The following is reprinted from the quarterly "Liturgy News," Brisbane, Australia


by Tom Elich, Editor of LITURGY NEWS

Playing on the similarity of the Italian words, it is sometimes said that the translator (traduttore) is a traitor (traditore). The saying points to the difficulty and delicacy of turning text from one language into another. For example, a Latin prayer addressed to Pater sancte is accurately translated Holy Father, except that, in English, this expression evokes the pope rather than God.

We now have a new Vatican document on liturgical translation Liturgiam Authenticam which does not seem to appreciate the nature of the task. I believe the document itself is a betrayal on two levels: firstly with respect to the language we will use to worship God in our liturgy, and secondly with respect to the bishops' responsibility for preparing and approving liturgical books in the vernacular.

The emphasis in Liturgiam Authenticam is on accurate, exact, even literal translation of the Latin. This is meant to assure doctrinal fidelity. However the Sacramentary is not an academic reference book. Liturgy is people's prayer. For a liturgical translation, a primary criterion is to find the language which springs spontaneously from the heart and lifts the spirit to God in worship. The text is to be proclaimed and heard, sung and prayed by real communities. These concerns are caricatured in the document as 'psychologising tendencies': the words spoken in liturgy are not intended primarily to be a sort of mirror of the interior dispositions of the faithful; rather, they express truths that transcend the limits of time and space.

The worship of the Church is the action of real people, children and adults, those with varying degrees of education, those who have English as a second language. By definition, a vernacular is the language in use in a particular place. A living language is constantly evolving. While it is useful to have a stable universal language such as Latin as the basis of the Roman Rite and the touchstone of authentic liturgy, this is not the way a vernacular functions. According to the Roman document, the 'classics' are a better guide for liturgical translation than style manuals; obsolete usage may be maintained in a liturgical context; and words and expressions which differ from usual and everyday speech are deemed to be often truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities. The aim is a 'sacred style proper to liturgical language'. It seems to me that what the document calls a 'sacral vernacular' is scarcely a vernacular at all.

More specifically, inclusive language is dismissed as an inauthentic development and an externally imposed linguistic norm from which the Church claims exemption for the sake of a doctrinal mission. It is said to be the task of the homilist or catechist to address interpretations of liturgical language which might otherwise imply prejudice or unjust discrimination. This position fails to understand the dynamic by which language subconsciously expresses and embodies the values and presuppositions of a society. If we use in liturgy language which reflects an unjust world view or the sinful structures of a culture, then the liturgy will be compromised.

Then there is the misunderstanding of the nature of the work of translation. The document seems to presume that each Latin word can just pass over into a corresponding vernacular word. A number of examples are given of texts which require a literal translation. The Congregation threatens to provide for a particular language a ratio translationis which might give, for example, a list of vernacular words to be equated with their Latin counterparts. While the document recognises that it is not always possible, it is suggested that a translation might preserve the same variety of terms as the Latin, with the same denotation and connotation, and the same literary and rhetorical features. Different languages do not correspond in this way.

Finally in the way the liturgical texts are approached, especially the text of Scripture, scholarship is devalued. Critical editions of the books of the Bible and the recommendations of experts take second place to following the neo-Vulgate (a Latin translation dating back to St Jerome). Scripture translations should be conformed to the Patristic and liturgical understandings which emphasise the traditional Christological, typological and spiritual sense of the text. Likewise, in prayer texts, the Latin editio typica is deemed to be more important than a historical and scientific study of the sources of the text.

At a different level, Liturgiam authenticam betrays the hard-won devolvement of responsibility for liturgical translation to bishops conferences. The Second Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law give the responsibility of preparing and approving vernacular translations of liturgical books to bishops conferences; the work is then submitted to the Holy See for its recognitio. Yet this document on translation has been prepared and promulgated without any consultation or collaboration with bishops conferences whose work it seeks to regulate. Requests from English-speaking bishops for meetings with the Congregation were refused.

Because the principal liturgical translations are used sometimes in Rome, the Congregation asserts that it will in future be involved more directly in the preparation of translations into major languages. Where the liturgical books call upon the conferences of bishops to make adaptations, these need the approval of the Congregation which will even determine where they are to be placed in the liturgical book. Ultimately, the Holy See reserves to itself the right to prepare translations into any language and to approve them for liturgical use.

The nature of the recognitio of the Holy See is spelt out in very strong terms: it is an exercise of the power of governance, which is absolutely necessary... and modifications - even substantial ones - may be introduced by means of it. While paying lip-service to the bond of communion expressed and effected by the recognitio, the document in fact grants the Congregation the right to make unilateral changes at the final stage.

The mechanisms of preparing common translations across a number of bishops conferences are now completely under Rome's control. The Congregation erects a Commission for this work and approves its statutes though, if it judges it to be opportune, the Congregation may itself prepare such statutes. Those who do the work for the Commission need to be vetted by the Congregation.

Taking these various elements as a whole, one cannot escape the conclusion that the collegiality and local responsibility for liturgical translation have been seriously compromised by this document.

In some ways the document is not entirely a surprise. We have seen the arguments in Rome's response to the ordination rites and in correspondence on ICEL. What is surprising is that this document is so comprehensive and so tightly nailed down. The first reactions from some bishops seem to be directed at damage control. Perhaps it is a good strategy to pacify in public and protest in private. And indeed it seems that some of the bishops and cardinals have already raised these issues in Rome. It is too early to say what will happen next.

The extent to which the new document is damaging to the liturgical life of the Church will depend on how stringently it is interpreted and enforced. In the English-speaking world, we have prepared an excellent translation of the Sacramentary. Whether the translations could be said to conform to the new norms is a moot point. If they are approved, it will become clear that this document gives, as is the Italian custom, strict norms to be interpreted flexibly. But if the norms are applied rigidly, we will end up with complex, archaic, obscure 'liturgy-speak'. The liturgy will become disconnected from life and become part of a Roman Catholic ghetto inaccessible to those who seek spiritual nourishment.