Translation Update: German and Dutch Languages

by Bert Groen

In the German speaking world (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, the greater part of Switzerland and Luxemburg, small parts of Italy and Belgium) several developments are noteworthy.

The first German liturgical book compiled according to Liturgiam Authenticam is the Order of Christian Burial: “Die kirchliche Begräbnisfeier in den Bistümern des deutschen Sprachgebietes.” This book has been granted official recognitio by the Roman curia and was published in 2009. In everyday pastoral practice, however, the translation from Latin into German has turned out to be a major problem. Many priests and others criticize what they call the “clumsy” and “unreal” language. They experience it as “dressed up Latin,” not “real German.” Prominent German bishops, including the conservative Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meissner, who also is the chairman of the German Liturgical Committee, have stated that this book is “a failure” and that a reworking of its language and several other aspects is necessary. Therefore, the book is currently being reworked by German speakers. It will be interesting to see how the Roman curia reacts to this procedure of the German-speaking churches.

To provide a good liturgical book for funerals, the Archdiocese of Vienna issued a manual with formularies for burial, cremation, and other liturgical rites of farewell appropriate to the context of a large city (Vienna has over two millions of inhabitants). This “Manuale für die Begräbnisfeier” (“Manual for the Funeral Service”) from 2008 has been officially approved by the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Its explicit aim is to supply adequate liturgical celebrations that do justice to specific pastoral situations. This service book is widely used, including outside Vienna.

In fact, many priests, deacons and laypersons use other non-official service books which they believe are pastorally better than the official liturgical books. In many Swiss parishes non-official service books and ring binders are very common. In Germany it seems that most priests use the official books. In Austria, it is a mix: some use the official books, some use other texts.

The German Bishops’ Conference recently dealt with the new translation of the Ordo Missae. The bishops meticulously compared the entire text of the current German Missal, which now has been employed for nearly four decades, with the new text produced according to Liturgiam Authenticam. In many cases the bishops elected to retain the current text. They feel that the prayer language, which the People of God are accustomed to, has proven to be right.

At the end of their meeting the bishops of Germany officially approved the new Ordo Missae text, which will be sent to Rome for recognitio. It will be interesting to see how the Roman curia responds to the proposed text. The Austrian Bishops’ Conference and the German speaking Swiss bishops have yet to make a decision on the Order of Mass.

A major change for German speakers will be the elimination of the current rubric permitting the omission of one of the first two readings on Sunday “for pastoral reasons.” This means that now there always be three readings at Sunday Mass – Old Testament, New Testament, Gospel – in the German-speaking world.

In the Dutch-speaking world (mainly the Netherlands and the larger part of Belgium, Flanders), an official committee has only recently begun to work on the new translation of the Missal. In spring 2010 there was a big controversy in Holland regarding the list of officially approved songs for the Eucharist. One of the requirements of Liturgiam Authenticam is that each conference compile such a list. The Dutch compilers left out most of the texts written by the famous Dutch writer Huub Oosterhuis. But his hymns are sung in many Dutch and Belgian Sunday services. Many of his texts have also been translated into English and German. Many of the texts by Oosterhuis are “without biblical foundation,” according to the episcopal censors. Most people believe that Oosterhuis’ pieces are profoundly biblical and entirely suited to the liturgy, and that the real issue is Oosterhuis himself. This talented poet is a former Jesuit priest, now married, and he presides at the autonomous “Studentenekklesia” (“student church”) in Amsterdam. He has sharply criticized the Roman Catholic establishment in the past, and he continues to do so.

It seems that the Catholic Church is still struggling to find the right balance between ecclesiastical unity and the diversity of real-life church situations.

Bert Groen is Professor of Liturgical Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. He can be reached at


15 responses to “Translation Update: German and Dutch Languages”

  1. F C Bauerschmidt Avatar

    Having spent two years in Belgium singing pretty much all-Oosterhuis-all-the-time, I’ve got to say that I think the Dutch bishops have a point. Some of it is fine, and almost all of it seems poetically superior to many English language compositions (I say “seems” since I, as a non-native Dutch speaker, am not entirely in a position to judge). But a good bit of it seems more in the spirit of Camus and Sartre than Isaiah and Paul (it could be worse, of course; it could be in the spirit of Derrida and Deleuze, in which case your would have no idea what the hell you were singing). Also, his Christology seems to be a Spirit-filled-man version of Nestorianism, which is so low that it would make Nestorius blanche.

    All that being said, I am glad the German-speaking bishops are pushing back. I am also glad that the push-back isn’t occurring along liberal-conservative lines. The cause of worthy liturgical language should transcend ideological divisions.

  2. Alan Hommerding Avatar

    It’s nice to hear some news of episcopal conferences taking their role as teachers and leaders seriously, not functioning in the middle-management-of-a-multinational-corporation model.

    Since I only know Oosterhuis in English translations, I was never sure if the flirtations with Nestorianism and/or Arianism were with him or the translator. (I recall being a choral ringer in some version of John 1 at Christmas, where it seemed like the flesh became Word.) My experience is admittedly limited since I found a lot of what I encountered more obfuscatory than revelatory. I’ve admired the biblical grounding of some of his texts (esp. in the psalter), but think they are limited by a nearly-exclusive approach through 20th c. social justice concerns. As important and necessary as that is, it’s not the only way to look at or communicate scripture. But it’s easy enough to imagine the “problems” are truly seen as being with him and not really with his texts.

  3. C Henry Edwards Avatar
    C Henry Edwards

    Although I am not personally familiar with the Roman missal in languages other than English and Latin, my general understanding from people who are is that the translations in most other major vernacular languages do not suffer from the deficiencies of the original English translation, and therefore don’t have the crying need for a new translation that we do. Indeed, isn’t it generally thought that Liturgiam authenticam was intended mainly as a solution to a peculiarly English (language) problem? If so, it may be quite reasonable for most other language groups to stand pat with their more acceptable current translations. Ours is broke, but why should others have to fix theirs if they’re not broke.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Well CHE, if nothing else I have to give you credit for an intrepid spirit, ever willing to defend something even without facts. I must admit that, if I didn’t know a particular language, I wouldn’t have the nerve to make any of your claims about translations into that language!

      What you think is “quite reasonable” – keeping current translations because they’re, oh, close enough – is not, please note, what the Holy See thinks is quite reasonable. They’re demanding all kinds of changes. And the German-speaking bishops are voting that down, at least in part, and also pulling a Roman-approved translation from liturgical use.

      So then: I believe this puts you on the side of the “quite reasonable” bishops and clergy and liturgical leaders of local churches, over against the Vatican.


      1. Leo Connor Avatar
        Leo Connor

        These local hierarchies made the pastoral decision to make one of the readings optional? One of the arguments in favor of the new missal was its expanded biblical readings and they decided to nix it. I guess it made Mass too long.

        It is pastorally problematic that anyone is using “non-official” liturgical books and is not indicative of good pastoral leadership in my opinion. If I’m not mistaken, it also contradicts the Const. on the liturgy. Widespread use of non-official liturgical books indicates that the liturgical reform of the previous four decades has not been received there and, therefore, has pastorally failed. Roman intervention is needed.

    2. Vic Romero Avatar

      How to construct a strong conclusion from weak premises:

      1. “not personally familiar with . . .”

      2. “. . . my general understanding from people who are . . .”

      3. “Indeed, isn’t it generally thought that Liturgiam authenticam was intended . . .?”

      4. “If so, it may be quite reasonable for most other language groups to stand pat with their more acceptable current translations.”

      5. “Ours is broke, but why should others have to fix theirs if they’re not broke.”

      1. I know nothing about . . .

      2. From hearsay I generally understand that . . .

      3. I will make a conjecture that . . .

      4. Without proving the conjecture, from it I will draw a consequence.

      5. I make an assertion that “ours is broke” — without proving it — and finish with a strong conclusion.

      Et voilà. . . Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes and Wittgenstein would be impressed with my logic.

      Aren’t you?

      And it’s all in good, clean fun. 🙂

  4. Christopher Douglas Avatar
    Christopher Douglas

    Several years ago, I heard Mass at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, Berlin. It was largely a vernacular Mass, with a Latin Ordinary, sung by the choir, including the Sanctus (Jehan Alain’s lovely setting for treble voices). Although I don’t know much German, I heard “Geist” in the response. So they’re already saying, “And with your spirit.” As Mr. Edwards mentions, perhaps they have a more faithful translation than the current one in use for the English-speaking peoples.

  5. Kimberly Hope Belcher Avatar
    Kimberly Hope Belcher

    Thanks for this update on German and Dutch translation discussions, Bert. I’m particularly glad to hear about the soon-to-be universal use of three readings. Was it common practice to omit one (I assume the Old Testament) reading?

    1. F C Bauerschmidt Avatar

      My experience in Belgium was that typically only two readings were used, but it was typically the Epistle that was omitted.

      1. Leo Connor Avatar
        Leo Connor

        Interesting, if a reading was to be omitted (a mistake IMO) one would think it would be the OT reading not the Epistle.

      2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        The Austrian bishops officially allowed the omission of one reading right after Vatican II. (I suspect the reason was that a classical Viennese Mass setting for choir and orchestra, still used commonly there, makes the liturgy too long.) I don’t know if the German bishops made a similar ruling.

  6. Jim McKay Avatar
    Jim McKay

    Weren’t all the early translations done as hurriedly as the English? And under the guidance of Comme le Prevoit? How could they not have “deficiencies” like the English?

    I vaguely remember that the German Liturgy of the Hours substituted New Testament canticles for the Benedictus and Magnificat. If the bishops were willing to drop the Gospel from Evening Prayer, I cannot imagine they did not approve other things that critics thought were outrageous.

    Didn’t anybody translate the 2nd typical edition of the Roman Missal?

    My apologies if my vague memories and odd wonderments are not up to the logical rigors of Aquinas, Wittgenstein or Vic Romero. I am untutored person asking so I can understand.

  7. C Henry Edwards Avatar
    C Henry Edwards

    Well, Vic, your wit is most impressive, so at least you score one out of three among among the PrayTell objectives of “Wit, Wisdom & Worship”.

    But I would suggest that you and Fr. Ruff take a look at the Spanish translation now in use. Even if you’re as self-deprecating as me and claim little Spanish expertise, I suspect that with just a bit of general literacy you can see that the Spanish missal is a much more accurate translation of the Latin MR (assuming a bit of Latin competence between the two of you).

  8. Chris Owens Avatar
    Chris Owens

    Welp, there’s always the Latin Translation that they could use… oh… wait… 😀

  9. Bert Groen Avatar

    Dear Kimberly,

    In present-day Austria, on Sundays, in some churches there are three readings. In most churches, however, there are two: the first one is either from the Old Testament or from the New Testament letters, the second lesson, of course, is the gospel. Mostly, it is the Old Testament reading which is being left out. However, if the Pauline letters reading is considered as “too difficult”, it is ‘sacrificed’. A major challenge is the sermon. A good preacher should explain the readings and make the connection with everyday life.

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