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From the September, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Missal Defense by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Missal Defense

The Vatican Issues Rules on Liturgical Translations

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

In a remarkably forceful and far-reaching document, the Holy See issued an “Instruction” presenting the principles to be followed in translation of the Liturgy of the Catholic Church into vernacular languages. The 35-page instruction, titled Liturgiam Authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), was made public on May 7, although Pope John Paul II had already ordered that it come into effect on April 25, 2001.

Liturgiam Authenticam is only the fifth Instruction on the implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reform in the nearly 40 years since the council. In process for about three years, Liturgiam Authenticam appeared in time to provide translation norms for the new, third “typical edition” of the Roman Missal, the Latin version of which was expected to be released this summer. It also arrived near the end of a massive project of re-translation and revision of the major liturgical books used by the Catholic Church in English-speaking countries that began more than 10 years ago.

Among the key points of the document is the clearest and most comprehensive rejection to date of “inclusive language” devices in translation. Prime stress is placed on accurate rendering of the original texts, especially of the sacral character of their language.

Liturgiam Authenticam continues and “crystallizes” the policies of John Paul II’s papacy, which has consistently rejected linguistically flawed and politically tendentious translations of Holy Scripture and of doctrinally key works. The Holy See’s refusal of the “inclusive language” version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1993, and its subsequent revision and correction of the English translation, has been matched by its steadfast opposition to “politically correct” translations of the Lectionary and the Mass.

In light of this authoritative new document that “seeks to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal,” further amendment of revised books already submitted to the Holy See and still awaiting approval will apparently be required. The Instruction calls for correcting existing vernacular translations; its five chapters cover:

1. Choice of vernacular languages for liturgical use;

2. Principles of translation (including norms for Scripture translations for Lectionaries and sung texts);

3. Procedures for preparing translations and establishing commissions (e.g., “mixed” commissions, like the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL], which produced most English-language liturgical texts now in use);

4. Detailed publication procedures; and

5. The translation of “proper” texts for feasts and observances special to some regions and religious orders.

The Instruction requires all proposed liturgical texts and changes to be approved by the Holy See (i.e., the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) before they may be published or used. And there will be no more “original texts” composed by translators:

The “mixed” commissions are to limit themselves to the translation of the editiones typicae, leaving aside all theoretical questions not directly related to this work, and not involving themselves either in relations with other “mixed” commissions or in the composition of original texts. (98)

No “Inclusivisms”

Liturgiam Authenticam emphasizes that liturgical translation must be “exact in wording and free from all ideological influence.” Translation is not to be “creative innovation”; its fundamental purpose is to render “the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language . . . without paraphrases or glosses.” The words of Sacred Scripture and the liturgical texts, the Instruction says, “are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.”

Although the document never directly mentions so-called inclusive language, it is unambiguous about the matter:

When the original text, for example, employs a single term in expressing the interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human family or community (such as the Hebrew word ‘adam, the Greek anthropos, or the Latin homo), this property of the language of the original text should be maintained in the translation. (§30)

In other words, standard English generics, man and mankind, are to be retained in English liturgical translations—a marked contrast to the US bishops’ 1990 Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use, which had proposed person, people, or human family to be used in translating these same words.

The Instruction also explicitly forbids such devices as changing an original singular to plural (by which “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” becomes “blessed are they”), splitting words into gender pairs (e.g., changing “whoever takes up his cross” to “whoever takes up his or her cross”), or introducing abstract terms foreign to the original text (e.g., changing “What is man that you are mindful of him?” to “What are mortals . . . ?”).

Sacral Vernacular

The new Instruction sees great importance in a specifically sacral vocabulary:

While the translation must transmit the perennial treasury of orations by means of language understandable in the cultural context for which it is intended, 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 . . . will facilitate the development of a sacral vernacular, characterized by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship. (§47)

This focus on fidelity in Liturgiam Authenticam, even in cases where unfamiliar terms and “ambiguities” may need explanation, is a sharp departure from the prevailing theories of liturgical translators in recent decades and from earlier translation guidelines in use. It recognizes, however, the principle enunciated in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy that liturgical change should be “organic”—should develop gradually while retaining the integrity of the church’s history and heritage, rather than be forced to conform to the “spirit of the age.”

Among the changes that most Catholics may notice first is the Instruction’s explicit requirement that the Creed, Credo (“I believe”) be translated accurately (§65, 74). For 30 years, English-speaking Catholics have said, “we believe.” The Instruction explains:

The Creed is to be translated according to the precise wording that the tradition of the Latin Church has bestowed upon it, including the use of the first person singular, by which is clearly made manifest that “the confession of faith is handed down in the Creed, as it were, as coming from the person of the whole Church, united by means of the Faith.”

“And with your spirit” also returns (the current English translation renders “And also with you”), and the phrase mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa (“through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault”), currently translated “through my own fault,” is to be restored (§56, 65). But Yahweh will disappear:

In accordance with immemorial tradition, which indeed is already evident in the above-mentioned “Septuagint” version, the name of almighty God expressed by the Hebrew tetragrammaton (YHWH) and rendered in Latin by the word Dominus, is to be rendered into any given vernacular by a word equivalent in meaning. (§41c)

The Instruction also states that texts “which the faithful will have committed to memory” should not be changed notably “without real necessity.” Necessary changes should be made “at one time” and be explained to people (§64, 74).

Liturgical texts that are sung are to be faithful first of all to the text: “Paraphrases are not to be substituted with the intention of making them more easily set to music, nor may hymns considered generically equivalent be employed in their place” (§60). This implies that the practices of substituting refrains from songs for the prescribed Memorial Acclamations or supplanting sung texts like the Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) with new phrases will have to cease.

A New Period Begins

The document concludes with directions to national bishops’ conferences:

[F]rom the day on which this Instruction is published, a new period begins for the making of emendations or for undertaking anew the consideration of the introduction of vernacular languages or idioms into liturgical use, as well as for revising translations heretofore made into vernacular languages. (§131)

An “integral plan” for revising the vernacular translations of liturgical books is to be submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship “within five years from the date of publication of this Instruction” by the presidents of the Conferences of Bishops and the heads of religious houses. The norms of this Instruction “attain full force for the emendation of previous translations, and any further delay in making such emendations is to be avoided.”

What does all this mean in the United States? Judging from the meeting of the American bishops in Atlanta in June, a sea change has occurred. The days of ideologically tainted vernacular liturgical and biblical texts and translations are over. All new texts and revised translations must conform to the new Instruction.

Of course, the new standards make even more pressing the problem that none of the contemporary English translations of the Bible conforms completely to the Instruction’s standards for use in the Liturgy. The recently revised American Lectionary (Bible readings at Mass), based on the New American Bible originally published by the US Bishops’ Conference in 1970, is a case in point. The New Testament, revised in 1986, had to be repaired by the Holy See for use in the Lectionary, and the Psalms, revised in 1991, could not be used even as a base text. Yet the only edition in print of the complete New American Bible includes these defective revised texts. The lack of a uniform English Bible for both Liturgy and study is a serious matter, and one that will take time to resolve.

There will undoubtedly be some efforts to thwart the process of implementing the Instruction, but a consensus of support for the Holy See’s action is building among the bishops. A good many of them, in fact, are relieved that “Rome has spoken.”

For Catholics long-distressed by ideological reshaping of worship through manipulated translations and revisions of liturgical and biblical texts, help is, finally, on the way.   

Helen Hull Hitchcock is the editor of Adoremus Bulletin and founder of Women for Faith & Family.

“Missal Defense” first appeared in the September 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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