The following article is reprinted in full from the May 17, 2001 "Milwaukee Catholic Herald"
Making the Good News Clear
Richard J. Sklba, Auxiliary Bishop of Milwaukee
For a community such as the church, summoned as we are to proclaim the Good News, words have always been important. Obviously, the words chosen for presenting that message must be accurate in their content and meaning, recognizable to believers and understandable to the hearers. The words must be faithful and faithfilled on all levels.
For this reason, an age of major transition from one language to another--and over the centuries the church has experienced major shifts from Aramaic to Greek to Latin and finally to the many contemporary vernaculars of our world--is always fraught with generous initiatives, false starts, critical reviews, and a healthy mixture of eagerness and caution. Arguments have flourished; and our age is no different.
Last week the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome released an instruction on liturgical translations entitled "Liturgiam Authenticam." The document attempts to reflect upon what has been learned during the 30-some years of Catholic worship in living languages since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. It repositions our liturgical practices within the Latin heritage of the Roman Rite and offers norms for the cultural adaptations needed to keep public prayer a living and life-giving reality for our contemporary world. The document stipulates norms of liturgical translation and the approval process for texts used in our worship. The contents of the instruction range from the most fundamental principles to the reminder that diskettes are now required for the approval process. I was amused by that final practicality.
The media have quickly focused on those sections that deal with inclusive language, probably because this has been a contentious, often misunderstood, and sometimes divisive topic in recent years. I've been very clear about my own conviction that the use of inclusive language translations, both in Scripture and in liturgical books, particularly when resulting in more faithful renditions of the original author's intent, is an obligation for the church. I do not see this as merely a question of option.
The deeper issues of the instruction for me, however, and the underlying debate among scholars, refer, first of all, to the degree of literalness required for solid translations and secondly, to the role of St. Jerome's fourth-century Latin translation in measuring those versions of Scripture to be used in liturgy today. These are questions seldom mentioned in the press reports on this document, though they are the considerations which will be central to any substantial discussion of the instruction and its usefulness at this moment of history.
The instruction repeatedly makes the Neo-Vulgate, the technical name for the recent critical edition of Jerome's work, a major point of reference for all our contemporary Catholic translations of Scripture used in the church's liturgy.
For years I have been advocating a thorough discussion of the validity of the so-called "conceptual equivalent" translations of Scripture. These are versions that translate the concept into another language, not only the literal words. The Contemporary English Version, a translation prepared for children and adults for whom English is a second language, is a perfect example of this type of work. While it has clear limitations in my judgment, it is useful for that particular segment of our population. I have felt that a thorough study of this type of translation from a pastoral as well as a theological standpoint would be most helpful.
Let me offer an extreme example of conceptual equivalency to make my point. Curiously enough, the ancient world presumed that the kidneys were somehow the anatomical location of one's conscience. Jeremiah often invoked God as the Ultimate Judge of his heart (where decisions and plans were made) and kidneys (see Jeremiah 11:20, 17:10, and 20:12, as well as Psalms 7:10 and 26:2). To insist on a literal translation of the Hebrew word for "kidney" in each of these cases, simply because St. Jerome's Latin version does so, makes absolutely no sense to me at all. No one would understand the meaning of the text! The New American Bible translation as used in the new Lectionary wisely reads "mind and heart" (Jer 20:12, Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A).
Now, if this is an exception, and today's translator must choose another word that captures the concept as originally intended by the prophet or psalmist, then the principle of "conceptual equivalency" stands and may be invoked on a case by case basis.
Moreover, everyone recognizes that the manuscripts used by St. Jerome at the end of the fourth century were deficient, especially, for example in the book of Ben Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus as it is sometimes called). To insist that Jerome's text must be used, as paragraph No. 37 of the instruction seems to indicate, will cause endless grief for scholars who have dedicated their lives to the establishment of the most accurate original readings.
Many initial commentators have already noted the canonical and theological questions raised by this instruction. Certainly, to presume that the limited staff of the Holy See's congregation is able to perform all the functions now reserved to it by this instruction will delay procedures endlessly and it does seem to further unnecessarily the centralizing movement in the Catholic Church today.
St. Jerome himself, ever irascible and very forthright in all his comments and arguments with the Roman clergy of his day, would probably have something to say about his unhappiness with regard to this development. Above all it is the Word in all its fullness and divine purpose which the church must serve.