Translating the Liturgy

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Online Edition:
December 2009 - January 2010
Vol. XV, No. 9

Translating the Liturgy:
Finding Words to Express the Ineffable

by Susan Benofy

The US bishops have completed work on the English translation of the new Roman Missal, which now awaits the required approval (recognitio) from the Holy See. We can expect that we will be soon praying the new English texts of the Mass.

Why was a new translation necessary, and how will it differ from the version we’ve been using since the early 1970s?

Pope John Paul II first released the third typical edition of the Roman Missal (Missale Romanum) in 2000. It has now been translated into English according to the norms of Liturgiam authenticam (hereafter LA), the Fifth Instruction for the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, issued in 2001. This Instruction contained norms for the translation of Scripture and liturgical texts, replacing earlier norms in use since 1969. It was intended to correct the translation problems that had become evident in the decades since the Council. Its purpose was to “consider anew the true notion of liturgical translation”, and it “envisions and seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal”. (LA §7)

Much has been accomplished since 2001. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) has been reorganized, and completed a new translation of the Roman Missal into English. Eleven conferences of English-speaking bishops will complete the process of approving this translation by the end of this year. Once the recognitio from the Holy See is received and the books are published, the newly translated texts will be introduced into parishes, and people will begin to experience the “new era of liturgical renewal”.

The application of the new norms of LA means that prayers in the new translation will be noticeably different from the ones currently in use. To understand why the texts were changed it is helpful to consider how the new norms differ from the old.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), said:

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that Heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims … we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our Life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. (Sacrosanctum Concilium §8)

Yet the Council also specified that the reformed texts and rites should be clear and “the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease….” (SC §21)

There is a certain tension in trying to fulfill both these aims. The Heavenly Liturgy and the glory of God are things Saint Paul tells us “that eye hath not seen, nor ear heard: neither hath it entered into the heart of man….” (I Cor 2:9) Such heavenly realities, then, by their nature cannot be understood “with ease”. They are ineffable, that is, beyond the power of language to express. Yet the liturgy, partly by its use of language, must somehow express these heavenly realities, while the rites must remain to a large degree intelligible.

Clearly a careful balance must be kept. In the early years of the post-conciliar liturgical reform there was an over-reaction by liturgists against an elaborate liturgy in an incomprehensible language (Latin), which led to an overemphasis on external participation of the people in a liturgy that was now deemed “meaningful” to them.

The Vernacular and Latin as a Sacred Language

Translating the prayers into the vernacular, the languages of the people, was considered a necessary first step in the liturgical reform. Although at the time of the Council the liturgy had been in Latin, some countries had received permission to have parts of the liturgy, especially the administration of the sacraments, in the vernacular languages. In the decades before the Second Vatican Council there was a strong movement for use of the vernacular in liturgy and much discussion of the advantage and possible difficulty of putting the Latin prayers into English.

Some argued that the Latin of the Mass was simply the everyday language of Christians of the fourth century, and so, the Mass today must likewise be in everyday language. Christine Mohrmann, a professor at the Universities of Nijmegen and Amsterdam who specialized in the study of Christian Latin, disputed this view. She gave three lectures at the Catholic University of America, published as Liturgical Latin: Its Origins and Character (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1957).

In one of these lectures she said:

The advocates of the use of the vernacular who maintain that even in Christian antiquity the current speech of everyday life, “the Latin of the common man”, was employed, are far off the mark.... The earliest liturgical Latin is a strongly stylized, more or less artificial language, of which many elements — for instance Orations — were not easily understood even by the average Christian of the fifth century or later. This language was far removed from that of everyday life. (Liturgical Latin, pp. 60-61)

Some discussions before the Council concerning the use of the vernacular took account of this argument, and dealt with the complexity of balancing intelligibility with the form of expression appropriate to communicating sacred things.

A 1956 symposium on English in the liturgy included a paper by H. P. R. Finberg, a professor of local history at the University of Leicester, and one of the translators of The Missal in Latin and English, a 1949 Missal for use by the laity. (The prayers for this Missal were translated by Finberg and the Reverend J. O’Connell; Scripture readings were from the translation by Monsignor Ronald Knox.)

In Dr. Finberg’s paper for the symposium, “The Problem of Style”, he said:

Those who advocate the use of the mother tongue in public worship do so because they wish to heighten the layman’s understanding of, and participation in, the sacred mysteries. But we have to recognize that it is just as possible to be obscure or clumsy in English as it is in Latin.… The question of English in the liturgy cannot usefully be discussed apart from the question, what sort of English? (“The Problem of Style”, in English in the Liturgy: A Symposium, C. R. A. Cunliffe, editor. Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1956, p. 109)

Dr. Finberg also pointed out that:

It will be generally agreed that the first object of a translation is to make the text intelligible. But intelligible to whom? (p. 110)

Since any text of the liturgy must be suitable for public worship “its language must therefore possess a hieratic quality”, Finberg wrote. (Ibid.)

A year later, Dr. Mohrmann dealt with Latin as a sacred language in her lectures at Catholic University. She said that in order to study a sacred language,

one must first rid himself of the still widespread conception that the only function of human language is that of communication; in other words, that language only serves to make known, as clearly and efficiently as possible, that which the speaker wishes to convey to his hearer. (Liturgical Latin, p. 1)

One school of linguistics, she said, had overemphasized this practical function of language and consequently saw the value of language primarily in terms of its efficiency. As it becomes more efficient as an instrument of communication, language tends to grow simpler in grammatical structure over time. This can be seen from the development of very widely spoken languages such as English and Spanish.

Dr. Mohrmann, in fact, was not in favor of translating the liturgy into the vernacular because she believed that the influence of this positivist, pragmatic view of language simply as communication was so strong:

The colloquial language is the language; the ideals of efficiency and intelligibility, the idea of language as communication, dominate the conception of language as a human phenomenon. (Ibid., p. 9, original emphasis)

Like Finberg, she believed that the style of English mattered. She thus feared that many stylistic characteristics of the Latin prayers would be lost if translators were concerned only with efficiency of communication. This loss, she believed, would outweigh the gain in intelligibility of vernacular prayers. Her fears were not unfounded.

The “Box Office” vs. the Sacred?

Once the Council permitted liturgy in the vernacular many argued that the language used must be contemporary to be intelligible. For example, an article in America magazine on October 22, 1966, commenting on a few early sample translations, said it was “a pity” that translators of the liturgy did not “feel driven by a spiritual equivalent of box office”:

If the Church wants to sweep the world like the Beatles, it must use language as contemporary as theirs.… (Gareth Edwards, “Modern English in the Mass”, America, October 22, 1966, p. 484)

A few weeks later, in his response in the same magazine, Jesuit Father Walter Ong, professor of English at St. Louis University, agreed that the liturgy must be put into 20th-century English, “but not quite like any other 20th-century English spoken before”.

[L]et us not think that we have made revelation available to contemporary man by making it sound like something else he hears — a schoolboy’s idiom, the Beatles, Huntley and Brinkley, or even Senator Dirksen.…

The liturgy is related to our ordinary lives, but it is always also different from them and it is the expression of God’s judgment on them just as well as His love for them. No viable liturgical usage can merely ape secular practice: it must both assimilate secular practice and judge it…. (“Let Us Pray … But How?”, America, December 3, 1966, p. 746)

Ong insisted that the translator could not just convey concepts but must also take on “the equally difficult task of generating the adequate tone, which is often an integral part of the basic meaning”. (p. 746)

First Translation Guidelines - 1969

Despite the work of scholars like Mohrmann, Finberg and Ong, however, the desire for a “meaningful” language for liturgy by those who advocated the vernacular was very strong and the narrow view of language as only communication was dominant. This is clear when one considers the principles in the 1969 instruction on translation known by its French title Comme le prévoit (lit. “as forseen” — hereafter CLP). This document displays the very strong emphasis on practical communication and ease of understanding that Mohrmann feared, and shows no trace of the ideas of scholars who stressed the need for elevated style and a sense of the sacred.

CLP’s basic principle is

5. A liturgical text, inasmuch as it is a ritual sign, is a medium of spoken communication. It is, first of all, a sign perceived by the senses and used by men to communicate with each other.…

Other principles also stress the primacy of communication over style:

8. Even if in spoken communication the message cannot be separated from the manner of speaking, the translator should give first consideration to the meaning of the communication.

14. The accuracy and value of a translation can only be assessed in terms of the purpose of the communication.…

29. It is to be noted that if any particular kind of quality is regarded as essential to a literary genre (for example, intelligibility of prayers when said aloud), this may take precedence over another quality less significant for communication (for example, verbal fidelity).

Following CLP’s norms, the first translators of the new liturgical books concentrated on simply communicating the meaning they found in the texts, and did not concern themselves with the stylistic devices in the Latin prayers. Often, in fact, phrases that appeared in the Latin had no counterpart in the English version of the text since the translators believed these phrases did not contribute to the communication of the meaning, therefore they should be omitted.

Critics of the New English Missal

The original translation of the Missal by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) had many critics. However, such critics were often dismissed by ICEL’s defenders as being “uninformed” or as rejecting the Council. But this was not the case. One of the harshest critics of ICEL’s translation of the Roman Canon was H. P. R. Finberg, who had been appointed to the original ICEL Advisory Committee. Writing in the The Tablet of London he said the translation showed that:

the translators have bowed to the influence of critics who find much of the Roman Canon repugnant to the contemporary mind. (“The Canon in English”, The Tablet, November 18, 1967, pp. 1200-1201)

Dr. Finberg found such conformity to the zeitgeist unacceptable because he believed that:

if the liturgy uses expressions which run or seem to run counter to the spirit of the age, we should let it teach us to modify our sometimes callow notions, rather than remodel it under pretext of translation, to suit the fashion of the day. (Ibid., p. 1200)

Despite such criticism, the ICEL translation became official. However, the criticism continued — coming from some of the most influential liturgists.

Among the critics was liturgist Mark Searle, who taught at Notre Dame University, and from 1977 to 1983 was associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy. Surveying the state of the liturgy in American parishes twenty years after the Second Vatican Council, Searle counted the introduction of the vernacular as among the successes of the reform, but noted that it had introduced new problems:

In a sense, the criterion of intelligibility enunciated by the Council aroused expectations which could not immediately be met, for it soon became clear that the problem of understanding the liturgy lay not in the language in which the texts were written, but in the texts themselves and in the people to whom they were addressed.… After the initial excitement of the English liturgy, the new texts proved no more engaging than the old and the poverty of our grasp of the native language of Scripture and liturgical prayer was revealed. (“Reflections on Liturgical Reform”, Worship 56 [1982] pp. 411-430. Reprinted in Vision: The Scholarly Contributions of Mark Searle to Liturgical Renewal, edited by Anne Y. Koester and Barbara Searle, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004, pp. 88-89)

Dr. Searle believed that the principle of intelligibility should be reassessed:

Now we are coming to realize that ritual has its own forms, that its language is that of poetry and image, that it does not simply convey obvious meaning to all who attend but inducts into mystery those who participate.… Its meaning becomes only gradually intelligible to those who live within it in a spirit of humility and openness. (Ibid., p. 98)

Another critic of the original English translations was Benedictine Aidan Kavanagh, who taught liturgy at St. Meinrad Archabbey, at Notre Dame (where he directed the program of liturgical studies for a time), and later at Yale. Father Kavanaugh addressed the 1976 North American Academy of Liturgy conference on “Liturgical Business Unfinished and Unbegun”.

A decade after the Council he considered liturgical language part of the unfinished business of liturgical reform.

No ritual system in the world, so far as I know, has ever couched its language in a merely accurate vernacular: after eleven years of using ICEL English, I think I now know why. To do so is to trivialize — not to secularize, but to trivialize — the object of worship and, in doing so, to patronize in the most condescending way the illiterate and the uneducated. These masses came for centuries to worship because, there, some glory at least could be theirs — in space and word and meaning and gesture. What I connive in now, through my own hubris, is offering to them a linguistic slum. (Worship, Vol. 50 No. 4, July 1976, pp. 345-364, p. 356)

Even prominent “establishment” liturgists found the original translations inadequate precisely because the heavenly realities cannot easily be made intelligible through “mere accuracy”, conveying a simple obvious meaning in the simple, unembellished language then favored by ICEL.

The Instruction on translation, Liturgiam authenticam, insists on maintaining the sacral style of the Latin liturgical language when it is translated into modern languages. Critics of this Instruction said that it was issued without sufficient consultation, implying that its norms are merely the idiosyncratic notions of a few Vatican officials. However, it is clear that LA takes into account considerations of style and sacrality regarded as crucial to liturgical language by scholars whose views were ignored in the 1969 norms, and by others like Searle and Kavanagh who found the translation unsatisfactory in practice.

Language As Expression

The new translation of the Mass, following the norms of LA, takes account of another function of language, which Christine Mohrmann’s calls “expression”. Language as expression, she tells us,

aims at the preservation and enrichment of the traditional communication elements in its endeavor to put into words sensitive and artistic experiences as well as material facts. (Liturgical Latin, p. 4)

Rather than the tendency to simplification exhibited by language as communication, language as expression tends to become more complex, Dr. Mohrmann says:

It aims at becoming, by every possible means, more expressive and more picturesque, and it may try to attain this heightened power of expression both by the coining of new words and by the preservation of antiquated elements already abandoned by the language as communication.… It provides the material for the artistic mode of expression which gives rise to literary works of art. (Ibid., pp. 3-4)

This expressive language is necessary for prayer, which is a dialogue with God:

For this reason the dominant element is no longer that of intelligibility, as in human dialogue. This is replaced, at least in part, by more subtle elements, partly spiritual, partly affective, which can be crystallized in the rhythm, the tone of delivery, or in the style. There often appears a hankering after archaism — essentially a traditional stylistic phenomenon, a preference for older modes of expression no longer current in everyday linguistic usage.… (Ibid., pp. 6-7)

The need for a unique style of expression for the liturgy was also recognized by Father Walter Ong in his 1966 America article. The means he suggests for achieving it are similar to Dr. Mohrmann’s:

We have to mold modern English into an instrument that, without sacrificing its own integrity — indeed, in the process of realizing its own integrity — expresses with some adequacy what the Scriptures say and what the Church lives and must also say.… We must adjust the meanings of words and expressions, elicit new words and expressions, establish the tones we need. (“Let Us Pray”, p. 746)

These methods for increasing expressiveness of prayer can be recognized in the following provision of LA:

If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities.… Thus it may happen that a certain manner of speech which has come to be considered somewhat obsolete in daily usage may continue to be maintained in the liturgical context. (LA §27)

The adjusted words and new expressions will not immediately communicate an obvious meaning, but they will suggest realities beyond our normal experience.

Dr. Mohrmann points out that expressive language may also serve as the specific expression of a group living according to a particular tradition:

In such cases linguistic usage is often deliberately stylized, and there exist language and style forms, transmitted from generation to generation, in which people deliberately deviate from language as communication, as current in everyday life, in order to obtain a certain artistic, religious, or spiritual effect. (Liturgical Latin, p. 9)

LA recognizes this function of language as well, as these passages show:

With due regard for the requirements of sound exegesis, all care is to be taken to ensure that the words of the biblical passages commonly used in catechesis and in popular devotional prayers be maintained. (LA §40)

The effort should be made to ensure that the translations be conformed to that understanding of biblical passages which has been handed down by liturgical use and by the tradition of the Fathers of the Church … the greatest care is to be taken so that the translation [will] express the traditional Christological, typological and spiritual sense, and manifest the unity and the inter-relatedness of the two Testaments. (LA §41)

Since the liturgical books of the Roman Rite contain many fundamental words of the theological and spiritual tradition of the Roman Church, every effort must be made to preserve this system of vocabulary.… (LA §50)

Certain expressions that belong to the heritage of the whole or of a great part of the ancient Church, as well as others that have become part of the general human patrimony, are to be respected by a translation that is as literal as possible, as for example the words of the people’s response Et cum spiritu tuo, or the expression mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa in the Act of Penance of the Order of Mass. (LA §56)

The liturgical texts’ character as a very powerful instrument for instilling in the lives of the Christian faithful the elements of faith and Christian morality, is to be maintained in the translations with the utmost solicitude. The translation, furthermore, must always be in accord with sound doctrine. (LA §26)

While unusual words may not be immediately understood, they can provide an opening for teaching, as LA says:

It should be borne in mind that a literal translation of terms which may initially sound odd in a vernacular language may for this very reason provoke inquisitiveness in the hearer and provide an occasion for catechesis. (LA §43)

Dr. Finberg had argued in 1956 for retention of certain archaic words for this very reason:

The twentieth-century Englishman certainly does not, of his own accord, speak of plighting his troth, but neither does he understand the doctrine of Christian marriage until it is explained to him, and what better starting-point of instruction could there be than the words, the English words, of the marriage vow? We must face the fact that the liturgy needs a good deal of explanation, and that the need will not disappear as soon as we have made our translations, however lucid a rendering we may achieve. (“The Problem of Style”, p. 110)

Sacred Style — Syntax, Structure

It is not only vocabulary, but other elements of style, such as sentence structure, that contribute to the expressiveness of liturgical language. The original ICEL translators believed that only relatively short sentences would be intelligible and so eliminated subordinate clauses in favor of a series of shorter sentences. Critics of LA and of the new translations defend this practice and object to long sentences.

But the style LA requires is hardly without scholarly support. H. P. R. Finberg, for example, said:

The translator must rid himself of the common notion that a short sentence is per se more intelligible than a long one. It all depends on what it says and how it says it. (“The Problem of Style”, p. 112)

Father Kavanagh, suggesting ways of improving the style of English in the liturgy, says:

I must reinvent the relative clause and learn once again how to use it in conveying meanings that will go beyond what the mere words of the text can say. (“Liturgical Business Unfinished and Unbegun”, p. 356)

Liturgiam authenticam insists on maintaining the subordinate clauses characteristic of the Latin prayers:

That notable feature of the Roman Rite, namely its straightforward, concise and compact manner of expression, is to be maintained insofar as possible in the translation.… These principles are to be observed:

a) The connection between various expressions, manifested by subordinate and relative clauses, the ordering of words, and various forms of parallelism, is to be maintained as completely as possible in a manner appropriate to the vernacular language. (LA §57)

The attempt to express in our own language things now beyond its power to express may affect the development of the language itself. As LA explains:

While the translation must transmit the perennial treasury of orations by means of language understandable in the cultural context for which it is intended, it should also be guided by the conviction that liturgical prayer not only is formed by the genius of a culture, but itself contributes to the development of that culture. Consequently it should cause no surprise that such language differs somewhat from ordinary speech. (LA §47)

This is not merely a linguistic task, but a spiritual one, as Father Ong explained.

Our efforts to accommodate modern English to God’s word, to put the meaning of the Scriptures and the Church’s teachings into our own language, thus entails an interior reorganization of our own lives.… In the process we have to let God’s grace do its work on our own modes of expression and thought processes in their native English-speaking habitat.…

All this means that in finding how to use 20th-century English liturgically and doctrinally in the way the teachings of the Church and the economy of the language both demand, we shall have to remake our very selves and the culture around us. But this is only what the Gospel has always called on us to do. We want to make the liturgy meaningful to us not to have it fit our ways of thinking but in order to change our thinking and our lives. Change in us is both the pre-condition and the measure of success. (“Let Us Pray”, p. 746. Emphasis added.)

To Inculturate the Gospel

More than forty years after the introduction of a vernacular liturgy, Catholics have not remade the culture around them. Far from it. Most surveys, in fact, indicate that Catholics have been transformed by the culture, and in many of their beliefs are now indistinguishable from their non-Catholic neighbors. According to Liturgiam authenticam, this failure to inculturate the Gospel can be at least partly attributed to inadequate liturgical translations:

The omissions or errors which affect certain existing vernacular translations — especially in the case of certain languages — have impeded the progress of the inculturation that actually should have taken place. Consequently, the Church has been prevented from laying the foundation for a fuller, healthier and more authentic renewal. (LA §6)

The prayers in the new translation of the Missal are more expressive of heavenly realities, more clear in conveying the Church’s doctrine and moral teaching, and now conform to the interpretation of Scripture that was handed down from the time of the Fathers of the Church. The new vernacular liturgical prayers are intended not so much to convey facts as to gradually form us in the faith.

Only by letting ourselves be formed by the liturgy will we be led beyond simple “intelligibility” to the transcendent, ineffable Truth.


Susan Benofy is research editor of the Adoremus Bulletin.


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