Why new Mass translations were necessary
By Cardinal Wilfrid F. Napier OFM
The trouble with the current debate on English in the liturgy is that it has been allowed to deviate from the rules, with many choosing to play the man rather than the ball. Indeed, some have not even bothered to learn the rules before joining in the free-for-all that this has become.
Worse still, this has been allowed to happen to something as sacred, and as historically rich and varied as the liturgy. Precisely because the liturgy is a sacred reality it has to be treated differently from mere human issues. And that is why language has to be given priority consideration.
One would expect that the first step towards a reasonable and fruitful discussion on the changes would be to ask why the changes were necessary. The basic reason is that the time had come to revise the existing translation, which the original translators acknowledged as necessary even before the Holy See called for it.
Key to this decision was the fact that a different philosophy of translation had gained the upper hand, and was being used by the Vatican. Other reasons included linguistic and stylistic refinement and the correction of liturgical and theological inaccuracies.
Let’s start with the philosophy of translation. There are two philosophies of translation:
a) dynamic equivalence (DE) and
b) literal equivalence (LE), sometimes described as “essentially literal”.
DE follows the principle that the purpose and function of translation is primarily to communicate the ideas expressed in a particular passage rather than to render the meaning of each individual word. So DE does not need to stick closely to words.
For LE on the other hand “a translation must capture as far as possible the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such its emphasis is on word-for-word correspondence, at the same time taking account of differences in grammar, syntax and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. It seeks therefore to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original” (Preface to English Standard Version).
The translators of the Mass and liturgical texts in the late 1960s adopted the DE philosophy, which was dominant at the time. So they concentrated on communicating the ideas rather than on the words used to express them.
It is important to note that even at that time they acknowledged that their translations would need to be reviewed and revised after some time in use.
By the 1980s the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL) had begun the process of review and revision. That project had reached an advanced stage when Liturgiam authenticam was promulgated in 2001.
Liturgiam authenticam sets out clear and distinct norms for translating liturgical texts, among them the need to switch from DE to LE. This explains why the English of the new Order of the Mass is so much closer to the Latin. Close and dispassionate examination will quickly reveal the reasons for the changes. Some are linguistic or stylistic, others liturgical and theological.
Linguistic or Stylistic
Adopting the LE system of translation has resulted in an English that follows the Latin much more closely. It keeps close to the words, the sentence structure and the order of qualifying clauses, for example.
However, the more significant changes were for liturgical and theological reasons. At their head is the fact that the liturgy is the official worship of the Church, so it has to follow certain key principles.
a) The first is fidelity to Tradition — all that generations of Christians have done, starting with the disciples of Jesus. The clearest example of this is St Paul’s declaration: “What I have received, I now pass on to you”.
b) Second comes the authority which Jesus vested in his apostles and therefore in the leaders of the Church. By virtue of that authority the Church holds that there are two legitimate authorities in the liturgy:
(i) For the universal Church it is the pope as successor of Peter, and
(ii) for the particular Churches it is the diocesan bishop as successor of the apostles.
Both authorities are bound as was St Paul by the principle of fidelity to tradition and apostolic authority.
c) That authority gives rise to duties and rights that require both the pope and the diocesan bishop to ensure that the official worship of the Church is carried out according to the laid down norms, which in turn bear out Christ’s assurance: “what you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven”.
Application to Order of the Mass in English
In applying these principles to the Mass, the first thing to note is that prior to Liturgiam authenticam, the translation of liturgical texts followed the norms set out in a document called Comme le prévoit (As is Foreseen, 1969).
Comme le prévoit gave guidelines which applied the philosophy of Dynamic Equivalence. It set very broad parameters for those translating the liturgical texts into the vernacular. For example, according to Comme le prévoit, bishops of dioceses sharing a common language were empowered to approve a vernacular translation for use in their region for a period of five years before submitting it to the Holy See for recognitio.
A second fact to note is that those vernacular translations were done in haste and without much consultation. The Second Vatican Council ended in 1965 and already by 1969 ICEL had produced the English Missal.
Thirdly, not many bishops’ conferences had liturgical commissions in place, so very little consultation beyond the bishops actually took place.
By contrast, today conferences have suitably qualified lay people, religious and priests serving on liturgy commissions, and even parishes have liturgy committees. So the possibilities of wider and more meaningful consultation are infinitely better. As a direct result of this latter fact, when ICEL consults its member conferences, the responses they receive include a far wider range of views. Therefore it is not accurate or true to say that the bishops decide alone, or without hearing what the laity have to say.
A fourth point to consider is qualification. Just as not every priest or bishop can, or for that matter would, claim to be qualified to comment on the merits of translated liturgical texts, so I believe not every lay person is qualified to criticise the work done by hand-picked experts in a variety of fields, ranging from liturgy, Church history, biblical languages (Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic), patristic theology, anthropology, and so on.
I would therefore strongly challenge the assumption that a free-for-all on the quality of the ICEL translation is fair, and even more that it is right for The Southern Cross to promote such an impression.
Most disappointing, disturbing indeed, is the editorial in which the editor openly encourages dissent [Editor’s note: The editorial, titled “Liturgical anger”, did not promote dissent, but merely observed the nature of the reaction]. When oh when is our beloved Southern Cross going to become again the voice of a Church which believes implicitly and explicitly in the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit? Remember Christ’s promise: “I will be with you always. The Holy Spirit will come upon you to remind you of all that I have taught.”
This is particularly true when something like a liturgical text has the approval of the bishops of the ICEL conferences and of the Holy Father himself, who has been advised by a panel of high ranking prelates from countries around the world where English is used in the Liturgy!
1. The change from And also with you to And with your spirit. The reason is theological, and is meant to underscore that there is a real difference between the ordained and the unordained in the liturgical community.
With your spirit brings out the fact that the ordained (priest and deacon) are fulfilling a divinely ordained role which makes them different from the laity. So, when the laity answer “And with your spirit”, they are reminding the priest or deacon that he is acting in their name using his gift of ordination.
2. Pray…that my sacrifice and yours. This change carries forward the above idea that the priest by virtue of his ordination fulfils a different function in the Mass, namely to offer the sacrifice of Calvary on the altar, while the laity are invited to associate their sacrifices — prayer, fasting, sufferings and so on with the sacrifice of the priest.
3. From all things seen and unseen to all things visible and invisible is a change that re-emphasises our belief in the spiritual. Invisible describes something that cannot be seen, while unseen could mean that something is simply out of sight, for example behind a door. Invisible brings out the dimensions of our reality which are there but cannot be seen, for example the soul, angels and especially the Holy Spirit.
4. This is also the reason for the return of “my soul shall be healed”, rather than “I shall be healed”.
The English used in the liturgy is quite clearly seeking to restore the reality of the spiritual to our thinking and practice.
Cardinal Wilfrid Napier is the archbishop of Durban and a former president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
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