A friend of mine served as a missionary in Papua New Guinea and was involved in the translation of the liturgy into the local native language. The jungle tribe he was working with kept pigs, and a man’s wealth and status was determined by the size of his herd of swine. Pigs were the tribal currency, for the pig provided meat, leather, bones for making tools, and virtually everything of worth. As a result, the local language was abundant in all sorts of references to pigs and the life of the pig. So after my friend had sweated for years to learn the local language, and he finally had completed his translation of the liturgy, he submitted it to one of the local elders for a critique. After reading the whole thing, the elder looked up and smiled and said, “It is an excellent translation of the liturgy, Father. The only problem is that you have translated ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts’ as ‘Super Pig, Super Pig, Super Pig. You are the most Super Pig of all Super Pigs.’”
The trials and tribulations facing the translator are complex. As anyone who has used a computer translation program knows, word-for-word translation doesn’t work. The syntax and grammar in two different languages is too different. Furthermore, with multiple levels of meaning for the same word, with archaic usages jockeying with slang usages, language is a complex and shifting medium.
When the texts are also sacred texts, the controversies and complexities increase. These words are sacred; some are inspired by God. How shall we translate them accurately? We are on sacred ground. How dare we?
The translators of the liturgy have grappled with all these problems — and more. Beneath all the superficial complexities are some foundational principles of translation, and it is at this level that translators disagree most heartily. One school of translation theory, “dynamic equivalency,” guided the translators of the Roman Missal just after Vatican II. The translator working within this framework does not attempt word-for-word accuracy. Instead, he tries to understand the whole meaning of the text as it was first written, and then attempts to find words in modern English to communicate the whole meaning. The result is sometimes far from the actual, literal meaning of the ancient text itself.
Those who oppose the theory of dynamic equivalency argue that the translator’s own cultural and theological assumptions can’t help but alter the meaning of the original.
The translators of the new translation of our liturgy have, therefore, attempted to be more faithful to the original Latin text. They have also tried to capture its elevated and dignified “liturgical” style and to restore the many connections with sacred Scripture that abound in the original. The result may be more faithful to the Latin, but it loses some of the advantages of simplicity and easy understanding that dynamic equivalency provided.
A very good example is the translation of the same phrase that gave my missionary friend some trouble. The 1970s’ translation of the Mass, which we now use, says, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might.” The principle of dynamic equivalency helped the translators deal with a phrase that is unintelligible to modern ears: “Lord God of Hosts.”
“Lord God of Hosts” is an ancient and mystical Hebrew salutation to God in worship. It recognizes the Almighty as Lord over all the “heavenly hosts”: the innumerable ranks of angels and saints over which God is the greatest Lord. Therefore, the more easily understood translation, “God of power and might” gives the general impression of God being almighty, but it does not communicate the idea that God is Lord over ranks and ranks of a multitude of angels and saints.
“Lord God of Hosts” is more faithful to the original Latin text, and it more accurately connects the liturgy with the sacred Scriptures. As a title for God, it echoes throughout the pages of the Old Testament — most memorably in Isaiah’s sixth chapter, where the prophet has a vision of the throne of God and cries, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts!”
If people don’t understand “Lord God of Hosts,” then let us inform them of its meaning. As we introduce the changes to the new translation of the liturgy, we have an ideal opportunity for better catechesis of the faithful. The new translation is not perfect, but it is better than what we have. Let’s hope the whole English-speaking Church will take this opportunity to learn more about our words of worship and learn how to use these new words to lift our hearts and minds to God in words of Spirit and truth.
Father Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary and chaplain to St. Joseph’s Catholic School in Greenville, South Carolina.
The new edition of his book More Christianity is published by Ignatius Press. Contact him at DwightLongenecker.com.