Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A wish-list for a new translation of the Mass (Comment)

There are rumours that Pope Francis has established a working group (composed of bishops) to look at the rules of engagement regarding the translation of liturgical text. 

These have been carried by the Jesuit weekly, America, which in turn cites an Italian journalistic source. 

However, there seems to be no reliable indication of what Pope Francis said, when he said it…or if he said it at all in the first place. 

Print media began to speculate that this will lead to a ‘revision’ of the Missal and other translations, whereas the original report used terms like ‘review’ and ‘revisit the rules for translation of liturgical text’ that have been in operation since 2001, and which were responsible for the English translation of the current Roman Missal used in Irish parishes.

If a working group is to be set up, is it likely that they will authorise the re-translation of the Missal? Rome is not renowned for publicly admitting that it made an error, so a review is more realistic than a revision. 

Eleven English-speaking Episcopal Conferences printed the Missal in 2011, at great cost, and for financial reasons alone it would be improbable that Conferences would approve a new text.

Working group

If we are to accept that a working group might review the translation process, including modifying some of the ‘rules’ for translating, then we could reasonably expect a few changes to the translation process. 

We should note that some years ago, Fr Paddy Jones, when leaving office as Director of the National Centre for Liturgy, expressed a hope in New Liturgy that Irish bishops would review the process that led to the current translation. 

Unhelpfully, media in Britain and the USA reported that Ireland was planning for a revision of the texts, and peoples’ hopes were unfairly raised.

What can we sensibly hope for if a review were to take place? Here is part of my wish-list:

1. The most far-reaching consequence of a review would be to give back to the conferences of bishops throughout the world the right to approve translations for their own local Churches. 
The liturgy constitution of Vatican II (no 33) stated that translations were to be prepared and approved at local level. 

This was changed some weeks later, passing on this authority to Rome. Pope Francis is now systematically trying to decentralise decision-making so that what pertains to a local Church to be decided there and not in Rome. 

If that were to happen, it would be reasonable that Churches using the same language would pool resources and work together to produce good translations that respected the genus of a language, more local needs, respect for inclusive language and gender, while also taking into consideration other requirements of liturgy.

2. Rome should dispense with the need for its own agencies to oversee the translation work in the various language groups. 

Up until now, Vox Clara oversaw the English work of translation, as did Sapienti with that of the Irish language, and Ecclesia orans for the German language. 

As had previously been the case, and now seems to be the mind of Pope Francis, Rome needs to trust the competency and integrity of local bishops’ conferences to produce their own material and make their own pastoral judgments. 

This might lead to appropriate cultural expressions that will promote the legitimate variety of liturgical expression which was not just permitted, but encouraged, at the Council.

3. The importance of this last point is well illustrated in the tendency in the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal to prefer a Latinate form of English over and against the more proper Anglo-Saxon. For example, we must now use ‘chalice’ – Latinate English – rather than ‘cup’. 

Modern language

Peculiarly, when the so-called ‘rules’ of translation set out in 2001 proposed (in no. 53) that “whenever a Latin word has a rich meaning that is difficult to render into a modern language” (among the examples given is the Latin word ‘consubstantialis’), it may be translated using another word or a phrase, etc. 

However, English language translators chose to ignore this and opted for the Latinate ‘consubstantial’ in the Creed rather than a more accessible phrase such as “one in substance with”, or “of one being with” – phrases not unlike those found in the current French, German, Spanish and Italian translations.

4. Many people do not realise that there are many other new translations in the pipeline – including those relating to Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, etc. In the process of producing these translations, a lexicon of Latin words with their ‘equivalent’ English meaning is being developed, as required by the Roman document of 2001, no 9.

In all languages, including Latin, words can carry a multiplicity of meanings. Professional translators speak of the constant need to interpret and they cannot understand this requirement for liturgical translation.

5. One of the great losses experienced with the introduction of the 2011 translation has been the fact that we no longer pray with a common language prayers that we share with our brothers and sisters in other Churches. 

This ecumenical feature of our liturgy (since the 1970s) was praised by Pope John Paul II in his visits to the USA and to Australia and New Zealand.

Had English-speaking Catholics throughout the world been allowed to use the translation of the Missal that was approved by 11 English-language Episcopal Conferences in 1998, these issues – among many others which could be named – would not be an issue today. We live in hope that a review might point a way forward.

Tom Whelan, Spiritan missionary, teaches liturgy at Loyola Institute (TCD) and at Maynooth. He is a member of the (Episcopal) Council for Liturgy.

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