In Italian the word for translator, traduttore, is similar to the word for traitor, traditore — and Vatican wags often remark that the translator is apt to betray the original author.

Few issues are more neuralgic than the question of how to translate the Church's official Latin liturgical books into the vernacular languages. Now a new instruction, Liturgiam Authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the curial office responsible for the liturgy, provides a new approach and specific directives to guide such work in the future.

It is not known when the new instruction will have an impact on how Mass is said, but English-speaking Catholics will have to get used to some new phrases: And with your spirit instead of And also with you; I believe rather than We believe.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, nobody knew how best to proceed with the translations of the liturgical books; it had never been done before. But it had to be done quickly. So the translators (not traitors) set to work with only the broadest guidelines. For the English-speaking world, the national episcopal conferences of the relevant countries created the International Commission for English in the Liturgy (known as ICEL), an organization of experts contracted to provide draft translations.

Those translations were submitted to national episcopal conferences for approval, and then to the Congregation of Divine Worship for confirmation. The result was that the actual texts were produced by an autonomous consultant, presented to bishops who had the resources only to effect minor changes, and then forwarded to Rome. In recent years, the Vatican refused to give approval for several texts, which resulted in a cumbersome and acrimonious revision process. Last year, in a remarkably public vote of non-confidence in ICEL's work, the Congregation of Divine Worship indicated that it intended to drastically overhaul the whole translation process. The new Instruction intends to do just that.

Faithful Translation Trumps Creative Innovation

For the world's major languages, the congregation has declared its intent to be “involved more directly in the preparation of the translations,” meaning that no longer will the congregation be involved only at the last step. Furthermore, all the “principal collaborators” to the bishops (e.g., ICEL) must receive prior Congregation for Divine Worship approval for their appointments. Such collaborators themselves are reminded they exist only to assist the bishops, and that their competence is narrow: “translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman Liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language.”

In the future, translators will not be allowed to prepare new vernacular texts on their own, as ICEL did when inserting its own original prayers as “alternative” Opening Prayers at Mass. ICEL and various other translation bodies will be guided in future by a ratio translationis, produced by the Congregation for Divine Worship, which will provide specific instructions on how to translate Latin into the various languages, including “a list of vernacular words to be equated with their Latin counterparts.”

“The omissions or errors which affect certain existing vernacular translations — especially in the case of certain languages — have impeded the progress of the inculturation that actually should have taken place,” says the instruction, with no doubt that English is one of the “certain languages” in question. While ICEL has been the dominant force in shaping the Roman Rite as prayed in English since the council, the instruction, all official discretion aside, declares frankly that those days are over.

A new translation of the Mass in English may be celebrated within five years.

Currently, English-speaking parishes in North America use the ICEL-produced and congregation-approved translation of the “second typical edition” of the Roman Missal (Latin). A “third typical edition” will be published in Latin within the next year, and this instruction will guide its translation into English. Thus it may be that a new translation of the Mass in English, shaped by Liturgiam Authenticam, will be celebrated within five years.

“The words of the Sacred Scriptures, as well as other words spoken in liturgical celebrations, especially in the celebration of the Sacraments, 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,” states the instruction as a fundamental principle.

Good translation does not mean a slavish adherence to a word-for-word equivalency, but the instruction moves in the direction of greater fidelity to the original Latin.

“While is it permissible to arrange the wording, the syntax and the style in such a way as to prepare a flowing vernacular text suitable to the rhythm of popular prayer, the original text, insofar as possible, must be translated integrally in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses,” says the instruction.

That might sound innocuous enough, but on plain reading it would appear to mean that the current English translation of the Gloria is no longer acceptable. For example, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis is rendered and peace to his people on earth, even though the Latin says nothing about “his” people, and speaks rather of “men of good will.” Likewise, the Latin Gloria has four verbs for our homage to God (laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te), while the English has only two (we worship you, we praise you); the Latin prays twice qui tollis peccata mundi … miserere nobis, the English only once.

There are, of course, other principles which justify such emendations, and they have been used and approved in the past. Yet the instruction makes clear that “a new period” is now beginning, and the rules will be more exact.

Whether the proposed changes will be made or not remains to be worked out in what will surely be a highly contentious and drawn-out debate. Among the issues will be the use of “inclusive language,” which the instruction for the most part rejects, claiming that “such measures introduce theological and anthropological problems into the translation.”

Digging in for Debate

One expects that an interesting feature of the debates will be the appeal to “stability” in translation by those who favor the more recent innovations. The instruction is certainly aware of the danger of changing the liturgical texts too often.

“A certain stability ought to be maintained whenever possible in successive editions prepared in modern languages. The parts that are to be committed to memory by the people, especially if they are to be sung, are to be changed only for a just and considerable reason,” it says. Stability is especially important for the eucharistic prayers, which the instruction says “should not notably change the previously approved vernacular texts … which the faithful will have gradually committed to memory.”

Controversies will abound in future translations as the need for stability will clash with current translations that fail the instruction's general principles. For example, Eucharistic Prayer III speaks of the people making their offering a solis ortu usque ad occasum (from the rising of the sun to its setting), an echo of Malachi 1:11. Yet in English it is now rendered as from east to west, in French as “in every part of the world,” and in Italian as “from one end of the earth to the other” (Spanish, Portuguese and German maintain the temporal and spatial imagery of the sun). In this case adopting a superior translation in English, French and Italian will militate against stability.

The next few years will likely see more turmoil than stability as the instruction's directives are applied to specific situations. The battles will be especially intense in the United States, where pressure groups have already poured gasoline on the sparks of the new instruction. But, after those battles are fought, Liturgiam Authenticam offers the real possibility of both a more felicitous vernacular Mass and liturgical peace.

Raymond de Souza is the Register's Rome correspondent.