Online Edition – Vol. V No. 1: March 1999
Why is Fidelity to Tradition So Important When We Translate Sacred Texts?
by Archbishop Elden Curtiss
Translating the Hebrew or Greek of the Sacred Scriptures and the Latin of the Roman Missal (the Lectionary and Sacramentary) into modern English that is suited to public prayer and proclamation is no easy task. This is what we bishops asked our English translators to do in producing a new Lectionary for Sundays and solemnities, with final approval from the Holy See.
Beginning the first Sunday of Advent, this official text will gradually (with the completion of another volume of Scripture readings for weekdays and saints’ days) replace the 1970 Lectionary. In time, a Sacramentary with Mass prayers newly translated from the Latin will also be available, after review and approval by the Holy See.
I think there has been considerable improvement in the English translation of the new Sunday Lectionary. Greater effort has been made to follow the original Scripture texts more closely, which results in a more faithful translation. The 1970 Lectionary contained more folksy English, with more attention to English idiom than fidelity to the original texts; the new edition remedies this deficiency to a great extent.
Principles of translation
Following the meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, DC, in mid-November, I spent two days with a group of bishops and scholars discussing the principles which should govern the translation of Scripture used in the Lectionary and in the Mass prayers of the Sacramentary. We recognized the struggle of translators to be faithful to the original texts while at the same time providing a text in English which can be read with meaning and ease.
We were in general agreement that a literal word-for-word translation ordinarily does not make for a readable or reciteable text in English. At the same time, we expect our translations to be faithful to the rich and carefully honed expressions of doctrine conveyed in the original languages.
Our modern translators must be aware of the context in which the sacred writers produced the books of the Bible. They also must be aware of the controversies and dialogues and major councils which led to the selection of precise Latin phrases which formed the texts of the Mass prayers in the Sacramantary. Otherwise, translators can fail to transmit parts of our Tradition with their choice of English words in new translations.
The translation task
This means that our translators must listen for the inner voice of the original texts which is heard in the delicate interplay among content, tone and vocabulary used by individual writers. They must be aware of the theological nuances which were operative in the development of New Testament texts and the Roman Missal. For example, the early struggles in the life of the Church which defined the Trinitarian nature of God in our Catholic faith (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three Persons in one God) must be understood fully by translators so that imprecise English words are not used in reference to the Trinity. The same is true regarding the Incarnation (the Person of Jesus as the eternal Son of God made flesh). Translators must employ English words which convey the exact theological meaning of the ancient texts regarding the person and mission of Jesus.
This means that translating the Lectionary (Scripture readings) and Sacramentary ( Mass prayers) is not merely a matter of developing new prayers in English which sound good to modern ears. It also means that translators must retain the Tradition of faith contained in our liturgical books which are rooted in the Deposit of Faith (the written and lived experience of the Church, the channels of God’s revelation to us). We cannot afford to lose this Tradition of faith because of imprecise or inadequate translations.
Layers of meaning
There are layers of meaning and significance in the Latin texts which are normative for the Sacramentary; they need to be preserved in our modern English translations. These ancient texts express deep theological insights gleaned from our Catholic Tradition which must remain part of our religious patrimony. Modern translations must clearly reflect these doctrinal roots, or they will be lost to modern people who often are unaware of the underlying Tradition. This is the reason that historical scholars are as important as modern linguists in rendering faithful translations of Latin texts which keep our Tradition intact.
Consequently, we need translations of the Lectionary and Sacramentary which capture and express in modern English much of the same meaning and tone found in the original texts so that we can remain faithful to our Catholic Tradition. We cannot afford, through inadequate translations, a cumulative erosion of the original texts which accurately transmit God’s revelation to us.
Many of us were not satisfied with the 1970 translation of the Lectionary. I think the 1998 translation is a decided improvement. If our translators continue to work with our historical scholars, my guess (and hope) is that new translations in the future will be even more improved in terms of translating the ancient texts faithfully. Accurate liturgical texts, combined with accurate catechetical texts, provide us with our greatest guarantee of orthodoxy in the life of the Church.
Sacredness of the texts
In the Lectionary and Sacramentary used in our liturgical celebrations, it is important to remember that we are not only dealing with words and ideas but with God’s revelation to us through His Son. Consequently, there must always be a sacred element clearly manifested in our liturgical books. We must use language which not only touches deeply the human condition but leads us into the Paschal Mystery of Christ, into His suffering and death for us which He bids us enter, and into an experience of His resurrected life which we share with Him. We must use language which expresses the mystery of the Trinity which is basic to our worship and our lives as Christians. We must use language which leads us into a celebration of God’s presence and life that gives meaning to everything that we do.
The work of translating the Lectionary and Sacramentary into modern English is a delicate, arduous task. It takes not only a bevy of scholars – those who pursue historical research into the development of ancient texts and their contexts, Scripture scholars who know well the original languages, and experts in the English language — but it also takes a profound respect for God’s written Word, for the theological underpinnings of the original texts, and a faith-filled sense of the sacredness of the task.
My judgment is that the Church is in the process of assembling many scholars from many disciplines who are people of faith to help with the work of translating our ancient liturgical texts. Now that we have almost thirty-five years of experience with vernacular liturgy, we expect the English translations of the Lectionary and sacramentary to improve with time. In the meantime, let us enjoy the new translation of the Lectionary for Sundays which has been published at long last. It is a decided improvement over the 1970 edition.