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A Rose is a Rose is a…?

What is the best way to convey, in words, the restoration of heaven and earth? How does the Church find texts to sing that great “hymn of praise” offered by humanity to the divinity?

Different translation methods have been used over the years that have produced different texts prayed at the Mass. An approach called “dynamic equivalence” was used in large part to translate the Mass we prayed in the former Sacramentary. An understanding of this method is captured well by Shakespeare’s famous tag, “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.” In other words, it doesn’t matter so much what a thing is called or how an idea is conveyed, as long as the meaning gets across. But is this true?

Such a communication philosophy is expressed in the Church’s first norms on translation in a 1969 document called Comme le prévoit. “[I]n the case of liturgical communication,” the document suggested, “it is necessary to take into account not only the message to be conveyed, but also the speaker, the audience, and the style” (7). In short, it doesn’t matter in large part how the meaning is communicated, just as long as the meaning is communicated to the hearer.

But another school of thought holds that it does make a difference what a thing is called and how an idea is communicated. Were we to assign a person to this manner of communication—and translation—it could be the Catholic scholar Marshall McLuhan. Here we could invoke (and adapt) his phrase for our purposes: “The medium is the message.”

The 2001 Instruction Liturgiam authenticam (“authentic liturgy”) provides translators with directions that are founded on the “medium is the message” philosophy. “[I]t is to be kept in mind from the beginning,” the Instruction advises translators, “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…. Whether it be a question of the texts of Sacred Scripture or of those taken from the Liturgy and already confirmed, paraphrases are not to be substituted…” (20, 60). According to this manner of translation, one cannot simply “get the point across” without the medium of the particular words. In other words, it does matter how the meaning is communicated.

The texts previously used at Mass were translated according to the first method: it doesn’t matter how you say it, just convey the idea. The English texts we use presently are translated after the second means: it does matter how you say and hear a thing, since the idea cannot be communicated except through particular words.

The Italian bishops’ rendering of a line from the Gloria—rendering the Latin in térra pax homínibus bónae voluntátis into the Italian pace in terra agli uomini, amati dal Signore (“peace on earth to men, loved by the Lord”)—seems to revert to the former school.

On the other hand, the English rendering of the Latin text, meum ac vestrum sacrificium, provides one example of authentic translation. This text is said by the priest at the end of the Preparation of the Gifts at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, “my [meum] and [ac] your [vestrum] sacrifice [sacrificium].” The former translation rendered these words simply as “our sacrifice.” Even though this translation is not, in fact, what the Latin text says, the translation does convey some of the meaning, for a sacrifice which is both mine and yours can rightly be called “ours.” Yet glossing over the distinction between the pronouns “my and your” and “our” also glosses over some meaning.

The present English translation, which considers more closely the medium of the words, renders this phrase “my sacrifice and yours.” In keeping the distinction of pronouns within the phrase, the words themselves convey a meaning that the former translation could not, namely, that while both priests and people have a sacrifice to offer to God, each offers it in their own way. Through ordination the priest is conformed to Christ in a unique manner, and as a consequence offers the sacrifice to God in the person of Christ, the head of the Church. But the baptized also share in the priesthood of Christ, even if in a different way from the priest. As a result of their priestly identity, each baptized person has his or her own sacrifice to offer, namely, the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings—their very selves—to God. The words “my sacrifice and yours” convey the meaning of “my sacrifice and yours,” both offered through the one priest, Jesus Christ, but in distinct ways.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Novus Ordo Missal and its rendering into various vernacular languages, let us keep in mind that each word in the Mass is important, for each of them—and all of them collectively—communicate that one love song which “is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n.83).

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass (Sophia) and, along with Father Douglas Martis, the co-author of Mystical Body, Mystical Voice: Encountering Christ in the Words of the Mass (Liturgy Training Publications).