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Translation and Inculturation in the Catholic Church

Online Edition – Vol. II, No. 6: October 1996



Translation and Inculturation in the Catholic Church



by Stephen M. Beall, Ph.D.


Presented at the International Conference on “Rethinking Translation”, Milwaukee, June 10, 1995 (revised).

In his allocution to translators in 1965, Pope Paul VI declared that vernacular languages had become vox ecclesi, the “voice of the Church” (EDIL 482). Ironically, his statement was published in Latin, the “voice” that they had supposedly replaced. This event epitomizes the awkward position of the Catholic Church today regarding language and translation. On the one hand, the pastors of the Church are committed to the right of Catholics to enjoy their own cultures and to pray in their own language. On the other, they feel an obligation to preserve a certain unity in the way in which all Catholics think and pray. When these values seem to come into conflict, translation becomes a controversial procedure.

The key to the whole matter is how the Church understands and applies the notion of “inculturation”. By definition, inculturation is “the creative and dynamic relationship between the Christian message and a culture or cultures” (Shorter, 11). The precise nature of this relationship, however, is more difficult to describe. Several writers posit an analogy between inculturation and the Incarnation of Christ. Just as the Logos “took flesh” and entered into the culture of first century Palestine, so must the Christian faith take on the culture of each group that receives the Gospel (Schineller, 6-7). It should be preached in terms familiar to the people, lest they perceive Christianity as something foreign and irrelevant to their way of life. It goes without saying that this idea can have serious implications for the official worship of the Church. One might conclude, in the words of liturgist, Father Anscar Chupungco (1992, 30), that the liturgy must “think, speak, and ritualize according to the local cultural pattern.”

This approach to faith and culture can be traced in part to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially Gaudium et Spes. But while the Council stressed the priority of “the Faith” over culture, some recent theorists seem to regard culture as the ultimate source and norm of faith. The elements of the Gospel, they argue, are already hidden in every culture, and it is the job of theologians, pastors, and liturgists to bring this hidden Gospel to light (cf. Schineller, 26-7). They look forward to the emergence of distinctive local forms of Christianity, each with its own way of expressing the content of the faith (Power, 25-38). Some writers also associate inculturation with the struggle for liberation from various forms of political and sexual oppression (e.g., Schineller, 96-109). They regard the liturgy as a suitable forum for the expression and celebration of this struggle.

It is not difficult to show that these ideas have influenced the work of liturgical translators over the last thirty years. Indeed, advocates of inculturation regard the vernacular liturgy as their greatest achievement. Not only has it broken the “monocultural” chains of Latin, but it has also incorporated some of the basic principles of their movement (Chupungco 1989, 4347). In particular, they point to the Vatican’s 1969 instruction on translation, entitled Comme le prévoit (CLP). This document remains the official charter of liturgical translators today.

CLP is important to inculturists because it gives official sanction to the method of “dynamic equivalence” (cf. Chupungco 1992, 37- 44). This method was formulated by Eugene Nida and his colleagues in the early 1960s and was intended mainly to benefit missionary translators of the Bible. It was founded on the assumption that the message or “impact” of the Biblical text has priority over its original linguistic form. Nida also stressed that, in missionary contexts, the audience helps to determine how the message should be expressed. In short, the test of a good Biblical translation is whether it makes sense to non-Christians (Nida, 12-32).

While the authors of CLP do not use the term, “dynamic equivalence”, they clearly endorse its substance when they assert that “translators must be faithful to the art of communication in all its various aspects, but especially in regard to the message itself, in regard to the audience for which it is intended, and in regard to the manner of expression” (§7). Later, translators are explicitly instructed to give priority to the “meaning of communication” over its literary form (§8). But even “meaning” is not invested with an absolute value in this document. CLP notes that the content of some Latin texts does not resonate with what it calls “modern Christian ideas” (§24). In such cases, even an accurate translation is not deemed sufficient: somehow, “the formula translated must become the genuine prayer of the congregation” (§20). Although CLP is not explicit on this point, it appears to be charging translators with the task of editing the liturgy for cultural content.

Various specific directives support this interpretation. Literal translation is ruled out (§ 12). Translators are invited to reject traditional glosses, such as “handmaid” for famula and “flesh” for caro, if these are deemed ambiguous or culturally inappropriate (§§11, 15). Expressions of humility, such as “deign to look upon us” and “we beseech You, O Lord”, are stigmatized as peculiar to Byzantine and Roman court language (§13). CLP also stipulates that “the language (of translations)… should be that in common usage,” which is defined as that “suited to the greater number of faithful who speak it in everyday use” (§15). For this reason, attempts to preserve the rhetorical figures and poetic diction of the Latin are discouraged (§§ 12, 28, 15).

Finally, CLP asserts that “texts translated from another language are clearly not sufficient for the celebration of a fully renewed liturgy. The creation of new texts will be necessary” (§43).

Latin Text a Cultural Fossil
This last remark, I think, betrays the spirit of the whole document. The authors of CLP simply do not trust the Latin text, despite its thorough revision after Vatican II. They regard it as a cultural fossil and an obstacle to authentic local worship. As an interim strategy, they propose various techniques for “indigenizing” the Latin prayers until new compositions are allowed to replace them. It is assumed, however, that these new texts will develop “organically” from the old ones (§43), presumably through a more radical application of dynamic equivalence.

Armed with these surprisingly progressive directives, the various translation commissions went to work. The main body responsible for English texts is known as the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL). One of ICEL’s first and most controversial productions was a translation of the ancient Eucharistic prayer known as the Roman Canon. It gives us a good idea of what “inculturated” translation, in the form suggested by CLP, looks like in practice. Here is a representative sample:

Unde et memores, Domine, nos servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta,
eiusdem Christi, filii tui, Domini nostri, tam beatæ passionis, necnon et ab inferis resurrectionis, sed et in cælos gloriosæ ascensionis, offerimus præclaræ maiestati tu de tuis donis ac datis hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam,Panem sanctum vitæ æternæ et Calicem salutis perpetuæ. Supra quæ propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris….

Literal English (based on O’Keete)
And so, Lord, we your servants and also your holy people, recalling the blessed passion of the same Christ, your Son, our Lord, His resurrection from the dead, and also His glorious ascension into heaven, offer to your divine majesty from your gifts and blessings a pure victim, a holy victim, a spotless victim, the holy Bread of everlasting life and the Cup of eternal salvation.

Deign to look upon these gifts with gracious and tranquil mien…

ICEL Translation
Father, we celebrate the memory of Christ, your son.

We, your people and your ministers, recall His passion, His resurrection from the dead, and His ascension into glory; and from the many gifts you have given us we offer to you, God of glory and majesty, this holy and perfect sacrifice: the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.

Look with favor on these gifts….

Differences Not Merely Stylistic
The most obvious differences between the Latin and the English are stylistic. The original text is highly rhetorical, with numerous figures of repetition and sound. It also abounds with adjectives, such as “holy” and “blessed”, which contribute more to the solemn tone of the prayer than to its meaning. The ICEL version, on the other hand, has virtually no rhetorical marking at all. Figures have been suppressed, even when they might have been carried over into English. “Atmospheric” adjectives have been systematically removed. All of this is in keeping, of course, with the anti-rhetorical sentiments of CLP. Moreover, ICEL shares the Instruction’s distaste for Roman courtesy. Respicere digneris, which literally means, “please deign to look upon”, is replaced by a bald English imperative, “look”. A certain informality is also evident in the substitution of “Father” for Domine, “Lord”. This substitution is very frequent in the earlier ICEL texts. Elsewhere in the Canon we find that human titles have also been modified. Our “patriarch” Abraham becomes our “father in faith”, and Melchisedek is demoted from “high priest” to “priest”. These changes indicate a conscious attempt to level the strata of ancient society and to bring the prayers in line with our own (theoretically) more egalitarian culture.

Modifications such as these affect the overall tone of worship and may even obscure the facts of salvation history. They do not, however, drastically affect the prayer’s dogmatic content. But can the same be said about ICEL’s treatment of the word hostia (cf. Davies, 618)? We have seen that the translators render hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam as “this holy and perfect sacrifice”. True to the principles of CLP, they have changed not only the style of the passage but also its literal meaning, insofar as the latter is grounded in the culture of ancient Rome. In Latin, hostia denotes the “victim” of the sacrificial act; the act itself is expressed by such words as oblatio and sacrificium. It appears that the ICEL translators chose to avoid the more exact term “victim” because of its current, somewhat misleading connotation. They also chose to downplay the “purity” and “unblemished” condition of the sacrificial Victim, which the Latin text strongly emphasizes. In both cases, it was probably assumed that modern English-speakers would be less interested than ancient Romans in the details of animal sacrifice.

Unfortunately, the sacrificial imagery of the original has a theological point which the translation fails to convey. The prayer goes on to compare the Eucharistic elements with the offerings of Abel, Abraham, and Melchisedek, each in its own way a type of the Mass. Thus God is persuaded to accept, a fortiori, the Eucharistic sacrifice as supremely “holy” because the Victim is uniquely “immaculate”. This argument presupposes the ancient doctrine that Christ as “Paschal Victim” is really present in the Eucharistic species. We can see, then, that ICEL’S cultural adaptation has the unfortunate side-effect of garbling this message and substituting an abstract “sacrifice” for the Lamb Himself. Examples of this procedure multiply, and it is not surprising that ICEL has been bitterly criticized by doctrinal conservatives, not only for modulating sacrificial terminology, but also for its approach to basic concepts such as sin and grace (cf. Leiva-Merikakis, Toporoski). Where ancient doctrine has been expressed in culturally specific terms, the translators have often chosen to leave the doctrine out.

ICEL’s Radical Application
Some of ICEL’s recent work illustrates the more radical implications of CLP; it also gives evidence of the increasingly ideological trend of the inculturation movement. A case in point is ICEL’S recent work on the Psalter. Sister Mary Collins (1992), a collaborator on the project, relates that “gender inclusivity” was a guiding principle of the new version. This means that it follows the current trend of replacing all “generic” masculine nouns and pronouns with gender-neutral equivalents. For example, “he who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4, RSV) is rendered “whoever has integrity”. But the ICEL translators have also taken the matter a step further by “neutralizing” the concept of God. Consider the following sample (Ps. 68:5-7):

name is the LORD, exult before him!
Father of the fatherless
and protector of widows
is God in His holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to dwell in;
He leads out the prisoners to prosperity.

Lord is God’s name. Rejoice!
Protector of orphans,
defender of widows
God in the temple.
God gives the homeless a home
and prisoners freedom

In the ICEL version, no masculine pronoun is allowed to stand in the place of “God”. Metaphoric language is also modified; “father of the fatherless” (Hebrew abhi yethomim, “father of orphans”) has been replaced by the gender-neutral “protector of orphans”. One result of ICEL’s gender-editing is a style which seems oddly abrupt, especially in comparison with the undulating rhythm of former versions. But this suits ICEL’S decision to abandon Hebraic parallelism and to render the whole Psalter in a vigorous, contemporary free verse. Even where gender is not at issue, typically Hebrew expressions such as “to lift up one’s soul to falsehood” (Ps. 24:4) make way for snappy modern idioms such as “chasing shadows” and “living lies”. In various ways, then, the new ICEL Psalter exemplifies a radical application of Nida’s dynamic equivalence.

ICEL has also turned its attention to the anticipated next stage of liturgical “translation”: the composition of new texts only loosely based on the Latin. Some of these have already found their way into service books, and more radical drafts have been proposed. Consider the following experimental collect for Advent (Hughes, 245):

Above the clamor of our violence
your word of truth resounds,
O God of majesty and power.
Over nations enshrouded in despair
your justice dawns.

Grant your household
a discerning spirit and a watchful eye
to perceive the hour in which we live.
Hasten the advent of that Day
when the weapons of war will be banished our
deeds of darkness cast off,
and all your scattered children gathered into one.

This prayer, under the veil of traditional eschatology, packs a strong political message. The second coming is presented as the triumph of God’s “justice” over national oppression, modern warfare, and ethnic division. Particularly interesting, however, is the striking reversal of ICEL’S earlier method in the title, “God of majesty and power”. This contrasts with the studied informality of the original ICEL collects, typified by the substitution of “Father” for Domine and Deus. The reason for the shift is not a renewed sense of God’s transcendence, but rather that Catholic feminists have found the approachable “Father” of the 70s too gender-specific for the 80s and 90s. They now profess to be more comfortable with the unnamable God of Mt. Sinai (cf. Collins 1987, 208-11). This points to an especially problematic aspect of ICEL’S work: as the ideological winds change, so do ICEL’S principles. For average Catholics, who nourish their spiritual lives principally through life-long contact with the liturgy, these shifts can be a source of irritation, if not downright confusion.

Third World Linguistic Experiments: Incluturation or Syncretism?
Still more radical experiments in linguistic inculturation have been undertaken in the Third World. In the 1970s, the bishops of India approved for experimental use a form of the Eucharistic prayer which integrates native religious concepts. Although it was never approved by the Vatican, this prayer was represented in a more recent (1990) ICEL publication as a model of inculturation (Puthanangady, 327-40). In the following passage, we see a rather ingenious juxtaposition of Biblical and non-Christian language for the Trinity:

In the Oneness of the Supreme Spirit through Christ who unites all things in his fullness, we and the whole creation give to you, God of all, Father of all, honour and glory, thanks and praise, worship and adoration, now and in every age, for ever and ever. Amen.

You are the fullness of Reality, One without a second. Being, Knowledge, Bliss. Om, tat, sat.

In this prayer, traditional language about God as Father and Son is followed by the phrase “Being, Knowledge, and Bliss”, which corresponds to a Sanskrit expression, saccidananda. According to Father Puthanangady, “this interpretation of the divine life makes more sense to an Indian than the highly intellectual and abstract term ‘Trinity'”. Indian concepts are also incorporated into the following summary of salvation history:

Because we disobeyed you who are goodness itself we lost eternal life; dharma declined; ignorance immersed us in spiritual darkness. Nevertheless, in the indescribable tenderness of your love, you remembered us and promised us salvation. Through the prophets and establishers of dharma, you revealed to us the message of salvation in various ways.

The fall of humanity is summarized in the striking phrase “dharma declined”, and “ignorance” is cited as the cause of our spiritual darkness. Father Puthanangady explains that “ignorance” has been substituted for “sin”, and that “the decline of dharma” signifies the social disorder which sin causes. “The work of the prophets and of Jesus Christ:” he explains, “is to re-establish dharma, to bring about order in the lives of people and thus create a just world which bespeaks the kingdom of God.”

It must be noted, however, that “ignorance” is a drastic modulation of the western concept of “sin”. Indeed, traditional theology holds that ignorance, the “darkening of the intellect”, is a consequence, rather than the essence, of original sin. Another problem attends Father Puthanangady’s interpretation of “dharma” as a “just world”. We have seen that some of the recent work in inculturation incorporates trans-cultural ideologies as well as traditional native ideas. It is not clear to me, however, that the concept of dharma lends itself to Father Puthanangady’s activist world-view any more readily than it does, say, to the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Terms such as dharma have historically conditioned associations (e.g., the caste-system) and are likely to resist assimilation by foreign ideologies of any kind. It is probably better to leave them alone.

In any case, ICEL and its supporters look forward to a gender-neutral, politically “contextualized” and theologically “indigenized” liturgy. Will this really come to pass? Many bishops are sympathetic to these ideas, but it appears that the Vatican has began to apply the brakes. While some new compositions have been approved, others (such as the Indian prayer just quoted) have landed permanently on a Roman shelf. More recently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has intervened in the gender issue. In 1993, the first English version of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church was rejected, presumably in part because of its systematic elimination of gender-specific language (cf. Wrenn and Whitehead). The second and approved version completely ignores the principles of “inclusive” speech. In 1994, CDF also withdrew permission for liturgical use of two new gender-inclusive translations of the Bible (Origins, Nov. 10, 1994, 376).

This more conservative position is also reflected in the Instruction on Liturgical Inculturation, recently issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship. The Instruction insists that “changes in the liturgy must not obscure the ‘substantial’ and visible unity of the Roman rite” (§§36, 54). Changes are to be made “only when the good of the church genuinely and certainly requires them” (§46), and not as a matter of principle. Third, the Congregation ominously warns against the use of inculturation for “political ends” (§49). Moreover, it qualifies CLP by insisting that “the content of the texts of the typical Latin edition is to be preserved” (§53). It affirms the priority of the Bible as a source of liturgical language (§23; cf. §28), and suggests that certain terms, such as baptisma and eucharistia, may simply be transliterated from one language to another (§53). This affirms, at least within certain limits, the possibility of a universal Christian vocabulary.

Implications of “lnculturation”
These recent directives from Rome suggest that the Vatican has little enthusiasm for a more profound inculturation of the liturgy. On the other hand, Roman authorities are less reluctant than formerly to use the term “inculturation” and to discuss its implications. This new and, at first glance, contradictory attitude reflects the thinking Pope John Paul II, who has shown an abiding interest in the relationship of faith and culture. However, it is clear that the Pope’s idea of this relationship is more traditional than that of some of his contemporaries. Moreover, I believe that his is the view that is likely to prevail in the long run. I say this because inculturation, in its more radical forms, runs the risk of self-contradiction. As we have seen, it is often justified by an analogy between the Incarnation of Christ and the contemporary expression of Christianity by local cultures. However, the analogy itself indicates that the Catholic religion has particular cultural roots. It cannot entirely be “disincarnated” from its historical origins in the culture of Jesus. Hence, it can be argued that the more one suppresses or modifies the language of the Bible on cultural grounds, the more one trivializes culture itself. The same argument can be applied to the liturgy and other cultural expressions of the Church, which has continued the mystical life of Christ through the centuries.

The pope, for his part, insists that true inculturation is the product of an ongoing “dialogue” between local cultures and the concrete, historical manifestation of Christ. In his exhortation Catechesi tradendae, the Pope writes: “the Gospel message cannot be purely and simply isolated from the culture in which it was first inserted, nor, without serious loss, from the cultures in which it has already been expressed down the centuries…. It has always been transmitted by means of an apostolic dialogue which inevitably becomes part of a certain dialogue of cultures” (§53; cf. George, 66-7). In accord with this view, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of CDF, has recommended that the term “inculturation” be dropped altogether and replaced, alas, by an even more awkward neologism: “inter-culturality”.

One may wonder how this cultural dialogue works in practice. In his encyclical letter Slavorum apostoli, the pope offers both an historical paradigm and a visual analogy to illustrate his own understanding of how faith and culture go together. On the occasion of their eleventh centenary, he portrays the work of the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius as a “model of inculturation” (§21). They are praised not only for their activity as Biblical and liturgical translators, but also for their dedication to the unity of the Church (§§14-5). The pope attributes to the Slavic missionaries his own vision of the Church’s cultural patrimony as “a many-colored collection of tesserae that together make up the living mosaic of (Christ) the Pantocrator…”(§18). Thus the “concrete dimension of catholicity” can be imagined as an emerging work of art, a “living mosaic” to which every culture makes a contribution. But it also follows that every local culture can lay claim to the whole “mosaic” as its own. There is nothing inappropriate, then, in Mayan Indians saying ancient Roman prayers, provided that they find these prayers intelligible and spiritually nourishing. In his letter, the Pope stresses the debt of Slavic literature to Methodius’s rather close translations of the Greek Bible and liturgy (§22). By embracing, rather than rejecting this “foreign” model, the Slavs laid the groundwork for their own unique contribution to Christian culture. This, however, was the work of centuries, and the influence of Greek religious language remains obvious in Slavic thought.

In summary, the Pope presents a vision of inculturation which differs in many respects from that reflected in ICEL publications. As a concrete example, he points to the gradual evolution of Slavic culture, rather than to the revolutionary moment of third-world villages. This follows from his conviction that the Church mediates a universal cultural patrimony which “incarnates” the essential content of the faith. But it would seem to follow that this patrimony is articulated to some extent by a common language, una vox ecclesiae. Inclusive language which qualifies the fatherhood of God, or liturgical formulas which modify the understanding of sin, are perceived as incompatible with this single “voice”. This explains why, in recent years, the official Church has been “re-thinking” translation.

LITERATURE CITEDEDIL = Enchiridion Documentorum Instaurationis Liturgic, vol. 1, ed. Reiner Kaczynski. Rome, 1976.

Chupungco, Anscar. Liturgical Inculturation: Sacramentals, Religiosity, and Catechesis. Collegeville, 1992.

­­­ Liturgies of the Future. New York, 1989.

Collins, Sister Mary. “Glorious Praise: the ICEL Liturgical Psalter”, Worship 66 (1992), 290-310

­­­ Worship: Renewal to Practice. Washington, 1987.

Comme le prévoit = EDIL 90 (§ 1200 ff.). English text in Documents on the Liturgy, 1963-1979, ed. Thomas O’Brien. Collegeville, 1982. 284- 291.

Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy: Instruction. Vatican City, 1994.

Davies, Michael. Liturgical Revolution, Vol. 3: Pope Paul’s New Mass. Dickinson, TX, 1980.

George, Father [now Cardinal] Francis. Inculturation and Ecclesial Communion: Church and Culture in the Teaching of John Paul II. Rome, 1990.

Hughes, Sister H. Kathleen. “Original Texts: Beginnings, Present Projects, Guidelines,” in Shaping English Liturgy, Studies in Honor of Archbishop Denis Hurley, ed. Peter Finn and James Schellman. Washington, 1990. 219- 255.

John Paul II, Slavorum Apostoli, tr. in The Pope Speaks 30 (1985), 252-275.

Leiva-Merikakis, Erasmo. “The Catechetical Role of the Liturgy and the Quality of Liturgical Texts: the Current ICEL Translation,” Communio 20 (1993), 63-83.

Nida, Eugene, and Taber, Charles. The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden, 1969.

O’Keefe, Father Martin D. Oremus: Speaking with God in the Words of the Roman Rite. St. Louis, 1993.

Power, Father David. Worship: Culture and Theology. Washington, DC, 1990.

Puthanangady, Father Paul. “Cultural Elements in Liturgical Prayers,” in Shaping English Liturgy, 327-340.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. “Christ, Faith, and the Challenge of Cultures”, Origins 24:41 (March 30, 1995), 679- 686.

Schineller, Peter. A Handbook on Inculturation. New York, 1990.

Shorter, Aylward. Toward a Theology of Inculturation. Maryknoll, NY, 1988.

Toporoski, Richard. “The Language of Worship,” Communio 4 (1977), 226-260.

Wrenn, Michael, and Whitehead, Kenneth. “Unfaithful to Truth”, Crisis (November 1993), 17-24.

(Stephen M. Beall is an assistant professor of Foreign Languages at Marquette University, Milwaukee, where he teaches mostly Latin and Greek.)