Translating the Liturgy
Pope Francis’ new document on the liturgy, Magnum Principium, might make a rather minimal change in canon law, but it has historical significance and ramifications.
In brief it says that the Vatican will no longer “authorise” local liturgical translations, but rather “review” and “confirm” them.
With this small change, the pope restores the intent of the Second Vatican Council in its document Sacrosanctum Concilium, to delegate to national bishops’ conferences — the “competent territorial ecclesiastical authority” — the task of producing translations of the liturgical books in use in their dioceses (36). This translation, completed in 1998 and approved by 11 bishops’ conferences of the English-speaking countries involved, was shelved by Vox Clara, on the basis of the 2001 Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam.
Pope Francis reverses a responsibility which was usurped in 2001 when that work was taken out of the hands of the local conferences and delegated to a committee within the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Vox Clara.
Before that, the late Archbishop Denis Hurley, as head of the International Committee on English Liturgy (ICEL), gave years of leadership to the production of a new translation of the English sacramentary with its Mass texts.
This translation, completed in 1998 and approved by 11 bishops’ conferences of the English-speaking countries involved, was shelved by Vox Clara, on the basis of the 2001 Vatican instruction Liturgiam Authenticam. This is how we arrived at tongue-breakers such as “consubstantial” from the previous “one in being with the Father”.
This instruction insisted that liturgical translation should be exact translations from the Latin (a process called “formal equivalence”) as opposed to the dynamic equivalence principle promoted after Vatican II, which allowed for greater flexibility to have the text make most sense in the vernacular.
This is how we arrived at tongue-breakers such as “consubstantial” from the previous “one in being with the Father”.
The formal equivalence approach also created absurd situations such as that of the bishops of Japan, over one single word. The Vox Clara committee rejected the phrase proposed by the Japanese bishops to render the Latin word “spiritus”, insisting on an exact translation — which in Japanese could also denote “bad spirits”. In the event, the Vatican relented after Pope Francis’ election.
It is fair to say that arguments in favour of both approaches have points of merit. It is also fair to say that the 2010 translations are unloved by many who have an interest in liturgical translations. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the present English translation, will new translations be forthcoming? Who would carry them out?
This is not a battle between “liberals” and “conservatives”, and we must beware of falling into the old “liturgy wars”. The recently late German Cardinal Joachim Meisner, a noted conservative, argued vehemently that bishops of the respective language regions have the final responsibility in liturgical translations.
It will be interesting to see what impact Pope Francis’ Magnum Principium will have. Given the widespread dissatisfaction with the present English translation, will new translations be forthcoming? Who would carry them out?
Will the 1998 translation, which represents the work of almost 20 years by numerous international experts, be revived? If so, it would be a fitting tribute to Archbishop Hurley.
Or would there be some attempt to “marry” that translation with the one we now have, at least relative to people’s responses? And under whose “watch”? Southern Africa’s bishops have other priorities. The provision of many translations in a multi-lingual country is no easy undertaking, and the pope’s new ruling will certainly simplify that task in its final stages.
Indications are, however, that bishops’ conferences have little appetite at present to revisit the English translations, also with a view to the cost of such an undertaking. Many people might also baulk at the idea of having to spend good money on a new missal again.
Southern Africa’s bishops have other priorities. The provision of many translations in a multi-lingual country is no easy undertaking, and the pope’s new ruling will certainly simplify that task in its final stages.
So attention to an English translation may seem of low priority. However, English remains the lingua franca of common celebrations, and the local Church may find benefit in reviewing the reception of the 2010 liturgical translations and what alternatives present themselves — especially should other English-speaking bishops’ conferences, those with no multitude of other languages to deal with, initiate their re-evaluation. The SACBC would then have to be part of that process.
Pope Francis has acknowledged “widespread difficulties between the local conferences and the Vatican in regard to liturgical translations”. In the manner of his pontificate, he calls for “vigilant and creative collaboration full of reciprocal trust between the episcopal conferences” and the Congregation for Divine Worship.
May his request be heeded.
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