A New Translation for a Worldwide Faith Community
On the first Sunday of Advent in November 2011, English speaking Roman Catholics began using the new translation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition. New principles for translation were originally approved in 2001 and many years of work went into the development and distribution of the new Roman Missal. While updates to the Missal and to the book of instructions on how to use the Missal (The General Instruction on the Roman Missal) have occurred on several occasions since the original decision of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council to encourage use of the vernacular (the language of the people) rather than Latin in Roman Catholic worship, this update engendered more controversy than its predecessor.
The reason for the controversy was simple: the guidelines for translation had been changed to emphasize literal translation rather than the more interpretive, idiomatic, inclusive language that the earlier version had favored. As a result, in addition to the need to deal with a change of language patterns, people were being required to change from familiar formulations to newer, sometimes stilted or more ornate, and/or less inclusive ones. For example, in the new version of the Nicene Creed, the phrase “consubstantial with the Father” replaces “one in being with the Father.” When asked how to explain the word “consubstantial” to people in the pews, the response was to explain that it means, “one in being.” Such changes and explanations left many people scratching their heads in puzzled amazement that anyone would think the newer phrase was an improvement.
Nevertheless, the decision was made that a new revision was needed — if for no other reason than to update feasts of saints to include newly canonized ones. So a new revision of the Roman Missal was prepared and promulgated and the People of God began to adapt one year ago.
Perspective of a Translator and Anthropologist
In the interest of transparency, I will note here that as an anthropologist and professional translator, I was not thrilled with the new translation. I do not speak Latin, but I speak Spanish and read enough Latin to recognize familiar prayers and liturgical usages. The new translation, in my professional judgment, is too literal. As a result, its phrasing is sometimes awkward and confusing. The ornate feel of some of the prayers is foreign to our cultural experience, making them almost seem like parodies of an older time and sensibility. As a translator, the works for which I have been most seriously criticized have been those in which I was more literal in my approach. Even technical bio-medical translations, instructions for patients, and informed medical consent forms require a certain degree of freedom from the literal and conversion into idiomatic, more culturally-based constructions. Pastoral letters, poetry, fiction, and essays require use of poetic and culturally specific phrasing and word selection. In fact, word choice will even vary based on the national dialect of the target audience. An American in Southern California, for example, may well be puzzled at hearing that guests entered the room and were seated on the chesterfield. An individual from Alberta, Canada will immediately know that the item of furniture in question is what the Californian would know as a sofa and someone from Eastern Washington might call a davenport.
The idea that one literal translation will meet the needs of all English speakers in the world, or even of all English speakers in a country the size of the United States, fails to recognize the impossibility of expressing the inexpressible in any one set of words. Of course, no words can really capture the reality of God and our personal relationships with the divine, but literal phrasing can make it more problematic. Since words are both based in cultural understandings of reality and formative of them, words do not always convey the same idea when used in different languages or cultural contexts. The words used may also be indicative of a different emphasis or understanding of the same event from one language to another.
I appreciate the effort to make clearer reference to biblical sources for the prayers of the Mass (e.g. the “Lord, I am not worthy” before Communion is taken from the words of the Centurion whose servant was healed by Jesus [Mt 8:5-13]). However, in this and other instances, the “new” version is a return to the earliest translation we had immediately following the Council. That one was replaced for pastoral reasons: it was too literal, tended to be confusing to the faithful, and was non-inclusive in its gender references at a time when the position and status of women in societies around the world was changing towards greater inclusivity and equality! We have come full circle and the original version’s limitations have not gone away.
Enough of Theory, What Actually Happened?
Despite the reservations felt by many as the transition date approached, the first day using the new translation arrived in parishes around the world and we all stumbled through the new wordings. We learned new music to go with the new words. We found ourselves reciting the old words when our attention strayed or when we were deeply into the ritual and its mystery. Sometimes the celebrant forgot the new wording. Sometimes we did.
We’ve now had a full year to experience the new translation. How has it gone? I have visited parishes in California, Oregon and Washington state and seen some common patterns.
- The first insight is one I originally heard many years ago from Professor George Foster of the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. “People are pragmatic.” If we have to learn new words, we might as well start learning them as new songs; and so we did. If there’s an option regarding which prayer to use, we choose the more familiar or the less awkward one. The Apostles’ Creed is now much more commonly used, for example, in the parishes I’ve visited than the Nicene Creed with its “consubstantial with the Father” and “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”
- No one worries if a celebrant or participant in the liturgy gets something wrong. We just smile and go ahead with the celebration.
- Perhaps the most reassuring thing I’ve seen is that so very few people have left the community in a huff over the new translation. I remember when we first began to use English. There were a lot of people who left because in their view it was no longer a Church that was faithful and unchanging. What we have learned is that revelation is on-going. Christ is still present in His Body. The Holy Spirit still breathes life into each of us and our communities. And God’s glory shines out into the world as we gather for worship and then go forth in service in our daily vocations. We are, all of us, faithful and faithfully Catholics. Awkward translation or not, we aren’t going away. We’re going forward!
What have you noticed in your parishes? How has the new translation been introduced and put into practice? Are you seeing a deepening of understanding of the liturgy? Have you experienced new efforts to offer classes or workshops to help the people of your community participate more fully in the liturgy? Has there been a resurgence or deepening of faith in your community in the past year?
Please share your experiences here or visit us on Facebook. We’re looking forward to hearing from you as we move into this second year with “the new translation.”