Expressing Holy Things: Why liturgical language should be accurate, faithful and clear
Editor’s Note: The Vatican recently approved a new English-language translation of some of the unchanging parts of the Mass, like the penitential rite and the Gloria. This article deals with the translation of changeable parts, like the opening prayer spoken by the priest, which have not yet been approved by the U.S. bishops and not yet submitted to the Vatican for approval.
As early as five years after the introduction of the revised Order of Mass in 1969, among the liturgical reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council, even progressive Catholic commentators were suggesting a dramatic overhaul was called for.
With the appearance of the instruction Liturgiam Authenticam in 2001, the Vatican made clear its desire that the national conferences of bishops throughout the world should revisit the translation of the liturgical texts to assure that they were in conformity with the Latin originals.
The earlier members of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), who translated the texts now in use, believed in the principle of “dynamic equivalence.” This meant trying to evoke in the hearts of a farmhand and a college professor the same response they had as children on hearing Psalm 23 for the first time. With dynamic equivalence, however, texts quickly go out of date, even if they are not banal to begin with. So for the last six years, ICEL has been working on a revision of the Mass texts to assure that they are in conformity with the Latin original.
Approaches to Translation
It is important to note that Liturgiam Authenticam does not mandate a strictly literal translation of the Latin. Paragraph 20 merely stipulates that the translation must render “the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular.” In order to achieve that end, it is not necessary to sacrifice either clarity or fluency. But in my opinion, the newly proposed ICEL translations, for the most part, are a rather stilted rendering of the Latin. Before citing examples of this phenomenon, I believe it is necessary to examine two different approaches to resolving the current controversies over liturgical language.
One approach is to “freeze” the readings and prayers into some static and never-changing formulas. This allows doctrinal content to be formulated in a way that will not be changed and is not per se subjected to the ambiguities or distortions of the ever-evolving languages of the day. In the West, Latin did a good job of this for over 1,500 years. It was “correct” as well as stable and reliable, and it spanned the entire range of centuries of the Western tradition.
The other approach is to render the readings and prayers into formulas and versions that are easily understood by the people. This requires using the languages spoken every day, which are quite numerous and exposes the doctrinal content to potential “changes” in meaning, even if very subtle. Success depends on how well the translators understand the meaning and intent of the originals, how unbiased and faithful they are in rendering them into another language, and how skilled they are in the idioms and peculiarities of the target languages.
When the New Testament was produced, it was written not in archaic Greek, nor in Attic Greek, but in the everyday koine Greek of the commercial marketplace—which was not elegant or literary. When St. Jerome cast the Scriptures into Latin, he did not use the literary Latin of Caesar, Cicero, Livy, Tacitus or the like. He put them into the everyday language spoken on the street by the vulgus, the crowd—hence the name Vulgate.
Both the New Testament authors and St. Jerome demonstrate what St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth: “The foolish things of the world God has chosen to shame the wise; the weak things of the world God has chosen to shame the strong. What is common and contemptible in the world God has chosen—and even things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may glory in his sight” (1 Cor 1:27-29).
Furthermore, the proposed ICEL translation, in some cases, does what not even the early church did in rendering the original texts into Latin. In transposing the Creed from Greek into Latin, for example, the fathers of the fourth century did not transliterate the Greek word homoousion; they translated it as consubstantialem. Not so with the proposed ICEL text, which has replaced the translation from Greek that is presently used, “one in being,” with a transliteration of the Latin, “consubstantial.”
In saying this, I do not mean to imply that the proposed translations are useless. On the contrary, I highly commend ICEL for having rectified many deficiencies in the present texts used at Mass. The banal expression “from east to west,” for instance, in the third eucharistic prayer now resonates with the Latin, “from the rising of the sun even to its setting”—thus evoking the prophecy of Mal 1:11. Also, before the reception of Communion, the bland “This is the Lamb of God...” now echoes the voice of the Baptist at the Jordan, “Behold the Lamb of God.”
That said, I still find fault with many of the proposed ICEL translations for rendering the Latin originals too literally, resulting in awkward English prayers. Every single prayer is rendered by one periodic sentence, as in the Latin. Classical Latin favors this style, with its subtle use of subordinate clauses and participles. But this does not work in modern English, even in formal speeches delivered on special occasions. Here is one instance, the example I used during my intervention in June at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Orlando. On the floor, I quoted the ICEL translation of the prayer after Communion for Wednesday of Holy Week:
Fill our minds, almighty God,
with sure confidence that,
through your Son’s Death in time,
to which awesome mysteries bear witness,
you have given us perpetual life.
I proposed an alternate rendering that entailed merely rearranging a few clauses and adding a definite article and demonstrative adjective:
fill our minds with [the] sure confidence
that you have given us perpetual life
through your Son’s Death in time,
to which [these] awesome mysteries bear witness.
Then I alluded to the phrase “the gibbet of the cross” that occurs in the opening prayer of the same Mass: “The last time I heard the word ‘gibbet’ was in 1949, when our eighth-grade class was making the Stations of the Cross. For the vast majority of our people it is meaningless.”
Several weeks later, I received a letter from the executive director of ICEL, commenting on my intervention in Orlando. He defended the ICEL (i.e., the Latin) word order, by pointing out that it avoided “a defect that many have noticed in the current translations of these prayers, namely that they often end weakly.” He then went on to state that adding “these” to the the text would imply that the “mysteries” being referred to were the eucharistic elements on the altar, when in fact, since the days of the Gregorian Sacramentary (812 A.D.), “mysteries” in this context refers to the Easter triduum, which begins the following day.
After explaining how difficult it was to find a proper translation for patibulum crucis other than “the gibbet of the cross,” the executive director noted, “In choosing ‘gibbet’ to translate patibulum, the commission has been aware that the phrase ‘the gibbet of the Cross’ was used by St. John Fisher.” St. John Fisher (d. 1535) also made use of the word “forsooth.” Would ICEL also be willing to translate the Latin vere (indeed) as “forsooth?”
I have intentionally dwelled at some length on these interactions with ICEL’s executive director because I believe they show that the present membership of ICEL falls squarely into the camp of those who prefer a translation that is frozen in static, never-changing formulas—even if comprehension is sacrificed in the process.
Why the Motion Failed to Pass
At the Orlando conference, it was pointed out that only eight bishops had submitted amendments to alter the proposed texts. The legal maxim “silence gives consent” should warrant the conclusion that the vast majority of bishops agree with the proposed translations. I submitted no amendments. I refrained from doing so out of frustration. At our meeting in Los Angeles two years ago, I submitted four amendments with well-reasoned explanations as to why the texts were flawed. Not one amendment was accepted, nor was any reason given for their rejection. I have spoken with other bishops who feel equally frustrated.
It was also pointed out that four national conferences of bishops have already approved the texts (11 national conferences are members of ICEL). Why then, should our conference refuse to go along with them? My observation is that if the bishops in those countries felt the same frustration that many of our bishops are experiencing, isn’t it possible that they might have approved the texts just to be done with it? The conferences that have accepted the ICEL texts represent only a small fraction of English-speaking Catholics worldwide, whereas U.S. Catholics represent 85 percent of the Catholic English-speaking world. That important point should not be lost.
In fact, following my intervention, three bishops informed me that although they agreed with me, they still voted for approval since they felt it was time to move on. At the conference, several bishops publicly voiced the same sentiment—as one of them expressed it, “With all its difficulties, the translation should go forward.” But Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati warned that it “depends on what you’re moving forward to,” arguing that the new texts would be “a linguistic swamp.”
Other bishops at the conference were in agreement with Pilarczyk. For example, Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee admitted, “If I have trouble understanding the text, I wonder how it’s going to be possible to pray with it in the context of worship.” He added that if the texts were approved, our priests and people would press the bishops to return to them time and again in order to remedy the perceived defects.
Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie has observed (America, 5/21/07) that the texts contain a number of archaic and obscure terms, such as “wrought,” “ineffable” and “gibbet.” He also lamented ICEL’s preference for replicating in English the structure of the Latin periodic sentence, thus making comprehension difficult. “John and Mary Catholic,” he concluded, “have a right to have prayer texts that are clear and understandable.” Clear and understandable—without sacrificing either accuracy or elegance—therein lies the challenge!
Since the motion failed to receive sufficient votes for either approval (166) or rejection (83), the Latin-rite bishops who were absent from the conference had to be polled by mail. With all the mail-in ballots counted, the motion still failed to pass. Consequently, we bishops will have to revisit the proposed draft of prayers at our November meeting.
In the past 1,500 years, languages spoken on the street have changed. And so the dilemma constantly recurs of how to represent the teaching of Scripture, tradition and the liturgy in a way that remains faithful to its original meaning but at the same time is easily understood by the people. It is no easy task, but proposing translations that leave our people scratching their heads is not the answer.
That is the reason the motion for the proposed texts failed to pass. We bishops who voted against the motion did not do so out of a spirit of obstinacy. We love the Lord. We love the church. We love the liturgy. And what we desire for our people is what the bishops at the Second Vatican Council approved in the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” No. 21, speaking of the restoration of the liturgy (emphasis added): “Both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify: the Christian people, so far as is possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.”