When Moses came down Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, he saw the disobedience of Israel and was so enraged that he smashed the tablets.
So God commanded him to make two new tablets and come up the mountain again, to receive the Ten Commandments once more.
The text tells us that, when Moses went back up, God came down in a cloud and proclaimed his name: Yahweh. Then there follows a proclamation of some of God’s well-known attributes: He is a God of compassion and graciousness; he is great in mercy and faithfulness; he is long of nose.
Wait. … What?
That’s right. The text proclaims that God is long of nose. At least that’s what it says in Hebrew.
This makes no sense in English, but we don’t have the idiom that the Hebrew text is using. To translate this phrase literally would result in utter incomprehension, and, so, no standard English Bible renders the phrase as “long of nose.”
Instead, standard translations of Exodus 34:6 are liable to say that God is patient or long-suffering or slow to anger — each of which communicates the same meaning as the Hebrew expression.
This passage illustrates a question that translators face: whether to translate literally or to paraphrase what the original says. In this case, the choice is easy, but this is only one instance among many.
Translators differ about how often they ought to resort to paraphrase. One school of thought, which was especially popular in the mid-20th century, holds that translators should use paraphrase frequently to produce the smoothest, most easily understood translation possible. This school calls its philosophy “dynamic equivalence” or “free translation.”
Another school holds that one should paraphrase only when it is truly needed to prevent misunderstanding or incomprehension. The rest of the time one should offer a more or less word-for-word translation of what is in the original language. This school calls its philosophy “formal equivalence” or “literal translation.”
Both philosophies have advantages and disadvantages. Both are appropriate in different circumstances.
For example, some people have difficulty reading a Bible translation that isn’t in smooth, modern English. Other people want to do Bible study that relies on the kind of small details that get washed out in a dynamic translation.
Since we don’t all have to use the same Bible, that’s not a problem. People can even have more than one Bible and use them on different occasions, depending on what they are trying to do.
But we do all have to use the same liturgy, and that raises the question: What translation philosophy should the liturgy use?
A Vatican Volte-Face
The Holy See has changed its position on this. In 1969, the Vatican issued a document called Comme le Prévoit, which called for substantial use of dynamic equivalence in liturgical translations. The result was the translation of the Mass we’ve been using since the 1970s.
It’s not a great translation.
There was an attempt in the 1990s to replace it with an even worse translation, which was part of what led the Holy See to review how translations were being done and to mandate a completely new philosophy.
Thus, in 2001, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued an instruction titled Liturgiam Authenticam, which stated that “the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally [that is, completely] and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet.”
This is basically a complete rejection of the dynamic-equivalence philosophy, which seeks to conform a text as much as possible to the nature of the language it is being translated into.
Why did the Holy See change its mind on this?
The Long, Twilight Struggle
The established translation tried to be completely intelligible to everyone, so that just by hearing it and without using a dictionary, everybody — even those with little education or who have English as a second language — would be able to understand it.
It, therefore, succumbed to the tendency of many dynamic-equivalence translations: to go for a “lowest common denominator” style of translation. This had the effect of obscuring biblical references, making the text less precise theologically, and flattening out the grandeur and majesty that the liturgy should convey.
Also, it was often tin-eared. For example, just before Communion, it calls for us to say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
That’s supposed to be a reflection of the line the Centurion says in the Gospels regarding his not being worthy to have Jesus come under his roof, but that if Jesus only says the word, then his servant will be healed.
The 1970s’ translation obscures the biblical reference. It also fails to sound like normal English. It thus sacrifices the intended clarity regarding the biblical source of the statement without achieving a natural English feel. That’s the worst of both worlds, translation-wise.
There’s also another problem with dynamic translations of the liturgy, which is this: Colloquial English changes rapidly, and if you model your translation on colloquial English, then you will have to change it more frequently. It won’t be a gift that can be passed down for generations.
Thus, Liturgiam Authenticam states that the application of its principles “should free the liturgy from the necessity of frequent revisions when modes of expression may have passed out of popular usage.”
Basing themselves on the rapidly changing nature of colloquial speech, liturgical translators in the 1980s and 1990s tried to expunge references to the male gender from the liturgy on the alleged ground that it was no longer colloquial English to use these.
This was an ideologically motivated attempt to hijack the liturgy for a particular social agenda, and this is another potential danger of dynamic translations: Because they give the translators so much liberty to paraphrase, the translators may use that liberty in the service of their own agenda.
Eventually, the Holy See tired of its long, twilight struggle with the main English liturgical translation body — the International Committee (later Commission) on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).
It ordered the body restructured, its bylaws changed, and mandated a new translation philosophy for the new edition of the Roman Missal.
It took more than 10 years for all of this to bear fruit, but now we are on the verge of the new, more literal and, frankly, superior translation.
Will the new translation require some getting used to? Yes.
Will it require us occasionally to use a dictionary? Yes.
In the end, though, the change will be worth it — even if, as we are getting used to the new translation, some of us will have to be a little long of nose.
Jimmy Akin is a senior apologist for Catholic Answers.
He blogs at NCRegister.com. His new book is
Mass Revision: How the Liturgy Is Changing and What It Means for You (MassRevision.com).