Online Edition: September 2010
Vol. XVI, No. 6
Found in Translation
The “sacral vernacular” of the new English translation of the Roman Missal
by Father U. M. Lang
Father Uwe Michael Lang, DPhil (Oxon.) is a priest of the London Oratory, UK, and a consultor to the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff. He is the author of Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, and The Genius of the Roman Rite. He teaches at the Università Europea di Roma/Ateneo Pontificio Regina Apostolorum.
In January, Father Lang addressed the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy’s international meeting in Rome, and his address was published in The Priest, the journal of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, March 2010 (Vol. 25, No 1), p 20ff (web: www.australianccc.org). The following excerpt appears here with permission of The Priest. It begins with part two of Father Lang’s address, in which he traces the history of vernacular translation in the liturgy, and reviews the stylistic considerations of liturgical translation. (Footnotes retain the numbering in the original text.)
Latin and Vernacular since Vatican II Early use of Latin
Originally, the Roman liturgy was mostly celebrated in Greek. The transition to Latin happened gradually and was largely completed by the middle of the fourth century. At the end of the fourth century, Saint Ambrose of Milan quotes extensively from the Eucharistic Prayer he uses, which is an earlier version of the Canon of the Mass.16
In the centuries to follow, the great Sacramentaries were compiled, containing also the variable prayers of the Mass. It is clear from these sources that the prayer language of the Roman rite in late antiquity was already at some distance from the language of the people. In other words, the Romans did not speak in the style of the Canon or of the collects of the Mass. As soon as Greek was replaced by Latin in the Roman liturgy, a highly stylized medium of worship was created.
The Protestant challenge
In the course of the Middle Ages, Latin as the language of the liturgy became more and more removed from the language of the people, especially because of the formation of national languages and cultures in Europe. This problem became acute in the early modern period: the Protestant Reformers attacked the use of Latin in the liturgy; their idea of divine worship being essentially a proclamation of Word of God made them conclude that using a language that was not intelligible to the assembly was contrary to the Gospel. Martin Luther was happy to allow for some Latin, as far as it was understood by the people, and this custom was followed for some time in Lutheran communities. John Calvin, on the other hand, categorically rejected the use of Latin in worship.17
The measured response of Trent
At the Council of Trent, the question of liturgical language was much debated, and the arguments produced by the Protestant Reformers were considered very seriously. The Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass of the Council’s 22nd Session in 1562 contains a carefully worded doctrinal exposition on the subject, stating that it did not seem expedient to the Fathers that the Holy Mass should be celebrated in the vernacular, although they recognize the value of the texts of the Mass for the instruction of the faithful. However, pastors should preach frequently about what is read at Mass, especially on Sundays and feast days.18 Moreover, canon nine of the same Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass declares anathema anyone who says that the vernacular language must be used in the celebration of Mass; again, the subtle wording of this conciliar text is to be noted.19
Liturgical Movement prior to Vatican II
The question of Latin and the vernacular in the Church’s liturgy continued to be discussed in the centuries after Trent, and it came to the fore especially with the Liturgical Movement of the first half of the twentieth century. The process of liturgical reform initiated by Pope Pius XII included concessions for countries to use the vernacular for the proclamation of the readings at Mass and, to some extent, for the celebration of other sacraments.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council Vatican addressed the question of the language of worship in a comprehensive way and granted a significant extension of the use of the vernacular in the Catholic liturgy. The primary motive for this was to promote “fully conscious and active participation” of the people in the liturgy.20 The relevant article of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 36, strikes a balance that was reached after some debate on the Council floor, asserting in the first paragraph that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rite” (§1), and then, secondly, granting that the use of the vernacular may be extended, which “will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants” (§2).
Thirdly, “the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority”, which ordinarily would be the conference of bishops, is to decide “whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used” (§3). Article 54 of Sacrosanctum Concilium specifies that in “Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and ‘the common prayer’, but also, as local conditions may warrant, to those parts which pertain to the people”. At the same time, however, “steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them”.
It is obvious from the relevant articles of Sacrosanctum Concilium that the Fathers of Vatican II did not envisage a general introduction of the vernacular, let alone replacement of Latin as the liturgical language of the Roman rite with the mother tongue. Regarding the Divine Office, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy stipulated in Article 101 that the Latin language was to be retained by clerics, although exceptions were possible (§1), while nuns and other groups should pray the Liturgy of the Hours in their native tongue (§2). Moreover, when the Council approved the use of the mother tongue in the Roman liturgy, it made clear that vernacular texts had to be translations of the Latin liturgical books and that these translations had to be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority (Art. 36 §4).
The post-conciliar developments soon went beyond the limited scope of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Among the landmarks in this process was Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio, Sacram Liturgiam, of 25 January 1964, just one and a half months after the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.
With this motu proprio, Paul VI permitted the use of the vernacular instead of Latin in the recitation of the hours. He defined the norm that the translated version should be drawn up and approved by the conferences of bishops and submitted to the Holy See for due approval, that is, confirmation.21
In the same year on 26 September, the Consilium for Implementing the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy issued the Instruction Inter Oecumenici, which among other things provided criteria for vernacular translations. Inter Oecumenici made it clear that: (a) “the basis of the translations is the Latin liturgical text”; (b) the work of translations should involve institutes of liturgy or persons who are experts in Scripture, liturgy, the biblical languages, Latin, the vernacular, and music; (c) where applicable, “there should be consultation with bishops of neighboring regions using the same language”; (d) “in nations of several languages there should be a translation for each language”.22
“Vernacular expressions of the one Roman rite”
In an address to translators of liturgical texts given on 10 November 1965, Pope Paul VI presents the basic principles of liturgical translations. The pope emphasized that translations of liturgical texts “have become part of the rites themselves” and that for this reason they need the approval by the local authority and of the Holy See for liturgical use.
The introduction of the mother tongue in worship does not mean that the Church has instituted new liturgical families. They are rather the vernacular expressions of the one Roman rite. Paul VI also declared that the type of language to be used in the liturgy “should always be worthy of the noble realities it signifies, set apart from the everyday speech of the street and the marketplace”. This requires that translators “know both Christian Latin and their own modern language”, and, given that the liturgy should above all be chanted, the translated prayers need to be constructed in such a way that they can be sung according to the rules of music that obtain in different cultures. The challenge for translators is to “make also clarity of language and dignity of expression shine forth in the vernacular translations of liturgical texts”.23
The influence of the 1969 Consilium instruction:“dynamic equivalence”
The most important document guiding the post-conciliar translations of liturgical texts was the Instruction of the Consilium Comme le prévoit of 25 January 1969. This document is in many ways an elaboration of Paul VI’s address of 1965, which I have just quoted. However, Comme le prévoit has a number of irregularities: the document was published in six major languages, but not in Latin, the official language of the Holy See; moreover, it bears no official signature and it was not published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official organ of the Holy See.24
The Instruction Comme le prévoit endorsed a translation theory known as “dynamic equivalence”. This methodology was developed by Eugene Nida [of the American Bible Society] for the purpose of Biblical translation and aims at rendering justice to the fact that a translation of a text is a difficult undertaking, because a text is a complex reality.25 A word-by-word translation from the source language into the receptor language often does not make sense and fails to communicate the message of the text.
This difficulty is felt particularly when it comes to translating Latin liturgical texts, many of which stem from late antiquity, into contemporary languages. Any translation must naturally aim at translating the spiritual and doctrinal content of these ancient prayers in a way that renders justice to the rules and conventions of the receptor language; that is, it must aim at producing “good English” or “good German”.
However, the theory of “dynamic equivalence” goes much further, in that it abstracts the content of the text from its linguistic and cultural form and no longer aims at a translation that would reproduce the formal structure of the original as closely as could reasonably be done in a modern language. Rather, the purpose of this approach is to identify the message contained in the original text apart from its linguistic form, which is considered a mere vesture that can be changed according to different cultural contexts. In the process of translation, a new form is to be created that would possess equivalent qualities by means of which the original content can be adequately expressed. By means of this new form, the translation intends to create in a reader or audience of the receptor language the same informative and emotive effect that the text in its source language would have had in its original context. This was the main principle according to which the Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI was translated by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).
Displacing “dynamic equivalence”
Comme le prévoit has now been replaced by the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam, issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2001 and published in Acta Apostolicae Sedis.26 The very title of this instruction indicates its official character: it is the “Fifth Instruction for the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council” and thus stands on a par with the first of these instructions, Inter Oecumenici of 1964.
Liturgiam authenticam refers on its title page to article 36 of Sacrosanctum Concilium on the use of the vernacular in the Roman liturgy, which has already been discussed. With this instruction, all previous norms on liturgical translation are superseded, with the exception of those presented in the Fourth Instruction Varietates legitimae of 1994 concerning difficult questions on the Roman Liturgy and inculturation.27
According to Liturgiam authenticam, all the translations of the liturgical books in use since Vatican II are to be examined and revised. In order for the revised translations to be considered authentic, they need the [official] recognition (recognitio) of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Passing on the patrimony of the Roman rite
Liturgiam authenticam notes that the rich spiritual and doctrinal patrimony which is contained in the Latin liturgical texts of the Roman Rite is to be preserved and passed on through the centuries. In order to achieve this goal, “it is to be kept in mind from the beginning that the translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman Liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language” (Art. 20).
The different methodology that this instruction requires of translators is made very clear: “While it is permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet” (ibid.)
The contents of the liturgical texts should be “evident and comprehensible even to the faithful who lack any special intellectual formation”; for this reason “the translations should be characterized by a kind of language which is easily understandable”. At the same time, however, liturgical translations need to preserve the “dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision” of the original text.
The aim set for liturgical translation is indeed a high one: “By means of words of praise and adoration that foster reverence and gratitude in the face of God’s majesty, His power, His mercy and His transcendent nature, the translations will respond to the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people of our own time, while contributing also to the dignity and beauty of the liturgical celebration itself” (Art. 25).
Liturgical language and inculturation
Liturgiam authenticam also addresses the often poorly understood question of inculturation in a reflected and balanced way. Liturgical translation should communicate the Church’s perennial treasury of prayer “by means of language understandable in the cultural context for which it is intended”; however, “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. Liturgical translation that takes due account of the authority and integral content of the original texts will facilitate the development of a sacral vernacular, characterized by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship, even though it is not to be excluded that it may exercise an influence even on everyday speech, as has occurred in the languages of peoples evangelized long ago” (Art. 47).
This important passage shows an awareness of the complex relationship between faith and culture that takes account of the characteristics of “sacred language” in the Christian tradition.
When reading Liturgiam authenticam, one cannot but be impressed by the high standards that are demanded for the translation of liturgical texts. No doubt, translation is a difficult undertaking, and it is made even more arduous by the particular nature of the texts in question. The task of reproducing the beauty and dignity of the Canon of the Mass or the ancient orations of the Missale Romanum in the vernacular would require translators as gifted in their mother tongue as Miles Coverdale or Thomas Cranmer were in the sixteenth century. None other than Martin Luther wrote that one would need poets to create a popular liturgy.28
A Tale of Two Translations
I shall [now] compare the 1973 ICEL version of the Roman Missal, which is still in use, with the new translation that will be implemented before long. Parts of the Ordo Missae in English received the recognitio of the Congregation for Divine Worship in 2008 and are already available in their definitive form for study purposes.29
Because of the limits of space, I have chosen to comment briefly on a few examples from the First Eucharistic Prayer, the Roman Canon; I hope to treat this subject more extensively in the near future. The differences between the two translations emerge clearly from the examples provided below.
Eucharist Prayer I (Roman Canon), Ordinary for of the Roman Rite
To you, therefore, most merciful
Father, we make humble prayer
and petition through Jesus
Christ, your Son, our Lord: that
you accept and bless these
gifts, these offerings, these holy
and unblemished sacrifices…
Therefore, O Lord, as we
celebrate the memorial of the
blessed Passion, the Resurrection
from the dead, and the
glorious Ascension into heaven
of Christ, your Son, our Lord,
we, your servants and your holy
people, offer to your glorious
majesty from the gifts that you
have given us, this pure victim,
this holy victim, this spotless
victim, the holy Bread of
eternal life and the Chalice of
We come to you, Father, with
praise and thanksgiving, through
Jesus Christ your Son. Through
Him we ask you to accept and
bless these gifts we offer you in
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.
Te igitur, clementissime Pater, per Iesum
Christum, filium tuum, Dominum nostrum,
supplices rogamus ac petimus,
uti accepta habeas et benedicas, haec
dona, haec munera, haec sancta
sacrificia illibata. …
Unde et memores, Domine, nos servi tui,
sed et plebs tua sancta, eiusdem Christi
Filii tui, Domini nostri, tam beatae
passionis, nec non ab inferis resurrectionis, sed et in caelos gloriosae ascensionis:
offerimus praeclarae maiestati tuae
de tuis donis ac datis hostiam puram,
hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam,
Panem sanctum vitae aeternae et Calicem
Latin rules of composition and liturgical texts
Liturgical prayer is a form of public speech, and hence the Canon, as well as the collects of the Mass, was formed according to technical rules of composition. In Latin prose texts, the placing of the various parts of a sentence can be very significant. The Post-Sanctus part of the Canon begins with the striking form of address Te igitur, clementissime Pater. The 1973 version renders this rather blandly as “We come to you, Father”; thus the emphasis has already shifted from God the Father, to whom the prayer is addressed, to our action (“we come”).
By contrast, the 2008 version attempts to reproduce the unusual beginning of the Latin prayer with “To you, therefore, most merciful Father”. The force of the Latin igitur has long been debated among liturgists; it has been argued that this refers back to the preface, in which we thank and praise God for His wonderful work of salvation. Since the Sanctus came in at a later stage in the development of the liturgy, it would seem plausible that igitur originally connected the petition to make our offering acceptable to the initial act of praise; however, it can now be construed to take up the acclamation of the Benedictus: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest”.
Note that the 2008 version has the superlative “most merciful Father” as in the Latin. Moreover, while the 1973 version leaves out Dominum nostrum, the new version renders the phrase integrally: “through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord”.
The choice of the 1973 version “We come to you … with praise and thanksgiving … we ask you” is curious, because the Latin Canon only reads “supplices rogamus ac petimus” at this point. [British historian] Eamon Duffy suggested that the old ICEL translation would reflect an opinion current among liturgists in the post-conciliar period that the Roman Canon was somehow deficient because it gave priority to the elements of petition and intercession over those of praise and thanksgiving. The translators may have tried to remedy this by letting the prayer begin with the words they chose.30 Be that as it may, the 1973 version does not take into account the formula rogamus ac petimus, which is characteristic of Roman euchological [liturgical prayer] style. Here we observe the typical use of consecutive synonyms or near-synonyms. The doubling of the verb increases the force and intensity of the expression. In the 2008 version this is translated as “we make humble prayer and petition”.
Cumulative language style in liturgical prayer
There are other examples of the use of near synonyms, such as accepta habeas et benedicas (translated in both versions as “accept and bless”) and haec dona, haec munera, haec sancta sacrificia illibata. In this latter phrase there is an impressive climax from the simple expression of “gifts” to a word that implies “what is due” and can literally mean “tributes”, to “sacrifices”.
The 1973 version opts for a more paraphrasing translation “these gifts we offer you in sacrifice”, not communicating the idea that these sacrifices are indeed sancta and illibata, whereas the 2008 version does justice to the three different terms and also renders the rhetorical movement of the phrase into English: “these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices”.
In the anamnesis prayer after the consecration Unde et memores there are several outstanding stylistic features, above all in the clause offerimus tibi…. The asyndeton [a style omitting conjunctions] hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam, with three near-synonymous adjectives is once again characteristic of Roman prayer style. Whereas the 1973 translation reduces this to “this holy and perfect sacrifice”, the 2008 version retains the original’s rhetorical force: “this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim”.
In the older version, there is a remarkable tendency to leave out certain qualifying adjectives: beatae passionis is rendered as “His passion” (new: “the blessed Passion”), in caelos gloriosae ascensionis as “His ascension into glory” (new: “the glorious Ascension into heaven”), plebs tua sancta as “your people” (new: “your holy people”) and Panem sanctum vitae aeternae as “the bread of life” (new: “the holy Bread of eternal life”).
In this prayer there is also an example of the earlier translators’ decision to change the respective forms of addresses for God used in the prayers of the Roman rite (Deus; Domine; Pater; Domine, Deus noster; Omnipotens aeterne Deus, etc.).
There are many examples of this decision in the collects of the Missal. In the Unde et memores prayer, Domine was translated as “Father”, no doubt to highlight the fact that this prayer is addressed to the God the Father, while shortly before in the Memorial Acclamation and shortly afterwards Dominus is used to refer to the Son. However, it would seem that in the original Canon Dominus is used deliberately for both the Father and the Son to underline that both are “Lord” and thus equal in divinity. Moreover, in the context of the prayer it is clear that the address Domine refers to the Father, whereas Domini nostri (which is left out in the 1973 version) means Christ, His Son.
From a historian’s perspective, it would seem obvious that the introduction of the vernacular, especially in the Liturgy of the Word, was a necessary step of liturgical reform.
However, I should also like to note that what the postconciliar development has gone far beyond the provisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Today we find ourselves in the situation that many Catholics can hardly sing the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin or pray the Pater noster together. It is ironic that this should be the case in an era characterized by globalization and unprecedented mobility. A common liturgical language provides a bond of unity between peoples and cultures. For that reason a relecture [re-reading, review] of the Conciliar documents is required according to the “hermeneutic of continuity”, which Pope Benedict XVI presented in his epochal discourse to the Roman Curia of 22 December 2005 and which he has since then put into practice in word and deed.
While every effort should be made to revive the unique spiritual and cultural heritage, which we have in the Latin liturgy, we must also work to develop a vernacular “sacred language” that is worthy of its name. The new English translation of the Missale Romanum of 2002 (2008) is a decisive step on this way. This new translation unlocks the treasury of the Latin liturgical tradition and priests should do everything they can to help the faithful entrusted to their pastoral care to become familiar with it and to appreciate its richness.
16 Ambrose of Milan, De Sacramentis IV, 5, 21-22; 6, 26-27: CSEL 73, pp. 55 and 57.
17 H. A. P. Schmidt, Liturgie et langue vulgaire. Le problème de la langue liturgique chez les premiers Réformateurs et au Concile de Trente (Analecta Gregoriana 53), Romae: Apud Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1950.
18 Council of Trent, 22nd Session (17 September 1562), Decree on the Sacrifice of the Mass, ch. 8: Etsi missa magnam contineat populi fidelis eruditionem, non tamen expedire visum est patribus, ut vulgari passim lingua celebraretur.
Quamobrem, retento ubique cuiusque ecclesiae antiquo et a sancta Romana ecclesia, omnium ecclesiarum matre et magistra, probato ritu, ne oves Christi esurient, neve parvuli panem petant et non sit, qui frangit eis (Thren. IV,4): mandats. Synodus pastoribus et singulis curam animarum gerentibus, ut frequenter inter missarum celebrationum vel per se vel per alios, ex his, quae in missa leguntur, aliquid exponent atque inter cetera Smi. huius Sacrificii mysterium aliquod declarant, diebus praesertim Dominicis et festis.
19 Canon IX: Si quis dixerit, Ecclesiae Romanae ritum, quo submissa voce pars canonis et verba consecrationis proferuntur, damnandum esse; aut lingua tantum vulgari Missam celebrari debere; aut aquam non miscendam esse vino in calice offerendo, eo quod sit contra Christi institutionem: anathema sit.
20 Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (4 December 1963), Art. 14.
21 Paul VI, motu prorio Sacram Liturgiam (25 January 1964), in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 (1964), pp. 139-144, English translation in Documents on the Liturgy 1963 – 1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1982), no. 20, p. 86.
22 Congregation of Rites, Instructio ad exsecutionem Constitutionis de sacra Liturgia recte ordinandam “Inter Oecumenici”, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 56 (1964), pp. 877-900; Documents on the Liturgy, no. 23, p. 96.
23 Paul VI, Address to translators of liturgical text (10 November 1965), in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965), pp. 967-970; Documents on the Liturgy, no. 113, pp. 273 and 274.
24 Consilium, Instruction Comme le Prévoit (25 January 1969); French version in Notitiae 5 (1969), pp. 3-12; English in Documents on the Liturgy, no. 123.
25 See esp. E. A. Nida, Toward a Science of Translating, with Special Reference to Principles and Procedures Involved in Bible Translating, Leiden: Brill, 1964.
26 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Fifth Instruction for the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council Liturgiam authenticam (28 March 2001), in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 93 (2001), pp. 685-726.
27 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Fourth Instruction for the Right Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council Varietates legitimae (25 January 1994), in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 87 (1995), pp. 288-314.
28 M. Luther, Formula Missae et Communionis, 1523: Weimarer Ausgabe, vol. XII, p. 218.
29 The text is available on www.usccb.org/romanmissal/OrdoMissaeWhiteBook.pdf.
30 See E. Duffy, “Rewriting the Liturgy: The Theological Implications of Translation”, in S. Caldecott (ed.), Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998, pp. 97-126 (also published in New Blackfriars 78 , pp. 4-27).