Words, Words, Words

Words, Words, Words

The vexed question of liturgical translation

Commentators on liturgical matters rarely fail to mention that etymologically ‘liturgy’ goes back to Greek leitourgía – public service, work of the people. It was with this in mind that the cardinals and bishops of the Second Vatican Council introduced, in the Council’s first Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, the recommendation that vernacular languages be used more extensively than previously in the celebration of Mass, in order to encourage what the Council Fathers called partecipatio plena et actuosa: full, active participation. There was and is disagreement as to the meaning of the two adjectives, plena and actuosa, with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (as he then was) insisting that ‘active’ did not necessarily imply more than “perceive, receive and be inwardly moved”1; but although his fear that the Mass would become “a show, a spectacle” is understandable, the purely passive participation of the assembly risks transforming the celebrant into the star turn in the ‘show’ at the altar – which is precisely what Cardinal Ratzinger was anxious to avoid.
The unease he expressed has not altogether been dissolved in the 60 or so years since the Council. Successive translations of the liturgy of the Mass into English have been dismissed, often by churchmen whose own native language was not English, most memorably by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments and Divine Worship (CDW), who did not speak English at all; indeed, not one of his colleagues in the Congregation was a native English speaker. The International Commission for English in the Liturgy (ICEL), composed of Anglophone clerics, produced a revision of the first translation of the Sacramentary, which had appeared in 1973; their work, approved by all eleven of the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, was submitted in 1998 for Vatican approval, but the Commission’s fifteen years of work were summarily dismissed, and by the turn of the century Medina, refusing even to meet with a delegation headed by the then President of ICEL, Bishop Maurice Taylor of the Diocese of Galloway in south-west Scotland, went on to foster the preparation and publication in May 2001 of Liturgiam Authenticam, a highly conservative document with retroactive effect. In due course a new Commission was formed, dominated by clerics who were prepared to work within the limitations proposed by Liturgiam Authenticam: translations were henceforth to be “as literal as possible”, following the lexis and – even more irrationally – the syntax of Latin:  this, despite the fact that English is not a neo-Latin language and has a different syntactical structure from languages such as Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. The results have been akin to cooking with the wrong ingredients.
For some churchgoers, the obvious solution would be to return to the exclusive use of Latin as the universal liturgical language. The argument is that, in pre-Vatican II times, a Catholic could go to Mass anywhere in the world and understand what was going on. This begs two questions:

  1. How many of us are fluent in Latin and thus really understand the words of the old liturgy?
  2. Since the Order of Mass  (Introductory Rites, Penitential Rite, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist, Rite of Communion, Concluding Rite) is invariable, and is accompanied by gestures which are equally unchanging, can we not understand what is going on in Korean or Flemish or Maori as much as we understand it in Latin?


It should be added that the pronunciation of Latin is not the same in all language communities: for example, pupils are taught in Great Britain to pronounce it differently from, Italians, with consequences that can be imagined. Those of us who had five or six years of Latin at secondary school can at least avoid the failure to respect case endings that is – unsurprisingly – common among those with no background in this stone-dead language: how are they to know that the accusative form differs from the nominative, and as a result ‘Jesus’ is sometimes Jesum, for example? This kind of grammatical concordance is a mystery to the majority of worshippers.

The liturgy of the Mass is largely structured in the form of a dialogue between the celebrant and the congregation; at various points all participants address one another (e.g. in the Confiteor) or address God (Lord, I am not worthy…; Holy, holy, holy…; Lamb of God). It seems, at least to the present writer, unlikely that God has a marked preference for being addressed in Latin (or indeed in any other specific tongue), so the question of language concerns the priest and the assembly – chiefly the latter, since the priest has spent several years studying in preparation for his role, and may be supposed to fully understand the implications of the words he and the faithful speak. I am not convinced that this is true of those of us sitting (standing, kneeling) in the body of the church. We learn the words by heart, saying them week after week – for some, day after day – and as a result we repeat them, on occasion, without thinking, or while thinking about something else, something that is not necessarily of immediate relevance to the Mass. If this experience is foreign to all my readers and I am alone in my distractions, “the credit of a wild imagination”, to quote Jane Austen, “will at least be all my own.” In any case, we can understand most of the words, as they are spoken in the vernacular. A return to Latin would recreate the situation familiar prior to Vatican II: those who have no knowledge of Latin would take refuge in private prayer, and private prayer, desirable though it be, is not what the liturgy is about.
Even in the vernacular, however, some difficulties subsist. What the CDW likes to call the “sacral vernacular” – the choice in the liturgical context of otherwise rare words, and the insistence, for the English-speaking churches, on rigorous adherence to word order that is unnatural to our language – has created a new set of difficulties. In part, this is a matter of single words: confess (in two senses: admit to a sin; acknowledge a belief), oblation, sanctify, consubstantial all come to mind. Ironically, should some puzzled churchgoer ask what the last of these means, the answer is bound to be along the lines “of the same substance as” or “of one substance with” – which is almost exactly what we used to say before the latest translation was issued. The concept remains difficult, but the words are more familiar, and this is surely desirable. There are also moments of unintentional hilarity: “…. a place of refreshment” drew comments on both sides of the Atlantic to the effect that it sounded like a reference to a cocktail bar or a pub. As to word order:  “To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition” is patently straight from the Latin; no native English speaker says “To you, therefore, X” and only then expresses the subject and verb; or “Make holy, O Lord, we pray, these gifts” (imagine a speaker saying “Close, O Richard, please, the window”). When has any of these been a probable utterance? English word order is the fruit of literally hundreds of years of linguistic development, and to sweep it aside is irrational and shows scant respect for the local community.
At some points the current translation makes little sense. “Command that we be delivered from eternal damnation” (Eucharistic Prayer I): is it not God who will deliver us from damnation? and if that is so, are we to understand that the suggestion is that God issue a command to himself? There are also sentences of such contorted structure that they are barely comprehensible even to the reader reflecting on them in solitude: for example, in the already quoted Eucharistic Prayer2, “To you, therefore, mot merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition”, where the assembly’s mental participation is compromised by the (frankly) outrageous word order, and the celebrant is sorely tried by the rhythm, proceeding as it does in a series of hiccoughs, with five phrases of two or three syllables apiece, each covering a different syntactical role. Occasionally the sense is obscure even when the listener is making a determined effort to participate fully and actively: “Graciously grant some share and fellowship with your holy Apostles and Martyrs” – in what are we asking to be granted some share?
The justification offered for all this is that it adheres closely to the Latin original (hence “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray”, where, because Latin sanctificare is one word, ‘make holy’ is treated as a unit, although with no alteration to the meaning it would be much more natural to say “therefore make these gifts holy”). Ironically, the Italian Bishops’ Conference recently altered the wording of the Lord’s Prayer, “Non ci indurre in tentazione” ( ‘Lead us not into temptation’, where indurre is so clearly related to the Latin inducas) to “Non abbandonarci alla tentazione”, ‘do not abandon us to temptation’ – thus Italian, a neo-Latin language, is deviating from the Latin original while English, a Germanic language, is perpetrating syntactic and lexical horrors in the attempt to remain close to that same original.

An area which remains controversial is, of course, inclusive language. In both Catholic and Protestant circles, this issue has excited lively debate. Extremists would demand that inclusive language be applied vertically (i.e. to God) as well as horizontally (to human beings): not King, Lord, Father but (presumably) Queen, Lady, Mother. Alas, this, in Catholic circles, would result in confusion with the figure of the Virgin Mary. It is entirely reasonable, however, for women – and some men – to protest at being expected to say, in the Creed, “For us men and for our salvation”. Those who defend this and other instances of the use of masculine forms to refer to human beings in general argue that ‘men’ is inclusive of women, although even 2000 years ago this was recognised as not necessarily being the case: in the Gospel of Matthew, 14:21 and 15:38, relating the two miracles of the loaves and fishes, Matthew tells us that there were 5000 men present on the first occasion and 4000, on the second, in both cases adding that these numbers do not include the women and children.
There are contexts in which the intention of inclusiveness is clear, the Creed being one such case; but to say that a word – any word – is sometimes inclusive and so must sometimes be understood as such is simply to connive at a failure of communication. One American Jesuit argued – admittedly some 25 years ago; perhaps he has changed his mind – that “There is no such thing as exclusive language”, defending his assertion with the following example:

[…] in the sentence “I bought three goats and six pigs” we cannot know how many adults and how many piglets made up the purchase. [This] is not an instance of ‘exclusive language’; no potential piglet is left out of the discourse; ‘pig’ is simply unmarked for size.3

On this basis, he contends that women should not be offended by generic men, failing to recognise that no potential piglet is likely to be so sensitive to language as to protest at being lumped in with adult pigs. It makes no sense to argue a linguistic case by making reference to categories as different (I must insist) as women and pigs. Moreover, if we accept Fr Mankowski’s argument, the statement “All Catholic priests must be men” would open the priesthood to women.
There are cases of over-reaction to both exclusive and inclusive language, but when I first undertook research on this subject I was encouraged by, among others, the former Master of the Order of Preachers Timothy Radcliffe, who said firmly that “There is absolutely no reason not to use inclusive language”, and his American confrere Br Gerald (Jerry) Stookey told me, “as a man and a feminist, I am not at peace with a church that excludes women from its liturgy”.4

Pope Francis’s motu proprio Magnum Principium (3 September 2017) raised the hopes of many of us that a better translation of the Missal would be forthcoming – indeed, the 1998 version, approved by all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, would be fairly generally welcomed. As Bishop Maurice Taylor, president of ICEL at that time, remarks, it “needs some updating, mainly to include Masses for those made saints in the last twenty years5”, but the bulk of the work was done long ago, and I am able to confirm that it is fluid, dignified and in no way doctrinally misleading. The Church’s reverence for Latin remains something of a mystery, since neither the Old nor the New Testament was written in Latin, which entered the picture at a later date, above all with St Jerome’s magisterial translation of Scripture.

     The polyglot scholar George Steiner wrote in his major work on translation After Babel: “No man [and no woman!] must be kept from salvation by mere barriers of language”.6 It is with this in mind that many of us continue to maintain that there is an urgent need for revision of the current English translation of the Sacramentary, the cost of which in purely financial terms would admittedly be considerable; but it would be amply compensated by the renewed possibility of full, active participation

1 Joseph Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1985, p. 128

2 These are the first words of Eucharistic Prayer I.

3 Paul Mankowski SJ, ‘Silk purses and sow’s ears: “Inclusive Language” Comes to Mass”, Voices online edition, February 1994, accessed at www.wf-f.org

4 Personal communications, for which I am most grateful to Brs Timothy and Jerry.

5 Bishop Taylor himself, now well into his nineties, sent me the text of this article, which was originally published in the Scottish Catholic online magazine Open House. I am very grateful to him for conversation, documentation, emails, tea and biscuits and warm friendship.

6 George Steiner, After Babel, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1992

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