Translating the Liturgy
In 2001 the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued an instruction on the translation of the liturgy entitled Liturgiam Authenticam. Five years later, at their semi-annual meeting in Los Angeles in mid-June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a translation of the Order of Mass proposed by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) that reflected the principles enshrined in the new Vatican instruction.
The news media had earlier reported on a letter from Cardinal Francis Arinze of the Congregation for Divine Worship to Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the bishops’ conference, in which the cardinal insisted that only texts faithful to the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam would ultimately be approved by the Vatican. (The bishops’ conferences of Australia and England and Wales had already approved the new translation.)
Therefore, the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam are of primary importance in the question of the proposed translation.
With that in mind, let us consider some of the most important principles in the instruction:
1. The conviction that both biblical and sacramental texts express objective “truths that transcend the limits of time and space.”
2. The necessity of translating texts with great fidelity to the Latin vocabulary, syntax and even word order. This principle is often referred to as a “formal correspondence” strategy of translation. It is opposed to “dynamic equivalence,” which recognizes that the translation that best conveys the original meaning of a passage may not be a literal one. Liturgiam Authenticam abrogated the previous document that set forth the principles governing translations of the liturgy, Comme le prévoit (1969), in which dynamic equivalence held sway. For example, the 1973 ICEL translation of the response to “The Lord be with you” is “And also with you” rather than “And with your spirit.” Some languages were even bolder in their interpretations. In Brazil the response to the same invitation would be translated, “He is in our midst.”
3. The preference for more elevated and elegant language at the expense of language that is more easily understood.
4. The reluctance to change original forms of language—from singular to plural, for example—in order to meet the requirements of inclusive language.
It is not possible to appreciate the changes in the text of the liturgy of the Eucharist, which the U.S. bishops have just approved, without understanding these principles—especially the second, which calls for “formal correspondence” over “dynamic equivalence.”
This is where the major divide lies. Is the original text a starting point for rendering intelligible liturgical language, well suited to a particular time and culture? Or do the translated texts need to be faithful in all their particulars to the source texts?
The U.S. bishops obviously have decided to accept the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam as insisted upon by Cardinal Arinze. They clearly have not paid attention to the devastating critique of the instruction written by the Princeton musicologist, Peter Jeffery, entitled Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads Liturgiam Authenticam, published by the Liturgical Press in 2006.
What is the result of adapting these principles? Some of the more important changes in the Order of Mass have been widely reported. A good number have to do with acclamations and prayers that the people have used for over 30 years. “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might” becomes “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts.” The opening of the Glory to God in the highest becomes: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will. We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father.” The new translations are clearly closer to the Latin originals. It is probable that the rest of the Sacramentary (prefaces, opening prayers and so on) that translates the proper liturgies for feast days and the like will also be much closer to the Latin.
The translations are not always slavish. In translating the fourth eucharistic prayer, ICEL has responded to the desire for more inclusive language by expanding on “You formed man in your own likeness and set him over the whole world” with the following: “You formed man in your own image, male and female you created them, and entrusted the whole world to their care.” The rest of the paragraph can therefore be rendered with inclusive language.
In addition, the U.S. bishops are requesting from the Vatican the retention of “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” as a form of the memorial acclamation. That acclamation does not exist in the Latin original but has become so standard that they deem it better not to drop it.
What are Catholics to make of all this? I have several, albeit mixed, reactions:
1. The attempt to provide somewhat more elegant translations is welcome. The 1973 Sacramentary was not completely satisfactory. But it should be remembered that the original ICEL Committee accomplished a very difficult undertaking in only four years.
2. ICEL attempted a translation of the Sacramentary between 1984 and 1998. It was approved by all 11 English-speaking member episcopal conferences. One of its basic premises was that texts spoken by the people should not be changed unless absolutely necessary. The bishops now seem to disagree with this.
3. In the prior version, the common prayers of the people (like the Lord’s Prayer) and acclamations (like “Holy, Holy, Holy”) were translated in cooperation with other Christian bodies. This produced a common ecumenical liturgical repertoire. By contrast, the current insistence on a different translation can be understood as a departure from, if not a betrayal of, that ecumenical consensus. I know a number of Anglican and Protestant liturgical experts who are, frankly, insulted by this new move.
4. Much of the English-language musical repertoire will need to be rewritten over the next few years. In particular, it will not be easy to transpose the “Holy, Holy, Holy” from many of the musical settings that have become a common possession of Catholics in the United States.
5. A more literal translation of what are, in many cases, originally medieval Latin texts does have the advantage of demonstrating the serious need for a new body of prayers written in elegant and contemporary English to accompany the current Missal. The Italians, for example, have Scripture-related opening prayers for the whole three-year cycle. The 1998 Sacramentary proposed by ICEL, which was rejected in no uncertain terms by the Vatican, contained equivalent prayers for the three-year cycle. We need them.
It is impossible to say what the popular reaction to the new translation of the ordinary of the Mass will be. I suspect it will be, on the whole, rather negative. At the same time, we shall not move beyond translations like these unless we revisit the Vatican instruction, Liturgiam Authenticam, on whose problematic principles it is based.