Thursday, March 04, 2010

Q&A: What’s wrong with the present translation—why not keep it?

(Another Q&A about the new translation of the Mass...)

To be clear, no one is claiming that the translation is so problematic that the Mass isn’t a valid Mass. But there are some unintentional ways it gives a wrong impression about what we believe. Some are more concerning than others, but surely we want our Mass prayers to be translated so our Faith is expressed the right way.

A larger question is whether the current translation conveys the full meaning of the prayers of the Mass. This is a more common problem.

An even broader question is one of “fidelity” to the text.

When the current translation was put together, quickly, the approach was to translate more loosely. The new translation follows the Latin prayers more closely. There is a case to be made for both approaches, but in 1998, at the behest of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican issued a document called Liturgicam Authenticam that gave direction on how prayer texts for the liturgy were to be translated—and it called for following the Latin texts more closely, rather than a looser approach that was used earlier.

(FYI, also realize these are intended for use in the parish, so they are not as in-depth as they might be. But that's not to say they shouldn't go further...feel free to offer suggestions.)


Fr. Bryan T. Reif said...

Very good comment, and approach to the question Fr. Martin. I have already gotten some questions about "why" this is necessary. Part of the issue is a lack of catechesis about the Mass, ie. why we do what we do, what the symbols mean, or even its sacrificial nature. In so many ways, so many approach the Mass so casually, because they do not understand that it is a participation in the One Sacrifice of Christ, that they enter into the Mystery of the Lord's Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We need to do a better job of teaching what the Mass really is. Perhaps a group of us should meet to strategize how to do the catechesis...

Rich Leonardi said...


You might incorporate some of the commentary (or concepts) from Bishop Arthur Serratelli's recent column for America magazine:

Fr Martin Fox said...


That's a good article, thanks...

I probably will incorporate some, as well as maybe just copy the article in whole.

Bishop Seratelli is actually a little kinder to the current translation than I am...I do think it's "flat and uninspiring," certainly in many instances, if not entirely...

Mama said...

Fr. Martin,

I've read the article sited and understand what he (and you) are saying in the perceived need of the translation.

But, perhaps you find the original interpretation flat and uninspiring because it is the language you learned, studied and dissected in your process for ordination. As one who has gone from the Latin to the English translation, I find the current transalation uplifting and beautiful (and yes, I realize it is not completely original). Interpretation, feeling and belief has so much to do with our personal history.

As is often quoted (and I'm not sure of the author) "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

Thanks - HTM

Fr Martin Fox said...


Well, it's not just that.

I have to say, I was truly shocked when--just a couple of years ago--I first started comparing our present English translation with the underlying Latin.

And by the way, I am not fluent in Latin, but I have some acquaintance with it.

For example, if you set either the Gloria, or the First Eucharistic prayers, in Latin, side-by-side with their current English translation, you're going to notice something...

The English is much shorter in length--too much to be explained merely by variations between English and Latin. (And don't assume Latin requires more words to say something. On the contrary, Latin will often say in a single word what we must say in a phrase.)

When I looked closer--and I noticed this when I began praying the First Eucharistic Prayer in Latin as well--I realized that whole phrases were simply left out!

And a really interesting, and striking image, is, yes, "flattened."

Here are some examples from the Roman Canon. What follows are phrases from the Latin, followed by the current "translation" of them, and then by the new translation; but even in the Latin, you can see what I mean:

haec dona, haec munera, haec sancta sacrificia illibata...


"these gifts"


"these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices..."

Quam oblationem tu, Deus, in omnibus, quaesumus, benedictam, adscriptam, ratam, rationabilem, acceptabilemque facere digneris...


"Bless and approve our offering; make it acceptable to you, and offering in spirit and in truth."


"Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect;
make it spiritual and acceptable..."

hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam, Panem sanctum vitae aeternae et Calicem salutis perpetuae...


"...this holy and perfect sacrifice: the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation."


"this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim, the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation."

Theresa said...

Hello, Father,
You mentioned that there is a case to be made for using loose translations from Latin to English. Why did they do that in the first place? I remember in my youth my now 83-year-old father expressing consternation over the translation. He did not seem to mind praying the Mass in English, but he would often take texts and compare the Latin to the English side-by-side as you have done. He would point out that the English translation often times either did not seem to translate the Latin text correctly, or sometimes just translated it un-poetically, or as you say flat. He now suffers with Alzheimer's and will probably not be able to realize or appreciate these new changes. I look forward to them, however, and I thank you for teaching us about them with such great love.

Fr Martin Fox said...


It's a balancing act, because if one translates a text too tightly, especially where there is idiom involved, then the meaning can also be obscured.

The reason is that you're not only translating words, but also ideas. Some will say, just focus on the ideas, don't worry about translating the exact words--and at times, that helps meaning, because the exact words may involve an idiom or expression that is common in the other language, but not in ours.

However, if one goes too far in that direction, one loses meaning as well; the original author chose his or her words for a reason, and conveying those words can be very helpful in conveying the author's message.

Everyone involved in translating (and that doesn't include me) would say it's all a matter of just how you balance that.

To cite an example from the First Eucharistic Prayer:

in primis, quae tibi offerimus pro Ecclesia tua sancta catholica: quam pacificare, custodire, adunare, et regere digneris toto orbe terrarum...

That last phrase, in bold, strictly translated is, "in the total circuit of the lands."

Now, I rather like that expression, but what does it mean? Does it mean, the land around here? Or the circuit of the land the Emperor rules? Or the circuit of the earth?

In the current translation, it's rendered, "throughout the world." In the new translation, it's rendered, "throughout the whole world."

In both cases, the translators judged that we had an idiomatic expression that, as-is, is less clear in English than it presumably is in Latin. Those producing the newer translation only saw fit to add "whole," which does, I think, convey a bit better the force of the Latin expression.

Now, in this particular case, that's a very small change, hardly worth getting excited about one way or the other. Other passages were--as I showed earlier--rendered rather differently.

Now, where you can see the benefit of a looser approach is when you read Scripture--many people will say, this is hard--what is the author getting at? And then they will reach for a paraphrase "translation," and say, ah, now I get it.

That's good, isn't it? Yes, but--there is a significant downside. In making sense of a difficult passage, the translator is almost certainly adding a fair amount of interpretation along the way.

The trouble is, that interpretation is imbedded in the text you read in English--the point at which translation ends, and interpretation begins, is not so clear unless you are very familiar with the passage already.

Some will say, but all translation involves interpretation--and that is true; but that doesn't mean all translations involve the same degree of interpretation. Ideally, there should be as thin a layer of interpretation added to the translation as possible, to aid, rather than obscure, meaning.

How much? That's the debate.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Father Reif:

Yes, it might be helpful to do some collaboration. Hit me up with any concrete ideas about how to do it.

Fr. Bryan T. Reif said...

Will do, when I think of something. I'm hoping that the USCCB workshop coming up will give us some tools to help catechize the people. After that, perhaps a meeting of the classes like we had in January, perhaps, do discuss it.

Robert said...

Fr Reif:

I believe you hit it spot on - from my view - we have not been cathchesized (SP?) or reeducated on our faith - either from ourselvies or from our Church - the fundamental problem is crisis of faith and also a lacking in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

from the Eucharist understanding would come a greater desire for proper participation in the Mass (even wearing proper clothes) plus need to frequent Confession.
All other solutions are dribbles in the ocean..

I do know both of you are great priests whom are not afraid to speak this truth and other truths --
believe me the people in the pews need to hear about the truths of our faith (Real Precense) and every Mass there is great opportunity to do that (are we getting the same truth in Catholic Telegraph?, Catholic grade and high schools?)