This Sunday, a new translation of the Roman Catholic Mass was introduced into parishes throughout the English-speaking world. The new English version of the Roman Missal, the book of texts and prayers used in the Catholic Mass, is intended to be more faithful to the Latin original. Reactions to the new translation have been mixed, with some wondering whether the more Latinate, more formal, somewhat stilted and still very unfamiliar translation might make it more challenging for the Church to attract young people while alienating worshippers who have, over decades, come to associate the saying of certain words with the Mass.
Roman Catholics worshipped in Latin until Vatican II in the 1960s, when the Church decreed that the Mass could be celebrated in the vernacular. The English translation used until this very weekend was published in the early 1970s and modified in 1985. While a new translation was completed in 1998 and approved by the the bishops’ conference, the Vatican never agreed to it. In 2001, Rome issued new guidelines for a new translation that would follow not only every Latin word, but also the Latin syntax, as closely as possible, “a dramatic philosophical shift from the more flexible principle of ‘dynamic equivalence’ that had guided the earlier translations.”
Emotional Reactions to the New Mass
Debate about using the new translation has been so heated that the Rev. Michael Ryan, pastor of St. James Cathedral in Seattle, started an online petition on the website whatifwejustsaidwait.org to call for postponing the use of the new translation of the Mass. The requirement to use the new translation has led to a debate that
…has been angry and bitter, exposing rifts between a Vatican-led church hierarchy that has promoted the new translation as more reverential and accurate, and critics, among them hundreds of priests, who fear it is a retreat from the commitment of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s to allowing people to pray in a simple, clear vernacular as they participate in the church’s sacred rites.
Danielle McGinley, 31, a parishioner at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, said she thought the new translation sounded “more like a Spanish Mass” and liked it. Lucy Teves, a vice-principal at a Catholic school in Kingston, Ontario, voiced other concerns:
“I think there’s a real disconnect for the young people. I feel this is a step backwards. The language is going to be difficult for them to connect. I’m just thinking about my 20-year-old son and others like him who are struggling anyway.”
73-year-old George Lind in New York said he became so “angry” when trying to say the words of the new translation that he actually stopped speaking and expressed frustration with the top-down imposition of the new Mass:
“I am so tired of being told exactly what I have to say, exactly what I have to pray. I believe in God, and to me that is the important thing. This is some attempt on the part of the church hierarchy to look important.”
But Frank Spezzano of the Toronto area, who can quote from the original Latin Mass used in pre-Vatican II services, said he found the new translation not so different from the older one.
The congregation of Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights on the Upper West Side in New York never fully adopted the more modernized version of the Mass that church authorities had required after Vatican II. As Brenda Fairaday, who has been worshipping at the church (the parish church of Columbia University) since the 1970s, “There are a lot of us who feel that the last 35 years of translation has been very banal and pedestrian, and the way that one wants to address God in a liturgy should not be pedestrian.” While she feels the news translation is an improvement, she still thinks it is in need of some “severe editing.”
Something Is Always Lost in Translation
As a college teacher of Latin, and a translator of Latin poetry to English, I’m inclined to find any translation of the original Latin to be in need of at least a little editing. I’ve studied Latin for decades. I am not Catholic but have attended Catholic masses and witnessed how readily people speak the words of the liturgy. The new translation is more faithful, in the most literal sense, to the Latin original. In response to the priest saying “The Lord be with you” (Dominus vobiscum), the congregation is now to say “and with your spirit,” which almost word for word follows the Latin et cum spiritu tuo (in Latin, word order is not as crucial as it is in English, so the adjective tuo can be placed after spiritu).
Most of the changes are within the prayers the priests say, but there are some notable differences in the responses by worshipers. The Nicene Creed, the central profession of faith, now starts with “I believe in one God” instead of “We believe in one God.” Jesus is now “consubstantial with the Father” rather than “of one Being with the Father.” Communion begins with the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” instead of “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.”
The Latin phrase from the Nicene Creed credo in unum Deum indeed says “I believe in one God.” Saying “consubstantial with the Father” might seem a bit of a tongue-twister. The Latin reads consubstantialem Patri and “consubstantial” is about as literal a translation as you can get to consubstantialem. ”Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” is definitely much more literal a rendition of Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, with intres the Latin word for “enter” and tectum meum meaning indeed “my roof” — though, in some ways, “roof” is itself a far too literal rendering of tectum whose basic definition is “roof,” but which is often used to mean “house.”
That is, some aspects of the translation of the new Roman Missal are too literal. Translating a text word-for-word is the most basic kind of translating; it is what you often get when you use Google Translate. Just converting the words of one text into the equivalents of another is not necessarily a translation or, that is, a translation that is more than basic “translatese,” a clunky-sounding text that rings odd in the language it’s been translated into, while still missing something from the original. Latin is a very different language from English in its sounds and its syntax and capturing the sound and sense of the original Latin requires more than just offering the English equivalents of Latin words.
Consider again the determinedly literal translation of consubstantialem Patri as “consubstantial with the Father” rather than “of one Being with the Father.” The word consubstantialem itself means “of like essence, nature or substance.” A literal translation of the phrase consubstantialem Patri could indeed be “of like essence with the Father”: Which version does this sound closer to?
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