Thursday, November 11, 2010

My talk on the New Translation of the Missal:

Last week I was in Syracuse for the Diocesan Catechetical Institute Day. They asked me to give two talks. The first was on the new translation of the Roman Missal. I decided to post the text of the talk below.

Let's start with the first question that most people have: Why are we doing this?  Why do we have to have a new translation?

Where to begin?  Let's begin in 1962.  What big event happened in the life of the church in that year?  The second Vatican council of course.  This council affects everything we do in the church today.  But its effects are felt nowhere more than the liturgy.  We all know that the liturgy changed after Vatican ii.  The document from the church on liturgy is named Sacrosanctum Concilium. This was the first document published.  

1. This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy.

One such way that the council decided to renew liturgy was the allowance for vernacular liturgy.   

36. 1. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.

2. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters.

3. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And, whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language.

4. Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned above.

However the mass was not simply translated into English.  Rather all of the liturgical books of the church were revised.  

21. In order that the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces from the sacred liturgy, holy Mother Church desires to undertake with great care a general restoration of the liturgy itself. For the liturgy is made up of immutable elements divinely instituted, and of elements subject to change. These not only may but ought to be changed with the passage of time if they have suffered from the intrusion of anything out of harmony with the inner nature of the liturgy or have become unsuited to it.


In this restoration, 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 possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.

What we have now is often called the mass of Paul vi because it was under his papacy that the mass was reformed.  This mass was published in 1972.  Because there was a great desire to see this new mass in the vernacular as soon as possible all the countries of the worlds quickly translated this mass into the vernacular languages.  We have been using this translation.

However, in 2000 pope John Paul II promulgated a new version of the missal.  This book was, is, largely the same as the 1972 book but there are some differences.  For example, there are many more saints now since John Paul, he canonized many saints.  Also, there were some changes to the prayers and instructions to the mass.  All of these changes required us to have a new translation of the 2000 missal.  However, in the 30 years between the writing of these two books many things have changed, including our understanding of the best way to translate our prayer books.

Now, at the risk of putting you to sleep allow me to speak a little bit about the art of translation.  There is an old Italian adage that goes Traduttore, traditore: to translate is to betray. In a way, translate means to hand over.  The idea here is that we hand over the thoughts of an author into another language.

But, we shouldn't think so negatively because we deal with translation all the time.  What language was used in the writing of the bible?  The Old Testament was largely written in Hebrew with some Greek.  The New Testament was written wholly in Greek.  So if you have ever picked up a bible to read it chances are you were reading a translation, unless we have some Greek and Hebrew scholars out there.  But, we should remember that even these gospels are translations.  What language did Jesus speak?  While we cannot say for sure that he didn't know some Greek or Latin we can be sure that he spoke Aramaic which was the language of his time and place.  So, even the gospels themselves are translations.  Soon after their writing, Latin began to replace Greek as the lingua Franca of the ancient world.  Church fathers like Jerome quickly set about to put the bible into the language of the people.  That is what the Latin vulgate is all about.  Vulgate means vulgar or language of the people.  That is why Latin was accepted as the language of the church.

However, for reasons that are hard to explain in the short amount of time that we have, Latin became the official language of the western church.  Latin is still the official language of the church.  Only now we are encouraged to pray in our vernacular languages.  It is still recommended, however, that we all know some Latin especially priests and seminarians.  So there is nothing wrong with translations.

How many of you have ever learned a new language?  One of the things you quickly realize is that there is no exact science to translation.  Rather, there are many ways to say things in several languages.  The key is to try to say something in one language that means the same thing in another language.  For example, how do you say thank you in Spanish?  Gracias.  This is the word used for thanks.  But does this word actually mean thanks? It comes from Latin the phrase is gratias ago tibi which means to lead grace unto thee.  The idea here is that grace and favor should be given to the one who has done good to me: in a word, thanks.  But when we translate gracias as thanks, some of the flair and originality of the original language is missing.  Nothing we can really do about that...  To translate is to betray.

Now, let's talk about translation principles: first, dynamic equivalence.  This principle hold that a good translation is one in which the basic thought of the original language is rendered in the basic thought of the target language.  The best word we have to explain this process is paraphrase. 

A different principle is called formal equivalence.  This principle holds that a good translation does not so much bring the thought into the target language, rather it brings the actual words into the target language.  This could be summarized as a literal translation.

Now I should tell you that the last translation we had was a paraphrase where the new translation will be a literal translation.  I will talk more about why we made that switch in a few moments.

What we have been talking about is a little bit abstract.  Let's look at some texts and see what I mean.

Go over the Gloria in some detail.

So you see some of the differences between a paraphrase and a literal translation. Now, why did the church think it so important to make that switch?  The answers are found in this book: liturgiam authenticam, which is the 5th instruction on the vernacular translation of the roman liturgy.  As you can tell it sounds like a real page turning spell binder...  But it really is a beautiful little document.  It was issued at the behest of jp2 in 2001. With the new missal the pope wanted us to reexamine the way we translated liturgical texts.

This document explores the use of language in prayer.  It begins by citing Vatican II: 1. The Second Vatican Council strongly desired to preserve with care the authentic Liturgy, which flows forth from the Church's living and most ancient spiritual tradition, and to adapt it with pastoral wisdom to the genius of the various peoples so that the faithful might find in their full, conscious, and active participation in the sacred actions – especially the celebration of the Sacraments – an abundant source of graces and a means for their own continual formation in the Christian mystery.[1] 

     We are people who are part of a long and storied tradition.  We are not slaves to a precedent, rather we are inheritors of a rich history.  This history is concerned with the same thing that concerns us today: our continual formation in the Christian mysteries.  So the reforming of the liturgical books helps this process along.  However, the document contends that certain expectations should hold: (LA 3)  the greatest prudence and attention is required in the preparation of liturgical books marked by sound doctrine, which are exact in wording, free from all ideological influence, and otherwise endowed with those qualities by which the sacred mysteries of salvation and the indefectible faith of the Church are efficaciously transmitted by means of human language to prayer, and worthy worship is offered to God the Most High.[3]

What does this look like?  In other words what kind of language fits this bill?  19. The words of the Sacred Scriptures, as well as the other words spoken in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of the Sacraments, are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather, they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space. Indeed, by means of these words God speaks continually with the Spouse of his beloved Son, the Holy Spirit leads the Christian faithful into all truth and causes the word of Christ to dwell abundantly within them, and the Church perpetuates and transmits all that she herself is and all that she believes, even as she offers the prayers of all the faithful to God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.[19]

     Now for time's sake let me summarize few more of the basic concepts presented here.  The document states that the reform of the liturgy helps to accomplish these things.  Also it states that the work of translation itself furthers the reform.  But, some people might wonder why we have to stick with the Latin texts at all. The new Latin texts are themselves a work of reform and renewal.  We should remember that.

When it comes to translation there are some guidelines the language should be understandable.  But, it does not have to be everyday language.  In fact it is a good thing for us to develop a separate language for prayer.

One tendency in translation that should be avoided is the temptation to render everything that is implicit explicit.  Also the translation is not the place to explain difficult things.  For example, in the creed it is said that Jesus is consubstantial with the Father. Is this an easy word to understand? No, but we have translated it one in being, which might be an explanation of the word, but the Creed is not the place to explain the word.

Some have said that there is a desire to use language as it comes from culture.  This document says instead, wouldn't it be great if culture was influenced by the language of the liturgy.  This has already taken place if you think about it.  Don't people say, in a totally secular culture: mea culpa?  Now it is not super common but you could certainly imagine it.  That is a case where liturgy influences culture.

Allow me to summarize, there are two major points here which seem to be driving the new work of translation.  The first is accuracy.  The church has found in the past 30 years that it is better to be accurate even if it means that we use language that might not be the easiest to understand.  The important things that we are being faithful to the Latin original which the Church believes is able to lift our minds and hearts to the transcendent realm.  The second principle that we discover is related, the Church recommends that we develop a sacred vernacular.  This is a kind of language that we use for a certain purpose, namely to praise God.  This sacred vernacular will remind us what the mass is all about.

Here is where I would like to leave you with a few thoughts.  Remember that this talk was called "getting the most out of the mass." What is the liturgy?  Here is the definition I memorized in school: The liturgy is a complexus of sensible signs by means of which, God, in Christ and through Christ, in the Church and through the Church, sanctifies man; and Man, in the Church and through the Church, in Christ and through Christ, renders worship to God. This is what the liturgy is and this is what the liturgy does. I firmly believe that we have been doing this for 30 years. One thing I want to make clear is that the fact that we are getting a corrected translation is not to say that the Mass has been wrong for 30 years. It has been the Mass, where God sanctifies us and we worship God. But, this new translation will be an improvement. We will take something that is good and make it even better.

What can we do to prepare ourselves?

  • First thing to do is to evaluate the new prayer texts. Start to get familiar with them. Your handout contains the people's parts of the Mass. Look over them and see how they are changing.
  • Keep a positive attitude. The only person who likes change is the man wearing wet pants. Change can be hard. Especially when it comes to something as personally important as the Mass. This is the heart and summit of the Church's life, to change it might cause us some stress. But remember, we are not getting a new Mass, we are just getting a new translation.

I'm convinced that this new translation will help our prayer lives. First, this sacred vernacular will help us lift our minds and hearts into a more prayerful place. I find the language to be more beautiful.

21st Sunday Ordinary Time


Father, help us to seek the values

that will bring us lasting joy in the changing world.

In our desire for what you promise

make us one in mind

and heart. Grant this…




O God,

who shape the minds of the faithful to a single purpose,

grant your people to love what you command

and to desire what you promise, that,

amid the uncertainties of this world,

our hearts may be fixed where true joys are found.

Through our Lord…


Second, this new translation will cause us to stop and actually think about what we are saying. Many of us have so memorized the words of the creed, for example, that we just rattle off the fact that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, etc. A new translation will make us work a little, which might actually help us to recall the importance of what we are saying.

It has been said about other things, and it is certainly true of the Mass: you get out of the Mass what you put into it. The Mass is the greatest thing on earth. Yet, we can limit its effectiveness in our lives by our lack of participation. This new translation should continue to foster our participation in the Mass. It may require an effort on your part as you begin. Also, many of you will be asked to help your parish implement the new translation, so that means even more work. But, whatever you put into your preparation for the new missal will be paid back abundantly.

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