Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Welcoming a New Translation, This Time

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 07, 2006

There has been a good deal of coverage of the new translation of the Roman Missal which the bishops must consider at their mid-June meeting. This is the first part of a retranslation of the texts of the Mass using the principles set forth by the Vatican in its 2001 instruction Liturgiam authenticam. A complete translation is still two years away, but the bishops may (or may not) authorize the use of the parts that have been completed in the meantime. Why should we welcome a new translation?

The Trouble with Translations

As I’ve said before in this space, the trouble with constant retranslating of texts is that this tinkering undermines the transcendence of the liturgy and the perceived permanence of the mysteries of salvation (see The Trouble with Translations, March 2005). The many changes in the English liturgical and Scriptural texts since the 1970’s attest to this problem. The principle of translation generally used over the last generation was one of accommodating the text to the culture (or, inevitably, the translator’s view of the culture). On this principle, the very frequency of change was an advantage, because by undermining sacral language and promoting constant innovation, the liturgy more accurately reflected our materialist and consumerist culture.

Indeed, this is the argument that has been employed by the chairman of the USCCB Committee on the Liturgy, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, PA in his prolonged resistance to the new guidelines for translation issued by the Vatican five years ago. Trautman has criticized the Vatican repeatedly for its “failure” to understand that we must use the language of a culture to communicate effectively with that culture. This, of course, is a strong argument for translating the official Latin in the first place, but it is a very bad argument for altering the meaning of the texts to suit cultural preferences.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

A very old Catholic proverb says “the law of praying is the law of believing”—that is, what the faithful express in regular prayer is what they will come to believe. In this way, liturgy plays an enormous role in shaping our faith. The question naturally arises: who is playing the major role in shaping our liturgy? Is it translators who attempt to adapt the liturgy to what they believe the prevailing culture will find acceptable? If so, the very texts of our prayers will tend to erode what we believe. Or is it the Church herself, pointing us always toward realties beyond our culture? If so, then the texts will strengthen our faith.

The plain fact is that the translations we’ve been using for the last 35 years have deviated substantially in style, emphasis and meaning from the normative Latin text. This can only mean that the translators have been manipulating our Faith rather than the Church reinforcing and teaching it. This is evident both in the prosaic, conversational, familiar style of the English liturgy, which obscures the transcendent majesty of God, and in the countless adaptations of the Roman Missal for American use, which make it difficult to distinguish between approved liturgical formulae and personal ad libbing on the part of the celebrant. Did you know, for example, that the acclamation “Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again” is an adaptation invented by the translators, which was put first among the legitimate options even though it does not appear in the Latin at all?

Little Things

Admittedly, the proclamation of the mystery of faith is one of my pet peeves. When the Roman Missal, after the consecration of the bread and wine, says simply “Mysterium Fidei”, it means to affirm what has just occurred, that the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ is “the mystery of faith”. In English, however, we tend to slip past the consecration and then announce, “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith”, followed by one acclamation or another which, linguistically, appears to be the mystery of faith which we are proclaiming. No doubt these acclamations do represent various mysteries of the faith but, as far as the liturgy goes, they are not preeminently the mystery of faith, the Eucharist.

A similar erosion of meaning is evident in many other faulty translations. When the priest says, “The Lord be with you”, the Latin response is “Et cum spiritu tuo” (and with your spirit), not “and also with you.” It was argued at the time (by the translators) that this was more in keeping with both contemporary culture and the Hebrew conception of man as a unity (as opposed to the Greek distinction between body and soul). But the Church is bound neither to the Greek nor the Hebrew nor the current culture but to Christ, and if Catholic tradition and Church authority wish in this response to place a special emphasis on our “spirit” or soul, which is the part of us that is immortal and in which the Holy Trinity dwells, then it is hard to see why the translators should resist.

Or consider the Confiteor. Using the current translation, I confess that I have sinned “through my own fault”, but the official Latin wishes me to emphasize “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”. Do we really need to concentrate so much on our personal guilt? Well, if the Church wants us to, yes. And the list goes on. We say “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Power and Might”. The Latin says “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of hosts.” We say, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you” but the Latin says, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” The originals in both cases come right out of Scripture and so preserve a vital connection with Revelation. Again, the current English text of the Creed begins “We believe”, emphasizing the community, but the Latin says “Credo” — I believe — which stresses that Faith is a personal commitment.

This Time, Yes

The new translation corrects the vast majority of the errors of the current English text, restores most of the emphases of the original Latin, and begins the difficult task of sacralizing the language again, making it less common, more formal and courteous, more like it is specially reserved for our relationship with God. For these reasons, when it is finally implemented, whether in parts or only after the entire project is completed, we should welcome this new translation as we would welcome release from prison. Doing so will affirm the most important principle of authentic liturgical translation: Our right to be formed not by the translators, but by the Church.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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