PHILADELPHIA — In the recently-issued Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican calls for “a new era” in the translation of liturgical texts. Register correspondent Brian McGuire asked Father Peter Stravinskas to shed some light on the new document and the “old era” in the translation of liturgical texts.
McGuire: Why this document? Why now?
I would say first of all that it's an attempt at correcting course. We are 35 years or more into a vernacular liturgy and it's time to takes stock of what has been accomplished. What's been good, what's been bad.
Secondly, it's a wake up call. There are serious problems with most of the existing translations in most of the main languages — in French, in Japanese, to a lesser degree in Italian and to some degree in German. The Spanish is probably the most accurate. We have found that some translations into the vernacular have actually not been translations from Latin but from the English translations of the Latin. So that you have an already defective English translation now as the basis of liturgical translation in another language.
The third aspect would be to say, with what we hope is the accumulated wisdom of the last 35 years, we can chart a course for the next 60. The document makes clear that this translation process is not to go on interminally.
Does the document's title
I think it's implying that there have been serious problems. No one is questioning, nor should they question, the validity of the texts. But certainly it's been less than a full-throated proclamation of Catholic truth.
Take something as simple as the Domine non sum dignus. For 35 years our people have been praying “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word and I shall be healed.” Well, the Latin says, “and my soul shall be healed.”
This is not an accident.
Has the Church's view of translation changed since the Council?
I think there has been an evolution going on in Rome. Initially, a lot of people involved in the liturgy reforms in Rome were, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about maintaining clear ties to the tradition. Then I think we moved from that group to a group that had a laissez faire mentality in terms of ecclesiastical governance. Then, I think with a number of us in the States in particular, combining with the attitudes of people like Cardinal Ratzinger … this has been starting to move toward a more creative synthesis.
There are people now who see the issues much more clearly and in a much more orthodox fashion than we've witnessed for a very long time.
I think it's not simply a matter of style and taste. These are important issues in liturgy to be sure. But I think the concern that underlies this entire document is a concern for doctrinal integrity and I think that screams out on every page of the document.
Why hasn't the Vatican done the translations itself all along?
The Church operates on a principle of subsidiarity — that nothing ought to be done at a higher level that can be done at a lower level. Also, it was believed that native speakers would be better able to translate into their own languages.
After 35 years it's been proven that this is false. …
I also think there was a great deal of internal conflict at the time of the Second Vatican Council. You had conflicting ideologies. The result was that the local churches were left pretty much to their own devices. I don't think it's fair, for example, to say ICEL went off half-cocked in 1965. I think they did consult with the Holy See and got mixed signals at best and, at worst, complete support for what they were doing. At this point, with a new generation of bishops and a new generation of young Catholics, this new generation is saying, “We don't want this anymore. This is not serving the worship of the Church and this is not serving the catechetical process.”
This document from the Vatican spells out very clearly what the role of a translator is and what it is not. Could these various translation bodies have misunderstood their role for three decades?
I think we grew into several things at once. It was clear to me as a 19-year-old seminarian that the translations we were being given were not translations. They were, at the very best, a paraphrase.
The original translators were not in sync with the mind of the Church as she presented the Latin text.
So, for example, ICEL had clear principles that any time the word anima appeared in Latin, it was not to be translated as soul — that a sacral vocabulary was to be avoided. …
Also, the Church was not to be referred to as “she.” One of the more delicious ironies of this whole thing were some of the changes that took place. Any time the Latin collect had God, it was to be translated Father. Then suddenly, under pressure from feminist ideologues, ICEL was calling for a return to the original language and changed Father back to God.
Some have defended ICEL's use of so-called inclusive language on the grounds that it has become mainstream, that it no longer has the ideological force it once did.
That's complete nonsense because in the real world outside the Church it's not an issue. I'm very careful about watching secular media, and the number of times in any given week on the news that the word man and mankind is used. Hilary Clinton herself uses the word mankind. I've taught at the college and graduate level for years and I have never had a single person in those environments — male or female — become exercised about that issue and they don't use that language themselves. This is completely apart from the real world. It was an effort of an organized lobby of feminists. The language was driven in that direction.
Some have said that the most important point of this document is the Vatican's insistence in it that the Roman Rite is capable of crossing cultures, of not needing to be altered to communicate the faith to people.
No one is a stronger proponent in the union of faith and culture than Pope John Paul II, and yet he begins with the position that every culture needs to be evangelized. There are aspects of culture and of our language, of our mode of living, that are not in keeping with Gospel principles. The liturgy created by the Church is an attempt — not an infallible attempt, but a serious and trustworthy attempt — at providing a text that is free of ideological taint.
What effect has the current translation had?
I think that we can't underestimate how much damage has been done at a practical level by having such translations.
Cardinal Arinze and I were having a discussion about this a couple of years ago. And I said some of this stuff would be humorous if it wasn't so sad. You take a simple line in the Creed like visibilium et invisibilium. A first year Latin student knows that that's visible and invisible.
What does ICEL say? “Seen and unseen.”
Well there's a world of difference between the two. I said to Cardinal Arinze, “let me give you an example. If I hid under the table I'm unseen, but I'm not invisible.”
He howled with laughter. He has said since then that every time he says Mass in English he finds himself smirking at that point in the Mass.
What was the point of that translation? It was precisely to eliminate reference to the invisible world, which consists of spirits and angels.
Once again that issue with the soul.