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Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999

Belloc and Howell: ICEL's Translation Inspiration?

By Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy

In 1964, when the question of allowing parts of the Mass to be said in the vernacular was being considered, The Tablet of London published an English translation of the Mass by the British author Hilaire Belloc, who died a decade before the Second Vatican Council began.

The editors published Belloc's version, "with the idea of interesting the Hierarchy and their expert committee in preparing their vernacular version" ( The Tablet , October 17, 1964, p. 1172f).

Although Belloc eliminates all "thees" and "thous", his use of sacral language is otherwise quite traditional. For example, he has no problem with such expressions as "beseech", "we implore You in suppliance", and "oblation"; nor does he shun the Latin rhetorical device of repetition: "these gifts, these tributes, these holy things of sacrifice". He makes no change at all in the traditional English version of the "Our Father".

That Belloc's vernacular translation seemed advanced when it appeared in The Tablet in 1964 may surprise us, considering the dramatic changes that occurred during the next five years.

But his approach to translating sacred texts is particularly interesting in light of the claim made by Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, in The Monk's Tale , her 1992 biography of her mentor, Father Godfrey Diekmann, the influential Benedictine liturgist.

Comme le Prévoit "In a Nutshell"

Sister Hughes, herself a longtime member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL], recounts an incident in which the English Jesuit, Clifford Howell, prepared a translation of the Council's Decree on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium , for publication in the American liturgical journal Worship , of which Father Diekmann was editor ( The Monk's Tale, pp. 262-265).

Before Father Howell's translation was published, however, it was extensively revised by Fathers Diekmann and Frederick McManus. (The latter two were founding members of ICEL and principal architects of the post-conciliar liturgical reform.)

Father Howell was very displeased by the Americans' reworking of his translation, and objected by letter. Sister Hughes says, "As a supplementary instruction, Howell sent Godfrey and Fred a copy of Hilaire Belloc's 'Principles of Translating', a text that serves remarkably well to capture ICEL's translation guidelines as they developed in the next few years".

She quotes the relevant passage from Belloc, which begins, "Transmute boldly; render the sense by the corresponding sense without troubling over the verbal difficulties in the way...." ( The Monk's Tale, p. 263).

In a footnote to the Belloc quotation, Sister Hughes writes, "Belloc's principles contain, in a nutshell, the substance of the Instruction Comme le prévoit " which "developed principles for liturgical translation to render the original faithfully but not in a slavishly literal style" (note 28, p. 274 ).

Comme le prévoit is the French title of an "instruction" on translation devised by Consilium, the group appointed by the Vatican to oversee the liturgical changes after the Council. (Father McManus was a member of the Consilium.)

This "instruction" appeared in January 1969, only four years after Belloc's vernacular Mass was published in The Tablet . The translation guidelines in Comme le prévoit advocate the "dynamic equivalency" or "free" translation principles which have governed all English-language liturgical translation for three decades until the recent review of a massive revision of the Roman Missal (Lectionary and Sacramentary).

In the mid-1990's, scrutiny of the Lectionary revisions resulted in new Vatican " norms for Scripture translation " as well as official rejection of several English translations of biblical texts, including the 1994 ICEL Psalter, for use in the Church's liturgy.

The Sacramentary revisions proposed by ICEL for the entire English-speaking Church have also been hashed out in bishops' meetings for the past five years. (The Sacramentary includes the Eucharistic Prayers and other Mass texts). And the translation principles of Comme le prévoit , too, have been strongly criticized.

"Slavish Literalism" or "Dynamic Equivalency"?

Although Belloc's views on translation "transmute boldly" are entirely consistent with his cavalier approach to scholarship in general, he employs a markedly different standard for translation of sacred texts. ICEL translators, however, seem to follow Belloc's advice rather than his actual practice in translating sacred texts.

It might be interesting to hear the reaction of ICEL translators to the following passage from the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) translated by the man whose principles of translation are said to "contain, in a nutshell, the substance of" Comme le prévoit:

Latin Text:

...Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris: et accepta habere, sicuti accepta habere dignatus es munera pueri tui iusti Abel, et sacrificium Patriarchae nostri Abrahae, et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam.

(NB: This passage is identical in both pre- and post-conciliar Latin texts.)

Belloc's Translation:

Which deign to regard with a propitious and serene countenance, and to hold acceptable as You held acceptable the gifts of Your just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which Your High Priest Melchisedech offered You, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

We implore you in suppliance, Almighty God, to order that these shall be borne by the hands of Your holy Angel to Your altar above, into the sight of Your Divine Majesty: so that as many of us as shall partake from this altar, of the holy Body and Blood of Your Son, may be filled with every heavenly blessing and good influence. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Surely Belloc's translation would be deemed "slavishly literal" according to the principles of Comme le prévoit he presumably inspired, because he employs traditional sacral language and does not eliminate words or "update" concepts in the original text.

It might be just as interesting to hear Belloc's reflections on the rendering of the same Latin text as proposed by ICEL to the English-speaking bishops in 1994.

ICEL's Revised Translation (proposed 1994):

...Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as you once accepted the gifts of your just servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek. Almighty God, Command that your angel carry this sacrifice to your altar in heaven. Then, as we receive from this altar the sacred body and blood of your Son, let us be filled with every grace and blessing. [Through Christ our Lord. Amen.]

***

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