Incoming Missal

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[1], 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? šŸ˜‰

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. šŸ˜¦

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?


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.)

This entry was posted in Catholic and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Incoming Missal

  1. Andrew says:

    Very interesting. It’s nice that the church is acknowledging upfront the loss that comes when the familiar is changed (in my (Protestant) church, I’ve felt this kind of loss when the words to the hymns are changed).

    I appreciate your discussion of the translation issue. The issue of “homo” (human as opposed to animal or Deity) vice “vir” (“male human” vice “female human”) reminds me of this amusing imagining of the confrontation between Eowyn and the Witch-King: Here’s the (lengthy) link
    but the relevant passage is:

    ‘”You fool, no living man may harm me.”

    “_Distinguo_, Sir, I am not _vir_ but _femina._ Prepare to die.”

    “Excuse me, your Westron is so imprecise. I did not mean _vir_,
    I meant _homo_.”

    “Ah, point taken! In that case, permit me to point out that
    Meriadoc, who is not _homo_ but _dimidiulus,_ a Halfling, has
    just introduced an Arnorian blade into your knee.” ‘

  2. thewaterisfine says:

    It is a gift to be able to grieve the loss of language and a style of worship–I know I still miss phrases of the King James version of the Bible that roll around inside of my head. I came to the Episcopal church after the great prayer book in 1979, but it sounds like a lot of the discussion that went on at that time (and is carrying on in some dioceses still). Does the new translation, in its efforts to be accurate and precise, lose a great deal of the beauty of language? Or did they manage accuracy as well as style? That is one of my biggest beefs with Bible versions like the NASB.

    • I know what you mean about the beauty of language – it’s why I like the New Jerusalem Bible, which included some poets on its translation committee. (I confess that I find most of the KJV texts unreadable, unhearable, and unbeautiful, with a few rare exceptions whose status mostly derives from Handel’s having set them to music. šŸ˜‰ )

      As far as the new translation goes, it depends a bit on which aspect of beauty you consider most important. I’ve read nearly universal complaints that there seemed to be no thought given to whether the texts were easy to proclaim, so it seems to have done poorly with respect to sentence structure, phrasing, and cadence. A beautiful sentence in Latin is just not structured the same way as a beautiful sentence in English. Beautiful sentences in English are not constructed out of strings of subordinate clauses.

      In terms of beautiful words, certainly there was an intent to put this translation into a sort of “higher diction” than the conversational diction mostly adopted in the 1970 translation. I’m sure many will find the language more beautiful on those grounds. Personally, my impression from the few texts I’ve seen is that it tends more towards florid than beautiful; and I worry that the RC church’s besetting tendency towards triumphalism will be reinforced by it.

      • thewaterisfine says:

        I think a great deal of my enjoyment of the KJV texts does come from a childhood with that language in my ears. The New Jerusalem Bible is a lovely translation.

        Considering that the liturgy is such a sensory experience–cadence seems like it would be something that someone might want to give consideration too. That is kind of a bummer. It would be nice to find a via media in translation as respects content v. style. šŸ™‚

  3. Dick Mitchell says:

    Fascinating account; thanks.
    i have been to my share of briefings too where the heart of the matter is not reached until the very end, where there is so much prologue and preamble, as if we have to learn the origin of the species or the history of the world. May not be a device by the presenters so much as a fairly low opinion of the intelligence level of the audience.
    Am interested in yr explanation of the “made MAN” expression. I have recited that for 50 years from the Book of Common Prayer, without much reflection on the issue you raised. Of course, for a base-line conservative such as myself, “man” is still a synonym for “human,” and also for my 2008 edition of Merriam-Webster’s.

  4. Interesting to hear about other briefings that had all the wrong proportions, thanks.

    OK, here is the deal on et homo factus est, “and became man”:

    The reason for translating this as “man” rather than “human” comes from a Vatican document (can’t remember from which department, will look it up later). The argument is that, in Latin, homo can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. Theologically, this works beautifully (in Latin) to describe the Incarnation, because it carries with it the connotation that Jesus not only became an individual human being, but took on the human condition and (in substitutionary atonement theory) the sins of the entire human race. So poetically this is an excellent text, in Latin.

    The argument continues that, in [some dialects of] English, “man”, also, can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. “Human”, however, cannot carry both meanings. Thus, to retain the dual meaning carried by the Latin text, the English word “man” should be used.

    I respect the argument that is made, and agree that it is valid insofar as it goes. The problem I have is that this theological consideration of the text is considered to outweigh the anthropological and pastoral problems with this translation. (Well, strictly speaking, the document in question does not acknowledge those problems, so I’m not sure it actually was considered to “outweigh” them or whether they were simply not weighed at all.)

    The anthropological problem has to do with how human language shapes thought. In 21st century America, the primary definition of the word “man” is “male human being”. “Generic human being” is at best a secondary definition. Furthermore, there is experimental evidence indicating that people think of a male human being, not a generic human being, when supposedly-generic masculine language is used. (Thus on a purely technical level, the selected translation is, it seems to me, plainly flawed, because it chose an ambiguous English word when an unambiguous word was available.)

    This is especially true in a church like the Roman Catholic church, where “man” often explicitly does mean “not woman”. One of the conditions for ordination is that you must be “a baptized man”. Christ came “for us men and for our salvation”, and “baptized men can be priests”. “Men” either means “human beings” or “male human beings”, depending on the context. Therefore, as a Catholic woman, it is not possible for me to assume that the supposedly-generic “man”, “men”, “he” always includes me: I have been explicitly, repeatedly, and vehemently instructed that it does not.

    The pastoral problem is that, in a world and a church plagued by the sin of sexism, it is uncompassionate to prize a poetically apt expression of doctrine over the pastoral issue that many women will not be able to identify either with “us men” or with Christ when they pray this section of the creed. The whole point of this section, as written in the original Latin and Greek, is to emphasize that for people like me, Christ became someone like me. If the language doesn’t facilitate that identification for all Catholics, then the language is poorly translating the text.

    Likewise, in a world and a church plagued by sexism, there is the potential of misleading English speakers who only know the English, and don’t know the Latin or Greek, into the mistaken belief that the theology expressed in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed emphasizes the maleness of Christ. It does not. The church fathers, had they wished to do so, could have written (vir, andros) rather than (homo, anthropos). Indeed, there was a controversy in the early church about whether Christ took on (assumed) the whole of human nature, including the nature of women, and it was definitively settled in the affirmative, because “that which is not assumed is not redeemed.”

    It’s crucial to the sense of the Creed that Christ became human, not male. Translating the word as “man” potentially, and I believe _usually_, gives a mistaken impression of the underlying theology.

    (I did learn something new about this section of the Creed at this presentation, concerning the earlier phrase, “for us men”. The way many, many Catholics actually recite this phrase is “For us (pause), and for our salvation”, so as to avoid the exclusive language without messing with the rhythm. As far as I know this was a spontaneous adaptation that arose all over the country. The proposed translation submitted to Rome used this language. It was rejected, and the word “men” reinserted, on the grounds that the “for us” phrase and the “and became” phrase needed to use the same language, to underscore the parallel.

    OK, I can get behind that. From now on I’ll recite “For us humans… and became human.”)

  5. Pingback: Bible Translations: Formal or Functional? | Gaudete Theology

  6. Pingback: Deliverance: the Movement from Pain to Praise | Gaudete Theology

  7. Pingback: Chalices, Queer Theory, and More: So Much Internet | Gaudete Theology

  8. Just to add a few points here:

    One thing to add to what you already said: the use of “man” as a universal in English is because 1. there is no neutral that doesn’t refer to the species as a whole and 2. a lot of translation work to English started when men would have been the only civic and political agents anyway, meaning that women specifically were being excluded, which isn’t the case anymore.

    Furthermore, many language have ways around this (i.e. the German “mensch” or as you mentioned the Latin “homo” as opposed to the Latin “vir”) and most languages that don’t aren’t using masculine terminology as a biological function but as a grammatical function.

    Peace, y’all.

Post a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s