New Vatican guidelines call for sound, accurate liturgy translations

New Vatican guidelines call for sound, accurate liturgy translations

Michael Gilchrist

"The greatest prudence and attention are required in the preparation of liturgical books marked by sound doctrine, which are exact in wording [and] free from all ideological influence ...".

The no-nonsense approach of a new Vatican Instruction on liturgical translations from the official Latin originals to vernacular languages, including English, is well encapsulated in the following lines from the beginning of the document: "The greatest prudence and attention are required in the preparation of liturgical books marked by sound doctrine, which are exact in wording [and] free from all ideological influence ...".

The bluntly-worded document has climaxed years of mounting Vatican concern at the poor calibre of vernacular liturgy translations. Titled Liturgiam Authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), it is the fifth Instruction on the implementation of Vatican II's liturgical reforms since the 1960s.

Issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and signed by Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez, it was approved by Pope John Paul II and became effective on 25 April 2001.

Style and accuracy

Monsignor Peter Elliott, author of Liturgical Question Box (Ignatius Press) and Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education in the Archdiocese of Melbourne, told AD2000: "This is a welcome document. Accurate liturgical translations are essential. Style is also important ... Let us hope that accuracy and good style can converge."

The chairman of ICEL, Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway, Scotland, was less positive. He complained that Vatican II's "three values" of subsidiarity, collegiality and trust were "difficult to reconcile with the centralising tendency of this document" and questioned its insistence on a more literal approach to translation.

However, it could be argued that such a "centralising tendency" has been forced on the Holy See by the unsatisfactory efforts of those charged with producing vernacular translations since Vatican II.

Liturgiam Authenticam - three years in the making - has appeared in time to provide translation norms for the new third "typical edition" of the Roman Missal, the Latin version of which is due for release shortly. It also arrives near the end of an ambitious ten-year project of re-translation and revision of the major liturgical books used by the Catholic Church in English-speaking countries.

Although the document never directly mentions "inclusive language", there is no ambiguity: "When the original text, for example, employs a single term in expressing the interplay between the individual and the universality and unity of the human family or community (such as the Hebrew word adam, the Greek anthropos, or the Latin homo), this property of the language of the original text should be maintained in the translation" (§ 30). In other words, standard English generics, "man", and "mankind", are to be retained in English liturgical translations.

Apart from insisting on a more literal approach to translation (unlike previous looser guidelines), the document also sees great importance in the use of a specifically sacral vocabulary: "While the translation must transmit the perennial treasury of orations by means of language understandable in the cultural context for which it is intended, it should also be guided by the conviction that liturgical prayer not only is formed by the genius of a culture, but itself contributes to the development of that culture. Consequently it should cause no surprise that such language differs somewhat from ordinary speech. Liturgical translation ... will facilitate the development of a sacral vernacular, characterised by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship..." (§ 47).

Another significant departure from previous directives is that all liturgical texts and all changes proposed must be approved by the Holy See before they may be published or used. This assures "the authenticity of the translation and its correspondence with the original texts".

The Instruction explains further: "This recognitio is not a mere formality, but is rather an exercise of the power of governance, which is absolutely necessary (in the absence of which the act of the Conference of Bishops entirely in no way attains legal force); and modifications, even substantial ones, may be introduced by means of it. For this reason it is not permissible to publish, for the use of celebrants or for the general public, any liturgical texts that have been translated or recently composed, as long as the recognitio is lacking" (§ 80).

Among the changes that most Catholics may notice first is the Instruction's explicit requirement that in the Nicene Creed, Credo ("I believe") be translated accurately (§§ 65, 74). For thirty years, English- speaking Catholics have said "we believe". The Instruction explains: "The Creed is to be translated according to the precise wording that the tradition of the Latin Church has bestowed upon it, including the use of the first person singular ...".

New period

Other changes called for include "And with your spirit" (which the current English translation renders as "And also with you"), and the phrase mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa ("through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault"), currently translated merely as "through my own fault", is to be restored (§§ 56, 65).

The document concludes with directions to national bishops' conferences: "[F]rom the day on which this Instruction is published, a new period begins for the making of emendations or for undertaking anew the consideration of the introduction of vernacular languages or idioms into liturgical use, as well as for revising translations heretofore made into vernacular languages" (§ 131).

An "integral plan" for revising the vernacular translations of liturgical books is to be submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship "within five years from the date of publication of this Instruction" by the Presidents of the Conferences of Bishops and the heads of religious houses.

The full text of the document is available on the 'Adoremus' magazine website:

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