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How the New Missal is Being Translated, and Why

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 10, 2009

Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson (New Jersey) is the chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship. Last October he addressed the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions on the significance and goals of the revision of the Roman Missal, currently in progress. The revision is proceeding according to the principles set forth in 2001 in Liturgiam authenticam, an instruction of the Holy See which replaced the document in force since 1969, Comme le Prévoit, now regarded as seriously flawed.

As Bishop Serratelli pointed out, the main difference between the two instructions is that the heady 1969 concept of “dynamic equivalency” is now replaced by a more traditional concept of “formal equivalency”. With “dynamic equivalency”, the translator was encouraged to attempt to capture the concept presented in any given liturgical prayer without attempting to reproduce in the new language the particular words and phrases used in the Latin. This gave translators tremendous leeway and, given the times, led to a marked horizontalization and banalization (if such are words!) of the liturgy. Liturgiam authenticam’s “formal equivalency” insists that not only the underlying concepts but the precise words and phrases used to express them be preserved in the translation, ensuring superior fidelity to the mind of the Church.

What lies beneath this shift is an important liturgical recovery, the understanding that the liturgy is primarily the work of God and that its words and actions are supposed to reflect not so much individual styles of piety as the living Faith of the Church, into which each believer must be incorporated. Or, as Bishop Serratelli put it:

In the liturgy, the words addressed to God and the words spoken to the people voice the Faith of the Church. They are not simply the expression of one individual in one particular place at one time in history. The words used in the liturgy also pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next…. The liturgy is the source of the divine life given through the Church as sacrament of salvation. As Pope Paul VI once said, it is also “the first school of the spiritual life, the first gift which we can give to the Christian people who believe and pray with us….”

Bishop Serratelli then went on to enumerate the seven characteristics of the new translation:

  • The translation must capture the teleological focus of the Latin. Latin prayers tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point. Thus, for example, an English expression such as “grant that we may learn to love the things of heaven by tempering earthly desires” would, following the teleology of the Latin original, be rendered as “grant that by tempering earthly desires we may learn to love the things of heaven.” The first ends on our desires; the second on heaven.
  • Biblical references must be made clear. Examples abound, but the classic one is “Lord I am not worthy to receive you”, which does nothing to recall the Scriptural context on which it is based. This will now be rendered, as it was in the earliest English translations, as “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”, a clear reference to Matthew 8:8.
  • Patristic references must similarly be made clear. Thus for the memorial of Saint Augustine, we will remember his famous dictum (“If you have received worthily, you are what you have received”) when we pray “May the partaking of the table of Christ sanctify us, we pray, O Lord, that, being made His members, we may be what we have received.”
  • The richness of the Latin vocabulary is to be preserved. Rather than translate a variety of Latin words with the same English word again and again, the variety will be retained: for example, “nourished, fed, recreated, made new” and “we pray, we beseech, we ask”.
  • The translation must preserve the Latin’s poetic qualities. The Latin abounds in concrete images, parallelism, and anthropomorphic expressions. Instead of saying “in your pity hear our prayers”, we will say “in your pity give ear to our prayers.” Similarly, the prayer “Grant us, Lord, to begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service that, as we fight against spiritual evils, we may be armed with the weapons of self restraint” will not end up as something anemic and colorless like “Grant that we may fast in order to grow spiritually.”
  • The translation must preserve the exactness of the Latin original, which is already composed in a style befitting the liturgy. For example, a prayerful reflection on the offertory gifts as they are prepared for the sacrifice of the Mass might well read as “grant that we who celebrate the mysteries of the Lord’s Passion may imitate what we enact”, but because the word “enact” is suggestive in English of a performance, it will be translated “may imitate what we now do”. Thus the correct word is chosen to capture the precise meaning of the Latin “agere” in this context.
  • The translation must preserve the concision and nobility of the Latin tone. The language and vocabulary of the street and the supermarket are not appropriate to the liturgy, yet over the past generation or two, our English translations have grown increasingly common, ordinary, informal. This is not the language of public discourse, and such language is not used in the Latin. Neither should it creep into the English translation.

Bishop Serratelli’s address provides as succinct a summary of the purpose of the new translation of the Roman Missal as I have yet seen. You can read the complete text in our library, but this summary is sufficient to acquaint you with the main virtues of the new translation, which is expected to be completed and published before the end of 2010. Further information about the translation, along with catechetical materials designed to introduce it, may be found on the USCCB web site, Order of Mass Translation.

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