the other ends less than their due.”

The latter version was the traditional stance; the first could represent a major shift in the theology of the sacrament. In this instance I felt that my duty as translator was to preserve the ambiguity. Thus: “not making the other purposes of matrimony of any less account.”

At a time when the papal birth control commission had not yet made any pronouncements, an intriguing change appeared in the final version of this chapter. Originally, the text said that Catholics could not practice birth control methods “which have been condemned by the church.” The final version spoke of methods that “are condemned by the church.” Here was theological elbow room.

The voting having been concluded, every English-speaking bishop and journalist now wanted a copy of my last-minute translation. With the energetic aid of then Msgr. Paul Marcinkus, I engaged three typists, who in record time produced 74 single-spaced, legal-size pages of English text. Every page had to be copied 500 times and then stapled to the other pages in the correct order.

Meeting Deadlines

Back in Baltimore, I had to continue my work, even on Christmas Day and New Year’s. Roughly estimated: by mid-January I had completed my translations; by mid-February I had corrected all the galleys; by mid-March many thousands of paperback copies had been printed and were selling at the incredible price of 95 cents. Less than a year had passed since my innocent April visit to America House.

There were at least 14 editions of the book. If my memory serves, sales exceeded one million copies—and may have approached two million. Several translations that appeared in the America Press book were especially excellent, e.g., John Courtney Murray’s English version of the epochal “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” Additionally, a group of Scripture scholars issued a fine translation of the “Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation.”

On these there was little or no need for any input from me. These considerations made it somewhat difficult to decide how to label my contribution. “Translation Editor” seemed a fair description. Though in my preface I stressed that my translations were not definitive, the publisher Herder and Herder soon published a wide-margin hardback edition whose title page announced a “new and definitive translation.” Four decades later I still think there is no definitive and authoritative English version. (Such a version would, for instance, require a close examination of the original Latin, as officially published in the Vatican’s Acta Apostolicae Sedis, and a scrutiny of the various preliminary drafts, along with the notes of the drafting committees.)

Initially I had been assured that I would have sufficient time to ponder and improve the galleys. But for some technical reason involving our super-busy printer, my work had to be completed by a considerably earlier deadline. If we missed that deadline, we would have to go to the end of the printer’s line and start waiting all over again.

This sudden shift produced a mad rush. Early one morning I received by special delivery the next to last set of galleys. America Press needed to have the corrections back by the next day. So I worked all day and part of the night, hopped an early train the next morning and continued my work en route to New York.

In New York I handed over the corrected galleys, but was given the uncorrected galleys for a final, shorter document. These I worked on during the train ride back to Baltimore. Arriving in my local station, I located a pay phone, contacted America Press and delivered my final, final, final corrections viva voce. My work was done!

The Honor of It All

To end on a more melodious note, I must share one accidental high point of this whole story. As I mentioned, my Roman typist was British. Each week or so she would serve a tea for English visitors whom she happened to know were in town. I was invited to one of these gatherings and had the good fortune to meet a man who was a translator at the Geneva Arms Conference.

His name was Shelley, and he was related to the celebrated Romantic poet. (The Keats-Shelley Museum was just up the street.) He was a guest of Russian aristocrats when Lenin’s Revolution broke out.

Somehow he managed to meet Rasputin, who, Shelley said, spoke in a kind of peasant poetry. At one point the spellbinding “monk” wrapped his hands around Shelley’s. Presumably contrasting the youth’s fresh eyes with his own, the man soon-to-be-murdered uttered or quoted these indelible words: “The dew upon the morning grass is a rainbow of joy. But the damp upon the evening ground is the weeping of fate.”

When I started on the translations I was arguably still dewy; now I am inarguably dampish. But four decades later I still feel the audacity, perils, excitement, exhaustion and honor of it all.

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12 years 6 months ago
I thoroughly enjoyed Fr. Joseph Gallagher's anecdotal history on what I have all these years mistakenly called "the Abbott edition" of The Documents of Vatican II. I still have my first 95 cent copy, now tattered and yellowed, held together by a rubberband, but also several others which I managed to scrounge up on e-Bay. In my opinion, the short intros to the documents (by Dulles, McNaspy, R.A.F. MacKenzie, Murray -to name just a few, and their Protestant counterparts), Pope John XXIII's "Opening Message" and the Appendix still make this edition "priceless."

11 years 11 months ago
For those of us who were happily weaned on emerging Vatican II theology, taught by a group of newly minted Paulist doctors of theology, I reveled in reading the Rev. Joseph J. Gallagher’s reflections on giving birth to the English translation of the Vatican II documents (“The Honor of It All,” 7/3). We owe much to a man who was willing to be holed up in a cold, bare-bulbed, marble-floored Roman room (I lived in Rome one winter and froze most of the time), without computers, e-mail, iPods and all the other electronic accoutrements that make writing and mailing such a cinch these days. Such dedication! Father Gallagher’s article brought back exciting memories of my reading scores of articles and books by the creators of these documents: Edward Schillebeeckx, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, Hans Küng, Joseph Ratzinger, Augustin Bea, Karl Rahner) and made me realize how much we owe to these men who catapulted us into a post-Vatican II church. Where are these voices now, as the Roman trumpets of retreat blare so loudly throughout the Catholic Church?

Ah, to have experienced “the honor of it all” was one of the great blessings of this now septuagenarian priest, who is saddened by the eclipse of the reformers.

12 years 6 months ago
I thoroughly enjoyed Fr. Joseph Gallagher's anecdotal history on what I have all these years mistakenly called "the Abbott edition" of The Documents of Vatican II. I still have my first 95 cent copy, now tattered and yellowed, held together by a rubberband, but also several others which I managed to scrounge up on e-Bay. In my opinion, the short intros to the documents (by Dulles, McNaspy, R.A.F. MacKenzie, Murray -to name just a few, and their Protestant counterparts), Pope John XXIII's "Opening Message" and the Appendix still make this edition "priceless."


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