Bishop Drennan: Better Translation of the Mass Possible

by Bishop Charles Drennan

The new translation of the Mass is six years old. Notwithstanding the introduction of some evocative language, its clunky sentence construction and often awkward vocabulary have tested us all.

Three weeks ago Pope Francis sidelined the principles which guided that translation. He issued a motu proprio (personal edict) shifting the responsibility of liturgical translations from Rome back to national Conferences of Bishops. Thus he has reaffirmed the teaching of the second Vatican Council which states that it is local groupings of Bishops who oversee then approve translations into the language of the land.

How had the place of translations shifted? Three main factors were at play. Firstly, the decision of Cardinal Medina Estevez (Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments 1998-2002) to wrest control of translations by distancing ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) ‒ which was a group of Bishops and language experts set up by a number of Bishops Conferences (New Zealand included)‒ to provide translations. Secondly, the publication by Medina’s Vatican department in 2001 of Liturgiam authenticam, which outlined that translations were to be tightly shackled – word by word – to the ‘original’ Latin. And thirdly, the emergence of a group called Vox Clara whose role was to vet ICEL.

These three linked events have now been quietly placed on the sidelines of history and influence. Vox Clara which paraded as the alternative to ICEL is now defunct, Liturgiam authenicam has been popped by Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio Magnum Principium, and the current Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Sarah, has been politely sidestepped.

Unlike what much of social media suggests, I don’t see this motu proprio as a “progressive versus conservative” tussle. Pope Benedict’s love for liturgy saw him underline the duty to preserve a sense of the transcendent and reverence. Pope Francis’s love for liturgy sees him underline that liturgy must be comprehensible and should be understood in the context of evangelization, which draws people in as participants, not observers, of the liturgy. Both are right.

Liturgiam authenticam in fact unfolded as a hindrance not a facilitation of Benedict’s intentions. The 2010 English translation of the Mass burdened rather than enhanced the beauty of the English language’s concise syntax, by imposing a Latin sentence structure. To claim that word for word translation and the use of obsolete and odd language (cf LA 27, 43) favors holiness and reverence is an ideological presumption not an ecclesiological reality. Such presumptions hinder the art of translation which is a delicate task of replicating meaning and concepts and even emotions (not words) from one language into another. A good translation is one whereby the reader assumes the text is the original.

Why the Vox Clara group was seen to offer better advice to the Vatican than ICEL is hard to decipher. To the extent that it was responsible for the Liturgiam authenticam, one struggles to understand how its members had a love of liturgy as a work of the People of God. It comes as no surprise then that some of the members of Vox Clara were the very same men who overturned the publication of the Catechism with inclusive language and instead insisted that references to men and women be reduced to the masculine alone. This is ideology, not koinonia or the communion of the Church, at work. And ICEL itself, enfeebled in the shadow of Vox Clara, has continued its work of translations but following the flawed guidelines of Liturgiam authenticam has worn down the English-speaking world with revisions of various rites that few really want and even fewer actually asked for. Boh ,as the Italians say.

Pope Francis’ motu proprio is also not simply about resetting areas of responsibility between local Bishops’ Conferences and Rome. Indeed, rightly the last card will still be played by Rome whose recognition of approved local translations remains a requirement. After all, the Holy See’s work is, by serving the Successor of Peter, to protect and foster the unity of the Church. The weight or responsibility has however shifted decisively to local Conferences.

Ultimately then this motu proprio is an ecclesiological document: it is about how the Pope envisages the Church. Pope Francis is reminding us that what guarantees the universality of the Church is not petrified language or a static understanding of our living tradition. He is reminding us that the universality of the Church means that every culture is called to contribute to the understanding of our Catholic belief that Jesus Christ is the universal savior of every generation and people. He is reminding us that the delicate art of liturgical translation is not ultimately responsible to dictionaries but to those who participate in, pray and live the liturgy. And most of all he is reminding us that the chief protagonist of liturgy is the Holy Spirit who draws every generation into new insights about the mysteries we believe.

What happens next? It is too early to say. What I can say is what we all know: a better translation of the Mass is possible. I can also say that our New Zealand Bishops Conference more than any other in the English speaking world has laid before Rome and the Holy Father himself the frustrations experienced with the current translation, the causes of which Pope Francis has now addressed. Amen. And as the Italians say pazienza – patience!

Charles Edward Drennan is the Catholic Bishop of Palmerston North, New Zealand. He was appointed coadjutor bishop of Palmerston North by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, and became diocesan bishop in 2012.

This article was first posted at WelCom, the newspaper of the Wellington and Palmerston North dioceses, on September 27, 2017. Reprinted with kind permission of Bishop Drennan.




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12 responses to “Bishop Drennan: Better Translation of the Mass Possible”

  1. Gerard Flynn Avatar
    Gerard Flynn

    This must be the sanest, most astute, most cogent and most hopeful account of the current state of affairs.

    Thank you for posting!

  2. Matthew Hazell Avatar

    + Drennan: Liturgiam authenicam has been popped by Pope Francis’ Motu Proprio Magnum Principium…

    Except that it hasn’t: as Archbishop Roche in his capacity as Secretary of the CDWDS has already pointed out, Liturgiam authenticam remains the benchmark for a translation that has been completed fideliter (cf. LA 20), until such time as LA may be replaced.

    + Drennan: Secondly, the publication by Medina’s Vatican department in 2001 of Liturgiam authenticam, which outlined that translations were to be tightly shackled – word by word – to the ‘original’ Latin.

    Firstly, I’m not sure why “original” is in quotes, as the vast majority of the texts in the Missale Romanum would have been composed originally in Latin.

    Secondly, with all due respect to his Lordship, I’m sick and tired of reading this lazy caricature of LA. A formal equivalence approach to translation is not the same as a literal, word-for-word one. Phrases throughout LA such as “in a manner appropriate to the vernacular language” (no. 57a) or “insofar as possible” (nos. 20, 31, 51, etc.) allow for a certain adaptation of the Latin language to the target vernacular. It’s just that the limits of this adaptation are in principle narrower than those previously allowed by Comme le prévoit.

    And it would be nice if the Bishop could explain what in particular the “flawed guidelines” of LA consist of, as there are many of us in the pews who see the document as a whole as reasonable and sensible.

    1. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

      Regarding point one, I suspect that that the bishop is trying to read the tea leaves and sees new translation guidelines coming down the pike. This does not seem to be an unreasonable prognostication, but only time will tell.

      Regarding point two, I also was struck by the claim that LA requires “word by word” translation; it clearly doesn’t. That being said, significant parts of the current English translation are, frankly, awful: sometimes awful in terms of fidelity to the original (no scare-quotes) Latin, but more often simply awful as English prose: fussy and confusing masquerading as noble and conceptually rich. Perhaps something better could have been produced within the guideline of LA (indeed, for the most part what the bishops approved in 2008 was better), but I don’t think that LA can be entirely exonerated from responsibility for the awfulness of what we ended up with. At the very least, it was an enabler.

      Finally, this is a remarkably frank statement, given that it comes from a bishop. As one well-know Catholic blogger would say (though maybe not in this case): Episcopal-Spine-Alert!

      1. Jim Pauwels Avatar
        Jim Pauwels

        “Finally, this is a remarkably frank statement, given that it comes from a bishop.”

        Seriously. His prose reads as that of a man who doesn’t need his secretary to find a web-site for him 🙂

  3. Jack Feehily Avatar
    Jack Feehily

    Well, i’m sick and tired of those defending an obviously flawed translation. It seems to appeal to those whose understanding of praying to God in the presence of his priestly people is vastly different from ordinary priests and faithful. The ‘98 translation retains English syntax while adding an acceptably greater formality. I applaud this bishop and his NZ confreres for pressing this issue before Francis. Let the priests who are so fond of Latin syntax just celebrate the NO in Latin and see if they can find congregants to go along with it.

    1. Knud Rasmussen Avatar
      Knud Rasmussen

      You know what? I’m sick and tired of those who present the oft-repeated but never seriously defended view that the 1998 translation offers “an acceptably greater formality.” In my opinion and that of many others I know, the 1998 translation is “obviously flawed” and was rightly rejected by the Holy See. No translation is perfect, but critics of the current translation are not going to win many friends among those who sincerely favour “greater formality” by insisting repeatedly that the ’98 translation represents the best way forward.

      1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
        Anthony Ruff, OSB

        Never seriously defended?? Look at Good Reads at the top right of the screen of Pray Tell and you’ll see that respected scholar Gerald O’Collins has written a whole book on the topic. Everything he writes about 1998 in there might be of interest to you.

  4. Jonathan Day Avatar
    Jonathan Day

    A lot of the “obvious flaws” of the 1998 translation were minor and could easily have been rectified. For example, the very first problem cited by the CDW was that the title of the book had been changed from “Missal” to “Sacramentary”.

    And “The ordering of the texts has departed almost entirely from that of the Missale Romanum, where such ordering often has significant theological and catechetical implications.” I believe that this means that the unchangeable parts of the Mass were no longer in the centre of the volume. Given that it was a draft, easily reordered for printing, this hardly seems a fundamental flaw.

    Some of the CDW’s comments strike me as very odd — for example, that

    “Relative clauses often disappear in the proposed text (especially the initial Deus, qui . . ., so important in the Latin Collects), so that a single oration is divided into two or more sentences. This loss is detrimental not only to the unity of the structure, but to the manner of conveying the proper sense of the posture before God of the Christian people, or of the individual Christian.”

    In other words, standard English is not suitable for prayer.

    And then the 1998 translation used “inclusive language”. I see nothing wrong with this, but it’s hardly a fundamental flaw and could easily have been changed.

  5. charles jordan Avatar
    charles jordan

    View from the Pew
    Regarding: “Bishop Drennan: Better Translation of the Mass Possible ”
    – This is a very good article.
    – In as much as the bishop of any diocese governs, sanctifies, and teaches the people of god for whom he, as bishop, is responsible it would seem that the path forward is already an expression of his duties.
    – The bishop, as teacher, would determine that parts of the current missal translation are either unhelpful, or are in error.
    – Therefore for the diocese the bishop could govern so that the celebrants of each Eucharist would use the bishop’s approved texts which in effect correct or suppress that which invalidates, confuses, or confounds the teaching for which the bishop is responsible.
    – Naturally, the bishop would inform the holy see that this is done and while he awaits the necessary changes in text from them.

  6. Mary Kay McVey Avatar
    Mary Kay McVey

    Thanks to Bishop Drennan for so articulately and clearly stating the problems with the translation process and the reason so many are hopeful in light of the motu proprio.

  7. Fr. Anthony Forte Avatar
    Fr. Anthony Forte

    While I disagree with most of the what is presented I will focus only on one point:

    “It comes as no surprise then that some of the members of Vox Clara were the very same men who overturned the publication of the Catechism with inclusive language and instead insisted that references to men and women be reduced to the masculine alone. This is ideology, not koinonia or the communion of the Church, at work.”

    With respect, Bishop Drennan has it backwards. It is ideology that is trying to replace the proper generic use of “he” and “man” in standard English with the “inclusive” use of “he or she” and “men and women”, etc. With all the talk of the clumsiness of the present translation, this insistence on the use of “inclusive” language is a clear example of clumsiness and unnecessary verbiage. Before we were taught to think otherwise everyone understood the generic use of “he” and “man” to include women from the context. “Inclusive” language is driven by an ideology that not everyone shares.

    1. Paul Inwood Avatar
      Paul Inwood

      With respect, this is completely false. The Scholastics mangled our language in the 17th – 18th centuries. Up until then, it was perfectly correct to say “If anyone loves me, THEY will keep my word; and my Father will love THEM and we will come to THEM…” It was the Scholastics who insisted that “anyone” had to be third person singular masculine. And so on and on. Our language WAS inclusive before it became exclusive.

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