The National Catholic Review
Why liturgical language should be accurate, faithful and clear
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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 With dynamic equivalence, however, texts quickly go out of date, even if they are not banal to begin with.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.”

Graceful Alternatives

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:

Almighty God,

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.”

The Most Reverend Victor Galeone is the bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine in Florida.

 

Comments

2024429 | 10/12/2008 - 11:17am
Every day the members of the ICEL should repeat 10 times,"LITURGICAL LANGUAGE SHOULD BE ACCURATE , FAITHFUL AND CLEAR". Perhaps then they would be inspired to listen to the suggestions of those bishops who have experience with "John and Mary Catholic" and what they need for a prayerful participation in the Mass. Let us pray that many other bishops will join Archbishop Pilarczyk, Bishop Trautman and Bishop Galeone and continue to insist that these changes must be an improvement over what we have. Perhaps, like the unjust judge in the Gospel, they will finally give us what we need to celebrate well. PS Do any members of the ICEL speak English as the first language?
GINO | 9/23/2008 - 5:14pm
Bishop Victor Galeone’s Sept. 8 article, "Expressing Holy Things," was not helpful to the cause of reverent, noble and accurate translation of the Latin Missal into English. I deeply regret that, at the recent U.S. Bishops’ meeting in Orlando, he and some of his fellow bishops were able to stall the approval of the ICEL translation of the changeable parts of the Mass. After the Vatican’s recent recognitio of the unchangeable parts of the Mass, this delay was a bitter pill for thousands of American Catholics and for the other English-speaking Episcopal Conferences throughout the world who had already approved the text. The ICEL translation is good. But, of course, it isn’t perfect. Nothing is. The perfect is the enemy of the good. I just hope the Holy See finally steps in to ensure that the English-speaking people of the world will soon have an up-to-date English translation of the Missale Romanum, like all the other linguistic groups in the Church.
JIM MCCREA | 9/11/2008 - 1:44pm
Everytime I read another article about this kind of obsession of the Guardians of the Faith, I cannot but remember this old saw: "This is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The thinking of the leaders of this church is becoming more irrelevant as time goes on. People won't leave in disguest; they will walk away out of sheer boredom!
2661857 | 9/10/2008 - 5:42pm
Thank you, Bishop Galeone, for your informed and courteous attempts at guiding ICEL in its mission of providing the English speaking Church with prayerful language for worship. Your willingness to continue your efforts in the face of the intrangency is remarkable and an example of true episcopal leadership.
Lynn Thomas | 9/9/2008 - 2:29pm
Lucious, Elevated sacral language is one thing, incomprehensible quite another. If I'm stuck trying to figure out what I just said, or trying to get rid of absurd images evoked by mis-hearing odd words, I'm not praying. Nor am I praying very well if I'm distracted by just how strange or nonsensical are the words I must speak...or aggravated by yet another sexist slap in the face. Patricia, I join you in not being enchanted. I don't think they're translating much at all; it feels much more like a transliteration, and those don't generally work too well. For example, German and English are closely related, but some transliterations would be all but impossible to understand, or just sound too weird to work because the word order is off. Given the rate at which the Church moves, it's a few decades, not to suggest centuries, too soon to suggest that the liturgical changes wrought by Vatican II have gone too far and need to be restrained or reversed in some degree. Tweak the clunky phrases, fine. But the bishops have really let us down with this silliness.
5550328 | 9/8/2008 - 9:44am
I am wondering what is getting evoked in the hearts of those moms, whether farmers or college professors, and their children who hear “gibbet of the cross” and confuse it with the more common “jibitz for the crocs “ not to be confused with Critters for Holey Soles. Or perhaps they hear, “giblet (as in the giblet gravy for Thanksgiving dinner) of the Cross” as they try to create a context of meaning for “gibbet of the cross”. I suspect the vast majority of bishops who “silently” agreed to the proposed translations are clueless as to the meaning of jibitz for the crocs just as the children and their farmer or college professor moms have not heard of the gibbet of the cross. P.S. Just Google for a whole list of places to buy Jibtz, Critters or giblets.
Patricia Gross | 9/5/2008 - 6:38pm
The concept of fidelity to the Latin seems bizarre since the native language of Christianity is Greek); it's my impression that the liturgy was still in Greek in the churches of Rome for centuries, and that the change to liturgy in Latin happened first in North Africa, and only gradually moved to Rome. I'm particularly opposed to rephrased prayer, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof ..." as part of the attempt at the "re-enchantment" of the liturgy. I'm not enchanted by this. This literal translation is fine for rendering Matthew 8:8 in a biblical reading, but as a prayer in the English Mass, I find it impossible to hear that phrase and not think about the "roof" of the mouth where the Host is about to be received. Any even remotely sensitive reworking of a liturgical prayer ought to pay attention to the way the words resonate in the language into which the translation is being made. If the word "roof" in English means not just the upper portion of a domicile but a part of the mouth, maybe this is not a good rendering of this prayer. "Lord I am not worthy to receive you..." seems like a perfectly adequate equivalent. The Church should be immensely hesitant to change any prayers that have become second nature unless there is an absolutely certain reason for the change (which is not the case, in my opinion). I know someone who serves as chaplain for people who worship in a community that made substantial changes in the text of the Lord's Prayer, and those who are elderly and having mental difficulties are no longer able to say the prayer with others because it is so hard to learn new forms of prayer (thus, I'm also opposed to changing the response to "The Lord be with you..." to "And with your spirit"). One change I would advocate is in the Creed -- what is wrong with "For us and for our salvation," rather than "For us men and for our salvation"? Is there anyone who is afraid that the "us" might be confusing to those who might otherwise think that the "us" also refers to our dogs and cats?
LEONARD VILLA | 9/4/2008 - 5:42pm
I don't think people will fall out of the pews hearing "gibbet of the cross" and and I think the meaning would be apparent from the context. Sacral language ought to be different from the pedestrian language of ordinary discourse like the banal and inaccurate "east to west" of the Third Eucharistic Prayer.
PETER FUNK | 9/4/2008 - 12:23pm
Bishop, Thank you for your insight and especially your courage in facing down this threat to our liturgy. Would there were more like you.
Lynn Thomas | 9/2/2008 - 12:20pm
My first thought is that the ICEL needs to go find something useful to do, because this isn't it. My further thoughts are even less charitable. I don't have any particular problem with the translations we've been using, really. Can some of the wording be improved? Absolutely. Does the entire mass require a wholesale revision? Probably not. But, okay, let's have a go at improving it. The process should start with the original works, or as close to them as we can get. That would NOT mean the Latin versions, so the requirement for fidelity to the Latin goes out the window right from the start. [Um, why is anyone so set on Latin anyway? Aren't we supposed to worship the Lord? Not Latin?!] Now, fidelity to the Greek is another matter, but I suspect that argument wouldn't get very far with the folks in charge of this folly. So, forward. Lofty and inspiring language must be comprehensible - how can we experience a moment of grace if we have no clue what we're saying? Hello? Might as well leave it in Latin at that point. Maybe that's the real agenda, though why anyone would think that is smart utterly escapes me. Some of modern language is pretty mundane, but so was some of the older stuff. Find current usage that reaaches the heights, or go home. If I'm reduced to a spectator at mass I might as well stay home and watch on television. Or sleep in. Then there's the bit about musical settings must not paraphrase the approved words. OK, this one just screams of horrible insecurity. And it's likely going to mean a dearth of good music. Not that our composers _can't_ do it, but I can see a fair fraction just not wanting to bother. So we'll be stuck with a very limited selection of music - oh, wait, we're supposed to be issued and then cling to an approved list of hymns and mass parts soon anyway, aren't we? Elias Nasser, ever since I lived in another midwestern city, I DON'T say the creed "...for us men and our salvation...." The word 'men' just isn't there, and doesn't need to be. Away with it! St. Thomas' opinions notwithstanding, I am every bit as worthy of salvation as any male, thankyouverymuch. I find that the Pharisees running among us are almost enough to make me walk. This might just push me the rest of the way out the door.
Elias Nasser | 9/1/2008 - 8:35am
I read Bishop Galeone's article with mixed feelings: a sense of powerlessness at what is happening in our church and also a sense of admiration for the courage of Bishop Galeone's intervention. But I think it will all come to nought: when the new executive of the ICEL were chosen (many years ago now) I wrote to the new head Bishop Roche telling him how I felt saying the creed with my daughter standing beside me "....for us men and for our salvation......." When the recently approved texts for the constant parts of the mass came out the first thing I looked for was this line in the creed: it read "....for us men and for our salvation.......". What's more we have the wonderfully clear expressions such as "consubstantial with the FAther"...its enough to make you cry or just walk
WILLIAM EDELEN | 8/30/2008 - 12:35pm
Bishop Galeone's plight only heightens the sense of futility one feels when considering the efficacy of voicing opinion or advocating change in this church that has increasingly centralized over the past thirty years. If even bishops collide with a brick wall when seeking to be heard, then why should John and Mary Catholic engage at all? Rather, we seem to be asked merely to attend, bow to authority without comment (save for supportive echoes), and speak words with no meaning in daily life. Can the American church be far behind Europe if brains and input are to be checked at the door before entering?
John Feehily | 8/30/2008 - 1:20am
I am grateful to Bishop Galeone for his courageous and persistent effort in arguing for texts that express in clearly understandable English what the Church believes and prays. For many years the bishops conducted an intensive study to come up with revised texts that would significantly improve the 1975 sacramentary. They even sought the input of clergy and laity in parishes across the country. When all was said and done, however, the fruit of their labor fell victim to a resurgence of Latinists at the Vatican. Why no one has had the courage to question the premise that fidelity to Latin texts trumps all other linguistic considerations is beyond me. All of us know, however, that the clerical culture expects nothing less than full and silent compliance. How refreshing, then, that for one brief, shining moment a single bishop, learned in everyday Latin and English, pushed against that culture by voting non placet. Bravo!
Peg Hirsh | 8/29/2008 - 11:21pm
A family member recently shared that it is comforting to hear people's response to the greeting, "The Lord be with you" ("And also with you"). He saw it as an indication of familiar caring and respectful recognition. Translating / changing the original Latin greeting's response to "Dominus vobiscum" ("Et cum spiritu tuo") to the vernacular achieved this warmth. The proposed current translation change is contrived. Its words are a less real, less "everyday" greeting. Isn't Pope Benedict XVI urging us to become more familiar with God through prayer and did not Pope John XXIII's "opening of windows" give us the means by which to do that?
Peg Hirsh | 8/29/2008 - 11:16pm
Regarding a previously proposed change to an "unchangeable part of the Mass", a family member recently shared that it is comforting to hear people's response to the greeting, "The Lord be with you" ("And also with you"). He saw it as an indication of familiar caring and respectful recognition. Translating / changing the original Latin greeting's response to "Dominus vobiscum" ("Et cum spiritu tuo") to the vernacular achieved this warmth. The proposed current translation change is contrived, given that it has been "working" so well for so long (since Vatican II). Its words are a less real, less "everyday" greeting. Isn't Pope Benedict XVI urging us to become more familiar with God through prayer? Did not Pope John XXIII's "open windows" see the same need and allow that?
Peg Hirsh | 8/29/2008 - 11:12pm
A family member recently shared that it is comforting to hear people's response to the greeting, "The Lord be with you" ("And also with you"). He saw it as an indication of familiar caring and respectful recognition. Translating / changing the original Latin greeting's response to "Dominus vobiscum" ("Et cum spiritu tuo") to the vernacular achieved this warmth. We perceive the proposed current translation change as contrived. Its words are a less real, less "everyday" greeting. Isn't Pope Benedict XVI urging us to become more familiar with God through prayer (by recognizing his life within [each of us])?
Kathleen Lyons | 8/29/2008 - 8:35pm
Bishop, It is a sad but true commentary, many people in the pews do not respond during Mass. If the prayers are worded is language that is hard to understand we will find that even fewer will respond. Mass is to be a celebration of our faith. We need to feel comfortable with the words. Please, continue to be a voice of reason for not only our diocese but all English speaking Catholics. Kathy Lyons
SONDRA HOFFMAN | 8/29/2008 - 4:31pm
This is the second article I have read in the "America" regarding the changes in the language of the liturgy. As a lay person who has lived with the church from 1937 to now, I want the prayers to be just that prayers. I have experienced very educated priests who give homilies in "high language" that leaves the asseambly yawning. The words used are unfamiliar and so they are ignored. We should not be using words that are out of the realm of ordinary educated people so that they may, in fact, pray fully, actively, and faithfully. I pray that the bishops and ICEL can come to agreement as to language that is both faithful but equally important understandable. I pray for that endeavor.