Wednesday, July 24, 2002

The Vatican has rejected the latest English translation of the Mass

The letter from Cardinal Estévez is very good in pointing out the deficiencies of the translation as well as calling into question the ideology and theology behind it.

The full letter is here at Medinalet. Here are a few examples:

D. Certain texts included in the project, such as the seasonal introductions and the hagiographical notes in the Proper of Saints, by virtue of their genre as well as their bulk, should not be published within a liturgical book. At times, their very content militates against such an intention. For example, the statement that [St.] Jerome "began work on a new Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate," is historically inexact, since he selected and compiled existing texts of the Vetus Latina for many parts of the Bible, while his characterization as "irascible and intolerant" is hardly an appropriate appendage to the prayers prescribed for his liturgical Memorial. In the same vein, one might cite the inappropriateness of the reference to Santa Claus in commemorating St. Nicholas, or the unexplained statement that St. Callistus I "served a sentence as a convict," or the assertion that St. Pius V’s "excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I of England hardened the split between Catholics and Protestants." While there is an admitted distinction between a liturgical and a hagiographical text, these are neither. The present Observations are not the context in which to address questions of the veracity of these statements; it is sufficient to point out that they are out of place in the Missal.

A. The structure of the collects: Relative clauses often disappear in the proposed text (especially the initial Deus, qui ..., so important in the Latin Collects), so that a single oration is divided into two or more sentences. This loss is detrimental not only to the unity of the structure, but to the manner of conveying the proper sense of the posture before God of the Christian people, or of the individual Christian. The relative clause acknowledges God’s greatness, while the independent clause strongly conveys the impression that one is explaining something about God to God. Yet it is precisely the acknowledgment of the mirabilia Dei that lies at the heart of all Judeo-Christian euchology. The quality of supplication is also adversely affected so that many of the texts now appear to say to God rather abruptly: "You did a; now do b." the manner in which language expresses relationship to God cannot be regarded merely as a matter of style.

B. The unfortunately monotonous effect of placing the vocative "Lord" always at the beginning of the prayer has already been cited by the Congregation in connection with previous texts submitted for its approval. However, this tendency can also be observed in the present text.

C. After the Orate, fratres, the people’s response Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis ... has been distorted, apparently for purposes of "inclusive language": "May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of God’s name, for our good, and the good of all the Church." The insertion of the possessive God’s gives the impression that the Lord who accepts the sacrifice is different from God whose name is glorified by it. The Church is no longer his Church, and is no longer called holy - a flaw in the previous translation that one might have hoped would be corrected.

B. "Opening song" does not translate "Cantus ad introitum" or "Antiphona ad introitum" as intended by the rites. The Latin is able to express the musical processional beginning of the Liturgy that accompanies the entrance of the priest and ministers, while "Opening song" could just as well designate the beginning number of a secular musical performance.

C. The Congregation, in the course of its various contacts and consultations has encountered widespread — indeed, virtually unanimous — opposition to the institution of any change in the wording of the Lord’s Prayer. More than one reader cited poignantly the experience of having seen this prayer coming to the lips of Christians who had otherwise appeared unconscious, its familiar wording having been learned by them from infancy. By contrast, the Mixed Commission’s justification for its changes, in its third Progress Report on the Revision of the Roman Missal, seem inadequate and somewhat cerebral.

E. The rich language of supplication found in the Latin texts is radically reduced in the translation. Words and expressions such as quaesumus, exoramus, imploramus, praesta ... ut, dona, concede, etc. have been collapsed more or less into the terms "ask" and "grant," transferred almost always to the last line of the prayer, resulting in a corpus of prayers that is relatively monotonous and impoverished with respect to the Latin. In addition, these factors render the imperative verbs in the body of the orations somewhat abrupt and presumptuous in tone, so that the oration seems to be a command rather than a prayer addressed to God. Again, there is more than style at stake here.

F. The language often lapses into sentimentality and emotionality in place of the noble simplicity of the Latin. A focus on transcendent realities in the Latin prayers too often shifts in the English prayers to a focus on the interior dispositions and desires of those who pray. The overuse of the word "hearts" when the word is not present in the Latin text weakens the use of the term on those occasions where it actually occurs. Likewise, the overuse of the term "sharing" flattens and trivializes the content conveyed by the Latin word participes and consortes.

G. For patena, calix, etc. the translators avoid the use of specifically sacral terminology, and use words commonly employed in the vernacular for kitchenware. In an already secularized culture, it is difficult to see what legitimate purpose could be served by a deliberate desacralization of religious terminology. There do exist in English words for these items having sacral connotations, such as "paten" and "chalice" but these are assiduously avoided in the translation. The Congregation views this tendency with regret, especially in conjunction with certain other tendencies enumerated in these Observations, by which the sense of the transcendent is not only inadequately conveyed, but actively obscured.

E. The translation of "Et cum spiritu tuo" as "And also with you" has become familiar in the English-speaking world, and a change in the people’s response would no doubt occasion some temporary discomfort. Nevertheless, the continuous literal translation of this response in all major liturgical traditions, whether Semitic, Greek, or Latin as well as in virtually every other modern language, constitutes a historical consensus and an imperative that can no longer be set aside. The present translation inappropriately situates the exchange on a purely horizontal level, without an apparent distinction in the roles of those who speak; the literal translation in its historical context has always been understood in relation to the crucial distinction of liturgical roles between the priest and the people. Weighty considerations such as these necessitate that the English translation at last be brought into conformity with the usage of the other language groups, and with the tradition, as is also prescribed now in the Congregation’s recent Instruction Liturgiam authenticam.