More on liturgical translations
By Bishop Edward Risi OMI
Immediately after the the Second Vatican Council, the body responsible for putting into practice the decisions of the Council in regard to the liturgy was known as the Concilium. It proposed the principles of “dynamic equivalence” as the way forward in preparing translations of the Mass in the vernacular.
Those who know the translation of the New Testament entitled “Good News for Modern Man” will recall that in many ways that translation was found to be refreshing and free from the encumbrances of formal translations of the scriptures. “Good News for Modern Man” is an example of a translation according to the principles of “dynamic equivalence”. But it is also problematic in that so many things are brushed aside which give depth and colour to the scriptures, uttered as they were in their own cultural context.
“Dynamic equivalence has become an outmoded idea: even its originator, Eugene Nida, ceased to use it in his later writings. Over the last 30 years specialists in language have become more aware that the form we choose for an utterance is itself expressive of our purpose in speaking,” according to Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds, chairman of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).
In reference to the first ICEL texts of the Mass, Bishop Roche noted that “[W]hen the translation of the English Mass was gradually revealed, some greeted it enthusiastically, others more critically. Some, indeed, if you were to consult the Catholic papers of that time, found the text rather plain, drab, and lacking in mystery and poetry. It was immediately recognised back in 1975 that the English texts of the Mass, the ones in fact which we are still using today, needed to be improved.”
The principles which operate in the new translation of liturgical texts are found in Liturgiam authenticam, a 2001 document which was born out of the liturgical evaluation instituted by the late Pope John Paul II to mark the 25th anniversary of the Council document already referred to, Sacrosanctum concilium.
Liturgiam authenticam has moved away from the principles of “dynamic equivalence” to those of “formal equivalence” which stipulates that one of the principal criteria for translating the liturgical texts is faithfulness to the scriptural originals. This is in line with the expectations of the Second Vatican Council which called for the return to the sources, scriptural and patristic.
The full text of Bishop Roche’s presentation can be found on the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference website.
The Introductory Rites of the Mass
The greeting of the celebrant has been revised in accordance with the principle that the texts reflect their scriptural originals. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
What has changed here? Why the word “communion”. This greeting is from 2 Cor 13:13. St Paul here uses the Greek word koinonia, translated communicatio in the Latin and is usually understood to be “communion” or “fellowship” in English.
This new translation has a happy outcome in that at the beginning of the celebration of the Mass we look forward to being in communion with God and with the whole Church as well as with each other through the reception of the sacrament of communion: the body and blood of the Lord. It is the Holy Spirit who brings this about.
The alternative form of the greeting has gone through a lot of revision, and this is thanks to research and scriptural studies. “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. This greeting is found in several places throughout the letters of St Paul. It was a standard form of greeting among Christians in New Testament times. It occurs eight times in the Pauline letters, for example in Romans 1:7: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Through my fault…
Catholics in Southern Africa who celebrate the Mass in the other vernacular languages of the country have always continued to declare their unworthiness with the threefold “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”. So in seSotho it has all along been said: “ke molato wa ka, ke molato wa ka, ke molato wa ka o moholo.”
The threefold repetition is a characteristic of the Roman Rite which is the rite to which we belong and the rite whose interests are served by the translation. You will find the same pattern of three in the Gloria — something which has also been restored in the new translation: “You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us; you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.”
There are many similar examples in the Roman Canon in its new translation — but we will look at that another time. An example found outside of the Mass is the litany of the saints as it is sung at ordinations: “Bless this man; bless this man and make him holy; bless this man and make him holy and set him aside for sacred duties.” This is something that I notice very few choirs get right in the vernacular renditions of the litany.
Those who insist that the threefold self-accusation is an emphasis on our sinfulness are correct, but it is not a preoccupation with our sinfulness. Rather it is made in acknowledgement that we, sinners, put our trust in the saving work of the Lord and thus ask each other, as well as Mary and the saints, to “pray for me to the Lord our God”.
Consider these words from the letter to the Hebrews 4:11-13: “Therefore let’s be eager to enter into that place of rest — we don’t want anyone to perish through disobedience… For God’s word is alive and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword; and it reaches as far as the point of division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and it examines critically the reflections and thoughts of a heart. And nothing created is concealed before him: everything is naked and exposed to the scrutiny of the one to whom we have to give an account.”
This is the translation of Fr Nicholas King SJ and in the notes that follow he states: “There is nothing comfortable about this, and we shiver as we recollect that a two-edged sword cuts first on the way in, with one blade, and then with the other on the way out” (page 547). This is the spirit of the one who stood at the back of the temple, daring not to lift his eyes, but beat his breast and said: “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Finally our appeal for forgiveness is answered with “May almighty God have mercy on us and lead us, with our sins forgiven, to eternal life.” This new translation was the most surprising of all to me when it appeared in the first drafts. So surprised was I that I went to consult other languages and even looked up the Latin text to see if it had been changed.
The answer is that over all these years this text has been mistranslated in all languages. The English text leads the way in giving this new understanding to the Latin text which comes from antiquity. A subordinate clause is used to express our confidence that the Lord will forgive us, and, as pardoned sinners, we will be led by the same Lord into eternal life.
Bishop Edward Risi OMI of Keimoes-Upington heads the SACBC’s Department of Christian Formation, Liturgy and Culture.