The prayers of the Mass, although we usually pray them in English, are originally in Latin, and have to be translated carefully. They were last translated in 1970, and that was—all involved admit—a rush job that produced an inferior translation that doesn’t do justice to the Mass.
For some time, the bishops of English-speaking countries have been working on it—it’s a big job that needs to be done carefully. The process is nearing its end—at least so the bishops and Rome say. Within a couple of years, we will finally have a revised, updated, and well-done translation of the Mass into English.
When the new translation is put into use, it will be a bit of a surprise to many Catholics—because the differences between the old translation and the new will make crystal-clear just how inferior the prior translation was. In many prayers, such as the Gloria and the Eucharistic Prayers, whole phrases are left out and key elements of the meaning were lost. Now that will be restored. Much of the language is explicitly biblical, but that was obscured—now that will become clear again.
But of course this will involve transition and there will be bumps along the way.
Last October, Bishop Arthur Serratelli, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, gave a talk on the new Missal. What follows is my summary based on his talk, that should help to explain the situation and show ways the new translation is something to look forward to. Thanks to The Adoremus Bulletin, published by Adoremus, the Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, which published this address in its June-July, 2009 edition.
Who is doing the work, when did it begin, and how was it carried out?
Early in 2002, the work began after the third edition of the Roman Missal [i.e., the book containing readings and prayers for the Mass, as well as some of the music texts] was published in Rome.
The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) is made up of 11 English-speaking bishops, but consulted scholars from many English-speaking countries.
The goal was a text that would be usable in all English-speaking countries; even though different countries use the same language differently, the goal was to have a more unified experience of the Mass, not too much variation from country to country.
Once ICEL agreed on a text, it was sent to individual countries’ bishops for comment, involving back and forth over several years between all the English-speaking bishops and Rome. By October, 2008, a series of texts were prepared for final approval by the various bishops, and then to be forwarded to Rome for final approval as well. This final process is underway.
Bishop Sarratelli observed, while awaiting the new translation, “this is a good occasion to understand more deeply” the “particular style and language” of the Roman Rite. “Liturgical language is important for the life of the Church. Lex orandi, lex credendi. I.e., “how we pray is how we believe.”
Sarratelli added, “in the liturgy, the words addressed to God and the words spoken to the people voice the Faith of the Church. They are not simply the expressions of one individual in one particular place at one time in history. The words used in liturgy also pass on the faith of the Church from one generation to the next.”
Not only that, “the liturgy is the source of the divine life given through the Church as the sacrament of salvation. As Pope Paul VI once said, it is also ‘the first school of the spiritual life…’
“Wisely, therefore, the Church does not leave the words used in the liturgy to…any individual celebrant.”
Sarratelli adds, “the new translations have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite. Certainly some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not. And with reason. Let me now briefly comment on seven characteristics of the Latin prayers in the Roman Missal and their translation.”
Seven characteristics of the Latin Missal and how they carry through the English translation:
1. “Latin orations…tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point.” Teleology refers to the fundamental meaning of people, things, or life in general; eschatology refers to the ultimate realities that give meaning to this world, and which are our final destiny. So Saratelli is saying the prayers strongly emphasize our ultimate purpose and destiny in this life, leading to eternal life. This is something that gets lost if not translated well—thus the new English prayers will seek to convey this same emphasis.
2. Biblical References will be made clear. In the translation now in use, many of the phrases—in Latin—use explicitly Biblical language that was lost in translation. The new translation makes a great effort to restore this Biblical language—either so those praying may recognize the words of Scripture, or else seek them out to discover the source of a particular image.
For example, Saratelli explains, “in Eucharistic Prayer III, we will no longer say: ‘From east to west, a perfect offering is made to the glory of your name.’ Instead we pray the words of Malachi 1:11: ‘…from the rising of the sun to its setting.’”—which was not so well translated in our current version. Now it is both more faithful, and more poetic, without loss of meaning.
The words we speak together currently as the priest shows us the Eucharist before communion are a weak translation of Matthew 8:8, which will be restored as follows: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word…”
3. “The new translations are careful to keep the allusions from patristic writings,” Saratelli explains—that is, those major figures of the Church’s early centuries, such as Augustine, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Basil and others, who were so important in teaching and transmitting the Apostolic Faith.
In several places, the original Latin prayers include phrases and images that come from these great saints, but again, they were lost in translation. Now they are put back.
4. The new translation will respect the “rich vocabulary of the Roman Rite. The post-communion prayers employ a variety of words such as nourished,fed, recreated and made new….The many different words of the Latin text are not monotonously translated with the same words,” Saratelli observes. “Thus, by being faithful to the Latin text, the new translations enrich the use of our liturgical language in English.”
5. The Latin text uses many concrete images and parallel expressions. It also uses anthropomorphic expressions—i.e., human images of God—that “add a certain poetry to the prayers. “And so,” Saratelli explains, “while it is perfectly good English to say: in your pity hear our prayers, the translation respects the poetry of the text and, in the blessing of ashes, says: in your pity give ear to our prayers.”
6. Exactness and style befitting the liturgy. Care is taken to ensure the prayers teach about the Faith with clarity, as they are intended to do with the underlying Latin text which uses exact language as well.
“The Latin prayers are concise and noble in tone,” Saratelli observes; “When we frame our prayers in liturgy, the language of the street is not appropriate.”
What are the next steps?
Between now and November, the U.S. bishops will vote on the final texts, and with their approval, they will be forwarded to Rome for final approval. Sometime in 2010 or 2011, we should begin learning more about the texts and then begin using them.