As all English-speaking Catholics no doubt know by now, the new translation of the missal is coming soon. Most if not all dioceses in the US will begin using the new translation in Advent, at the start of the new liturgical year.
I attended a presentation a few weeks ago intended to educate interested parishioners about the changes. To my surprise, there are a couple of things I like about the new translation. The presentation included one item that I greatly appreciated, several points that I critique, and one gross deficiency.
Let me start with praise: the presenter (a lay woman theologian from the diocese) acknowledged explicitly, more than once, the fact that the existing translation of the missal are the words we have prayed for the last 40 years, the words that many of us have grown up with, and that we therefore are going to mourn its passing. Of course we will mourn its loss. And that needs to be stated, and we need to make room for that mourning.
I cannot tell you how much that meant to me. It’s the first time I’d heard anyone say such a thing. I’ve been on the verge of tears discussing these impending changes with other liturgically-minded Catholics, and either they have emphasized what a wonderful gift the new translation is to the church (way to completely discount my feelings, thx), or they’ve minimized the changes — clearly they felt sympathetic that I was so distressed, but they honestly didn’t get what there was to be upset about.
So to have somebody from the diocese say in public “Of course this is a loss” was such a tremendous gift, grace, and balm, and I am so very grateful for it.
A little background for my non-Catholic readers: As part of the work of Vatican II, the mass was changed. It was not just that it was now said in the vernacular instead of Latin: the actual structure of the mass changed. It’s commonly referred to as the New Rite, or the Novus Ordo, to distinguish it from the Tridentine Rite, which was the version adopted by the Council of Trent (thus Tridentine, the adjectival form — it has nothing to do with tridents, really!) and used ever since.
The official text of the mass prayers is still the Latin text. This official text is then translated into many other languages so that Mass can be celebrated in the vernacular. The current translation that we are using came out in 1970.
Now there are two ways you can translate from one language to another. You can choose a formal translation, which tries for a word-to-word translation, as literal as possible, so as to translate what the original text said. Or you can choose a functional translation, which tries to translate not only the words but the idioms and diction into the target enculturated language, so as to translate what the original hearers heard. To give you a feel for this, a functional translation of the Spanish phrase “De nada” is “You’re welcome”; a formal translation is “It’s nothing” (or even more literally, “of nothing”).
Working according to the principles of the Vatican II document on liturgy, the committee responsible for the English translation chose a functional translation, and furthermore chose ordinary, conversational language when possible. All this was to encourage the full and conscious participation of Catholics in the liturgy: the text should not require additional explanations — it should explain itself.
The new translation, at the direction of Rome, is a formal translation, and furthermore, when a Latin cognate word in English exists, it is to be chosen rather than an alternative.
There’s no absolute metric by which formal or functional translations are right or wrong. Both are equally valid. It all depends what you want to do. Scripture scholars use formal translations for serious work, but many use functional translations for private prayer or meditation. (I myself prefer the functional New Jerusalem translation for non-scholarly purposes to any of the formal translations.)
So a case can certainly be made that a formal translation is more appropriate. The best argument I’ve heard for this is that the version of the Bible we use at mass is a formal translation, so our mass translation ought to match it, so we recognize the scripture quotes when we hear them.
I won’t go into the pros and cons, or the other serious concerns I’ve had about the process out of which this translation emerged. It’s here now, and we have to start praying with it in Advent. And thus, this presentation from the diocese, to help prepare us for the transition.
My first critique is regarding the use of time. The presentation was scheduled to last 90 minutes. The first 40 minutes were spent on a historical presentation about the development of the mass and its various translations. Yes, some historical context is helpful, but the proportions were all wrong: this was just not respectful of people’s time. I saw several people walk out after 20 minutes when we were just getting to the sixteenth century.
The next 20 minutes were spent explaining the formal/functional difference, and making the case for a formal translation. A great deal of time was spend on the idea that the English translation was not just a target text (translated to), but also a source text (translated from). Because there are so very many languages into which the Mass needs to be translated, and because not every linguistic/cultural community has the resources to develop Latin scholars of sufficient expertise to translate directly from the Latin text, the English text will be used as the source for many of these translations, and that’s why it’s so important that it be as close to the Latin as possible.
Alas, this argument is entirely specious. I don’t doubt that there really are communities who need to translate from an English intermediary text rather than directly from the Latin. But there’s no reason that the English translation source, and the English text that is actually used in liturgy, have to be the same text.
In fact, you really don’t want them to be! Anybody who’s ever tried to translate from language A to language C through language B knows that you want the intermediate text to be incredibly, drop-dead literal. So literal that it’s not even got proper English grammar, if the source language uses a different word order. That’s what you want for a translation aid. You certainly don’t want a text that’s been adapted for readability, for proclaimability, for beauty, and so on — all of which are things you do want for a missal you intend to actually pray from. It would make much more sense to approve a literal-as-possible translation source text and put it in the libraries for translators to use, and then let the English translators work from it, too, ideally one for each English-speaking country (because American English and British English are not the same language, right?).
So this argument, that was clearly intended to be so convincing, not only didn’t convince me at all; it left me dubious about the degree of good faith in which it had been made.
Another item from this portion of the presentation: a list of critiques of the new translation was presented, along with a set of responses. Some of the responses were reasonable. One of them (Objection: expensive to get new books; Response: start budgeting) was either a bad attempt at humor, or just plain heartless, I’m not sure which. I can’t imagine how folks in poor inner city parishes must have felt when seeing that one.
So, the last thirty minutes were devoted to a somewhat rushed walk through the new texts for the people’s prayers — ie, the prayers and responses that we all say or sing together. We had handouts with the old and the new side by side, we practiced saying (and in one case chanting) the new texts together, the presenter discussed some of the changes, and we had a chance to ask questions.
Here’s one of the things that surprised me: it appears that, in many cases, the new translation uses less exclusive language than the old. She showed us one collect that demonstrated the resolution of a problem I’d been aware of from a paper I wrote last year, namely that in many cases where the Latin said simply Deus, which means God, the 1970 English translated it as Father. The new translation uses God. If the principle shown in the one example we looked at really is applied throughout, then that’s a very good thing.
The other little thing in this category is that the Holy Spirit has no longer got male pronouns in the Nicene Creed. Yay! (The new text reworks the section so it’s one very long sentence with subordinate clauses beginning “who”, instead of separate sentences beginning “He”.)
The one glaring exception to the more inclusive language issue is that I’m still expected to recite For us men and for our salvation, and Jesus still became man. Which is just bad translation. The Latin is homo, which means human and does not mean male human. Grrrr.
(I’ve got a whole separate rant about that, but I’ll save it — this is already long enough.)
The other changes aren’t too bad. “Consubstantial” in the Creed instead of “one in being” — well, knowing about the doctrinal wars over this phrase, I’m rather tickled to see the Latin equivalent of the Greek homoousia (same substance), which differs from the competing homoiousia (similar substance) by one iota (the Greek letter), thus giving rise to the phrase “not one iota’s worth of difference”.
Another change is that we may now use either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed at Mass. And the Apostle’s Creed doesn’t have any of these problematic issues. So, as another woman in the audience pointed out, there’s nothing to stop us just using the Apostle’s Creed every week, right? 😉
Because we’d already been there an hour and a half, once we rushed through the prayers to finish a couple minutes late, most people headed for the exits when the presenter asked if there were any additional questions. It does cross my mind that that might have been a deliberate strategy to suppress controversial discussion. 😦
But overall, I liked the texts I saw better than I expected to, although I surely won’t feel like I own them till I’ve sung or chanted them. (I tried out the new prefatory dialogue text to the chant tones that are used in the Exultet on the way home, but I’m not sure I got it right.)
So what was the gross deficiency?
WHERE WERE THE REST OF THE TEXTS?
Pardon my caps-lock, but seriously: What about the REST of the mass?
This presentation apparently assumes that the prayers that are spoken by the presider alone have nothing to do with the rest of us. What?!? As if good and faithful Catholics don’t pray those texts right along with the priest?
Heck, I was taught that when I was seven years old, getting ready to make my first communion: the priest says the words, but we all say the prayers silently, right along with him. They are all our prayers, all of us. They are the prayers of my heart.
There was a fair bit of talk during the presentation about the “full, conscious, and active participation” of the faithful – a byword of the Vatican II document on the sacred liturgy, and repeated in papal documents and liturgists’ works ever since.
But the diocesan liturgy office is NOT really preparing us for full, conscious, and active participation in the new translation by omitting vast swaths of the liturgy from our preparation.
Of course, we can’t go over the entire text of the new missal. We can’t go over all the proper texts that change from week to week. There are too many of them – it would be impractical.
But we could have, and we SHOULD have, gone over the ordinary texts:
– the options for the opening rite
– the prayers over the gifts
– a couple of the common prefaces
– the four commonly used Eucharistic prayers (or at *least* the two shortest, that are used most often in every parish I’ve ever attended!)
– the embolism after/in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer
– the options for the dismissal rite
Some of these are my very favorite prayers; I pray them often outside of mass.
In ninety minutes, we could have, and we SHOULD have, looked at some of these and discussed them as a group, looked over the others on handouts, and had a chance to ask any questions about the ones we didn’t discuss.
It is condescending to assume that the only prayers layfolk need to know about are the ones that we actually recite. It is inconsistent with a commitment to full, conscious, and active participation, and the liturgical spirituality it enlivens. And it is typical of the minimizing, discounting, “oh it’s only a few words that are changing, what’s the big deal” spin that critics of the new translation have been running into ever since this version was approved.
Henderson has investigated use of the address pater/father in the collects of the missal: it occurred four times in the 1570 missal, twenty-two times in the 1500 collects of the 1970 Latin missal, and a jaw-dropping 555 times in the 1970 ICEL translation of that same missal.
(information taken from Ruth Duck, Gender and the Name of God: The Trinitarian Baptismal Formula (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1991), 78; J. Frank Henderson, unpublished work on the use of paternal imagery in Christian worship, 1988, 44-45, cited in Duck 79.)