The New Translation: Words are Important

May 13, 2011

By Father Scott Settimo, OCDS

I have often marveled at the power of words, both for good and for ill. Poetry and well-crafted prose can sweep the soul up into an ecstatic embrace of beauty and truth. Emotional wounds can be cauterized simply with the words: “I apologize.” On the other hand, course gossip or ethnic epithets have the power to demean and ruin.

Language can affect the opinions of its hearers. “New and improved” somehow enhances a product’s desirability, even if the “improvement” is only a new package. On its face, to be “pro-choice” seems like an eminently good thing until one realizes that the “choice” involves murder. Certain words elicit almost reflex-like reactions; here, the use of labels is particularly insidious. Have you ever wondered, for instance, when you are watching the evening news, what the difference is between a “rebel” and a “freedom fighter?” There is none – except that the “rebel” is the fellow who does not enjoy the favor of the news media.

The truth itself, depending upon the words used, can be either transmitted faithfully or distorted. George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four speaks of the latter. Set in a world where totalitarianism prevails, the slogan of “the Party” is: “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” The protagonist’s job, in the so-called “Ministry of Truth,” is to change history by altering old newspaper records to match with the new truth as decided by the Party, which reasons, “He who controls the past, controls the future” – truly an abuse of language at its worst.

Transmitting the truth faithfully has been of the essence in the new English translation of the Roman Missal. It has not been an easy process.

For one thing, living languages – those currently in use, have the characteristic of being continually in flux; definitions are malleable. For instance, “gay” originally meant “merry.” It doesn’t any longer. No such problem with dead languages, such as Latin, which are fixed in their word meanings.

Translation itself provides its own particular problems. “Every translation is a traitor,” it is said, because exact meanings are difficult to convert from one language to the next. This is one of the reasons, no doubt, that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, in their Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) stated clearly that Latin should be retained in the liturgy. By way of exception, however, provisions were made for the vernacular to be used in parts of the Mass. As the vernacular Mass has become the norm in most places, the issue of integral translation of the Missal (the official text of the Mass) from the primary Latin text into English and other languages is of great importance.

After the Council, those who were first tasked with translating the Missal into English utilized a paradigm known as dynamic equivalence. This method attempts to convey the thought expressed in a source text; a laudable goal, to be sure. The trouble arises when the finished product comes at the expense of the literal meaning of the source, and particularly if ideological agendas enter in.

Toward “rendering the original text faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language,” the Vatican directive entitled Liturgiam Authenticam was promulgated in 2001. With its solid general principals and specific norms translators could now set to work translating the sacred text according to the mind of the Church, as opposed to externally imposed linguistic preferences.

That work, with respect to the English language version of the Roman Missal, has been completed and is to be welcomed. Yes, some of the words will be outside our normal vocabulary – “consubstantial” is not typically bantered about the water cooler; but the original formulators of the Nicene Creed could find no better word to describe the relationship between the Eternal Father and the Son. We shouldn’t mess with it.

Similarly, we will hear phrases that may not initially make sense to us. For instance, in the words of consecration of the wine, the priest now says, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all….” The revised translation will directly translate the Latin “pro vobis et pro multis” into “for you and for many . . .” (emphasis added).

Does this mean that Christ died only for a select few? No. Salvation is offered to all. Yet the Church here strives for faithfulness to the underlying biblical texts and their deeper layers of meaning. These include not only historical accounts of the institution of the Holy Eucharist (Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24) but also the prophetic songs of the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah, who has “the guilt of all laid upon him” (53:6), “giving up his life as a sin-offering” (53:10), “[and bears] the sins of many (53:12)…” (emphasis added).

There was a time when one could assist at any Catholic Mass in the world, hearing the very same sacred words in a language whose very immutability spoke of the permanence of God and the unchangeable truths of revelation. Given the reality – and admitted benefits – of the vernacular Mass, though, the new English translation of the Roman Missal holds promise as an improvement to our present translation and should be welcomed.

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