'Liturgiam Authenticam', ICEL and the need for improved Mass translations

'Liturgiam Authenticam', ICEL and the need for improved Mass translations

Anna Silvas

The following is the shortened text of a talk given at the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars' conference in Melbourne last November. Dr Anna Silvas is a post-doctoral fellow in Classics at the University of New England. Her field is the Fathers of Church, especially the Greek fathers of the 4th century.

One reads in Liturgiam Authenticam that the faithful should "be able to commit to memory at least the more important texts of the Sacred Scriptures and be formed by them even in their private prayer" - a cornerstone of liturgical piety one would think.

But what happens to a young person who, desiring only to be formed in the Church's liturgy, begins to realise that the texts of Sacred Scripture served up in the Lectionary are not worth committing to memory; they are not worth taking on board as the staple of one's piety?

What applies to Scripture applies also to liturgical texts, which, according to Liturgiam Authenticam, are to be "offered to the faithful in a translation that is easily committed to memory, so as to render them usable in private prayer".

Anti-sacred

But, again, what happens to a young person who, wanting only to frame his or her piety wholly on the liturgy, begins to realise that the "collects" or introductory prayers served up in approved English translations are a severely stripped down and blatantly anti-sacred version of the ancient Roman orations.

A significant moment in bringing these things home to me occurred at the wedding of a couple of friends. They used the Latin text of the revised liturgy. Next to the Latin text in the booklets was what purported to be its English translation, namely the text of the International Committee on English in the Liturgy ("ICEL"). Afterwards, in my room I compared the Latin and the English and was reduced to tears at what I found.

The upshot is that one has had to come to adulthood in the Church and make one's way through the seventies, eighties and nineties in a state of severe liturgical impoverishment.

In May 2001, our Bishop in Armidale, Bishop Luc Matthys, gave me a copy of Liturgiam Authenticam (on the use of vernacular languages in the publication of the books of the Roman Liturgy). Since I already had to examine St Basil's Anaphora (Eucharistic Prayer) in my research and knew that the fourth Eucharistic Prayer was based on it, I soon found myself comparing the St Basil's Greek text, the Latin text of E.P. IV and the ICEL translation of the latter in the light of Liturgiam Authenticam.

Read in its Latin original, this prayer is a jewel of the Missal of Paul VI. Seen particularly in the light of St Basil's Anaphora, it shows a profoundly Catholic and Orthodox sense of the economy of salvation and a plenitude and richness of Eucharistic doctrine. The spirit it breathes is the antithesis of any protestantising or liberalising trend. For that you have to wait for the ICEL translation.

What an eye-opener to carefully read the Latin text of the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer against the ICEL translation! All that we have come to expect of its modus operandi is confirmed. I mention here only a few points of the many that could be made.

The sensitivity Liturgiam Authenticam asks for with regard to connecting particles, verbal echoes, denotations and connotations finds no quarter here. ICEL typically disregards connecting particles and adverbs, seems to have issued a ban against the English relative pronoun and all but ignores the semantic linkage of subordinate clauses.

The translation reads like a series of staccato statements with little or no semantic flow. The result is a liturgical English pitched at a very inferior level of literacy: banal, flat and "thin" - indeed, what I would have once considered an insult to lower high school students, though we might now have to revise our estimates downwards there. And then they had the temerity to invent "children's liturgies"!

Desacralising text

ICEL seems to have acted as if it had a mandate to desacralise the text. To systematically diminish or extinguish the "holy" in the liturgy is effectively to plan for the ruin of the Church in my opinion. Irrefutable evidence that this was done is that whenever the text addresses God as Pater Sancte, i.e., "Holy Father", the word "holy" is consistently deleted - four times in all. What makes this deletion particularly disconcerting is that the phrase "Holy Father" has the supreme warrant of being Our Lord's own address to His Father (Jn 17:11). ICEL appears to have engaged in correcting our Lord Jesus Christ!

As the Preface leads into the Holy Holy Holy, ICEL changes canantes, i.e., "singing", into "as we say", a revealing symptom of the loss of chant and even the reminiscence that there ever was chant at the heart of what is now a said Roman liturgy. To recapture this lost tradition of chanting, by which the Western liturgy was governed for most of its history, is vital for us, I submit. But of course, to be chanting a species of insipid ICEL-type English might be quite rightly considered laughable.

An egregious example of utilitarianism in translation has our Lord taking up the cup filled "with wine", instead of "with the fruit of the vine" as in the original text. After all, "fruit of the vine" = "wine", so let's strip it down to that - as if the function of language, above all in so sacral a context, is merely to convey bald "information".

Our Lord Jesus Himself actually used the phrase "fruit of the vine" at the Last Supper; He Himself very likely took it over from the Passover Seder; the Greek text uses it and so does the Latin text - but not ICEL.

The alteration of the words of Institution "for you and for many" to "for you and for all men", is, of course, well-known. Another example of insensitivity occurs in the translation of the Trinitarian doxology at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. Here, when translating Deo Patri omnipotenti, ICEL omits "God" and has simply "Almighty Father". In so doing, it misses the significance of this doxological conclusion as it returns to the confession of the Father as the "one God" found at the beginning of the Preface.

Blunder

The following are a couple of further major infelicities.

The Latin text, echoing the Greek, has Hominem ad tuam imaginem condidisti - "You formed man in your image". It lacks the "et similitudinem" ("and likeness") of Gen 1:26, for it is using the text of Gen 1:27 instead. Yet ICEL translates this as "You formed man in your own likeness".

This paraphrase, likeness, is a terrible blunder. It obliterates the distinction between "image" and "likeness" in Gen 1:26 and ignores the wealth of scriptural exegesis and doctrinal commentary of the Church Fathers founded on the distinction of these two terms. It is incredible that such ignorance should appear in the authorised translation of so important a text. In fact, I would call such ignorance in such a text and such a setting, culpable ignorance.

ICEL ignores the semantic progress and much of the rich scriptural allusions in the Respice, Domine, in Hostiam, after the Oblatio. Most seriously, the phrase "one bread and cup" - deriving from 1 Corinthians - was replaced with "bread and wine". Doctrinally speaking, this is an extraordinary blunder - if blunder it was - since we have on the altar the Body and Blood of the Lord. Thus even the connotation of "bread" from its scriptural context is altered.

The fact that episcopal supervision picked this up begs the question: why was so much else that was shoddy and banal and third-rate not confronted by courageous bishops or their deputies thirty years ago? Why did they not "blow the whistle" on ICEL's travesties? Instead, incredibly, they gave this ICEL text, like all the others, a certificate of concordat originali, "it accords with the original"!

The English language has become at this period of history a most important international language. It is perfectly capable of being used accurately, sensitively and with beauty, but it too, like the Church, has been subject to the battering of huge cultural forces in recent decades.

What if this were truly the "Catholic Moment" with regard to the English language! What if the Church, by actively revisiting her own deep tradition and courageously reasserting her own liturgical principles, as she is doing in Liturgiam Authenticam, may have a providential role to play in service of English speakers by providing some kind of ballast of sanity and a sense of the sacred and of objective, transcendent truth?

It is crucial that Church authorities and their collaborators take great care as they revisit the whole issue of English in the liturgy, which, praise God, at last seems to be happening, after a decades-long disaster!

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