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Vol 36 No 4


John Henry Thornber CFC

Eugene Stockton

Tony Kelly CSsR

Kerrie Hide

Tom Elich

Andrew Murray SM

Michael Trainor

Kevin Mark


Liturgical translation at a crossroads


FOR THE LAST five years, a major bat-tle has been taking place over the trans-lation of our liturgical books into English. The result has been that there are now new structures in place, new personnel have been appointed, and new principles of translation are in force. There is also a new Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in Rome. Everyone is holding their breath to see if the fragile truce will hold and new arrangements can produce something worthwhile for the life and worship of the Church.

In the English-speaking world, one of the main protagonists is the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). It was formed during the Second Vatican Council by the bishops of those countries which used English to help them fulfil the responsibility which the Council was giving them. Some countries preferred to remain as associate members, but eleven countries decided to contribute to the work as members: Australia, Canada, England and Wales, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa, United States of America, and, a little later, Philippines.

What did the Council ask of those territorial bodies of bishops that were to become bishops conferences?

Respecting [the] norms and also, where applicable, consulting the bishops of nearby territories of the same language, the [bishops conference] is empowered to decide whether and to what extent the vernacular is to be used. The enactments of the [bishops conference] are to be approved, that is, confirmed by the Holy See. Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the [bishops conference]. SC 36

The structures developed quickly and liturgical responsibilities were formalised by the Code of Canon Law in 1983:

• It is the prerogative of the Apostolic See to regulate the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish liturgical books and review their vernacular translations, and to be watchful that liturgical regulations are everywhere faithfully observed.
• It pertains to Episcopal Conferences to prepare vernacular translations of liturgical books, with appropriate adaptations as allowed by the books themselves and, with the prior review of the Holy See, to publish these translations. (CCL 838)

Through ICEL, the bishops conferences of those countries which used English were able to collaborate on a common English translation of the liturgical books based on a common literary and linguistic heritage (the difficulties and possibilities of such a project are a separate issue). ICEL was set up and funded by the member countries and was governed by the Episcopal Board comprising a delegated bishop from each country. In the post-Conciliar period, the Vatican encouraged the preparation of a single translation in each language and worked with the different language groups to prepare an enlightened and flexible set of principles for liturgical translation. This charter for translation is known by its French title Comme le prévoit (1969).

Comme le prévoit points out that, as the liturgical text is a medium of spoken communication, a faithful translation cannot be judged on the basis of individual words but on the total context of this specific act of communication. The translator must always keep in mind that the ‘unit of meaning’ is not the individual word but the whole passage.

The prayer of the Church is always the prayer of some actual community, assembled here and now. It is not sufficient that a formula handed down from some other time or region be translated verbatim, even if accurately, for liturgical use. The formula translated must become the genuine prayer of the congregation and in it each of its members should be able to find and express himself or herself. A translation of the liturgy therefore often requires cautious adaptation. (20-21)

After elaborating principles such as these and giving examples, the document concludes:

Texts translated from another language are clearly not sufficient for the celebration of a fully renewed liturgy. The creation of new texts will be necessary. (43)

Things went well enough for twenty years. Serious tensions began to emerge during the 1980s, however, when the eleven bishops conferences approved a revised Order of Christian Funerals and sent it to Rome for the recognitio or review. Rome returned its agreement subject to a list of modifications, effectively having the last say on details of the English translation. Still, the approved rite published in 1989 has a number of modifications to the Latin original and a number of new texts composed in English as had been allowed under Comme le prévoit.

Revised Sacramentary
At this time, a similar comprehensive revision of the Sacramentary (the book used by the priest at the altar) was already being undertaken for the bishops conferences by ICEL. It had begun with the first of two major consultations throughout English-speaking countries in 1982. Work was carried out according to the official norms of Comme le prévoit. Progress reports were published in 1988, 1990 and 1992 generating considerable debate on the revision. Consequently, to ensure that all the bishops were fully aware of what they were being asked to approve, the Sacramentary was issued for vote in eight parts between 1993 and 1996. All bishops conferences approved each part of the Sacramentary by the canonical two-thirds majority—frequently with an overwhelming majority—and the full Sacramentary was made available to conferences in 1998. Each conference submitted it to the Holy See for recognitio. By then, however, following the 1996 appointment of Archbishop Jorge Medina Estévez as Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, conflict over liturgical translation had become acute.

Rites of Ordination
In 1989 the Holy See promulgated a second Latin editio typica of the rites of ordination and it was published the following year. Rather than slow down the work on the Sacramentary, ICEL, at the request of the bishops conferences, updated the existing 1976 translation incorporating the changes and additions from the revised Latin. This was sent to conferences as an interim translation towards the end of 1993. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference approved it for interim use and sent it to Rome for its recognitio in 1994.

In September 1997, the translation was rejected by the Holy See. This had never happened before. Thirteen pages of ‘observations’ were attached to the rejection, criticising the existing approved translation as much as the translation of the new elements. The approach to translation was also unprecedented. Archbishop Medina was demanding a literal, word-for-word rendition of the Latin texts, rubrics and introductions, right down to paragraph numbering and indentation. He recommended to the bishops that there be a ‘complete change of translators’.

ICEL began work studying the implications of Rome’s ‘observations’ and preparing a new translation of the Rites of Ordination according to the principles laid down. Sixteen months after the rejection letter, the now Cardinal Medina Estévez sent a further letter to conferences emphasising the urgency of the project, criticising ICEL, and setting an Easter 2000 deadline for the completion of the work. The new literal translation prepared in accordance with the Congregation’s directives was completed on time and, at its Easter 2000 meeting, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference approved it and sent it to Rome for its recognitio.

Hostility to ICEL
Meanwhile, the direct attack on ICEL intensified. In October 1999, Cardinal Medina wrote a letter to Bishop Maurice Taylor, chair of the Episcopal Board, demanding widespread changes in ICEL’s mandate, structures and personnel. The Cardinal refused to meet with Bishop Taylor or anyone involved with ICEL. ICEL was accused of paraphrasing rather than translating, making alterations without prior authorisation from Rome, limiting the extent to which bishops can obtain corrections or improvements, adding original texts, etc. Committee membership and structures were also criticised. The letter concluded that ICEL in its present form was not in a position to render adequate service to the bishops, the Holy See or the English-speaking faithful. Consequently the Congregation directed the bishops to revise ICEL’s statutes within six months, limiting its work to the strict translation of Roman liturgical texts, giving the bishops a more hands-on role in ICEL’s work, and requiring anyone involved in ICEL to obtain the nihil obstat of the Congregation to assume and maintain their role.

The Vatican was claiming control. Cardinal Medina wrote:

The experience of the years since the Council, as well as a deepening theological reflection, have brought clearly into focus the fact that the constitution, the regulation and the oversight of an international commission for liturgical translation are rightfully the competence of the Holy See to a degree which is not always sufficiently reflected in the statutes which govern such bodies.

In response to Cardinal Medina’s letter, a special meeting of the presidents of bishops conferences was held to discuss the mission and purpose of ICEL. The Episcopal Board also met and a subcommittee of bishops drafted a new charter for the work of translation which was implemented for a two year trial. In accordance with the wishes of the Congregation, ICEL’s secretariat and Advisory Committee did not take part in the process. The executive secretary, Dr John Page, was allowed to continue during this period but applications would be called for the position at the end of the two-year trial.

The new structure redefined roles, replacing the Advisory Committee with a Consultants Committee, disbanding the standing sub-committees in favour of ad hoc committees, and strengthening the role of the Episcopal Board. An executive of the Episcopal Board now meet by teleconference each month. However the bishops tried to retain control of the organisation and therefore of the translation process. The Cardinal continued to insist that the reform did not go far enough.

Liturgiam Authenticam
What we saw in the response on the ordination rite and in the demands made of ICEL proved to be only trial runs for the ‘king hit’ which appeared on 25 April 2001. Without any consultation of bishops conferences, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments promulgated a new document Liturgiam Authenticam ‘on the use of vernacular languages in the publication of the books of the Roman liturgy’. Presented as the fifth Instruction for the right implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, it is a document for the whole world (not just for English speakers). It replaces Comme le prévoit without even mentioning its existence.

Fidelity to the Latin is the primary criterion.

The translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language… the original text in so far as possible must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. (20)

While the texts must be comprehensible, the sacred style sought for liturgical texts need not adhere to prevailing modes of expression, may be different from usual and everyday speech, and even use a manner of speech considered obsolete in daily usage. Inclusive language is not regarded as an authentic development and the doctrinal mission of the Church will not be subject to externally imposed linguistic norms. Academic style manuals are not considered standards for liturgical translation. ‘A sacral vernacular’ is sought ‘characterised by a vocabulary, syntax and grammar that are proper to divine worship’ (47). Syntax and style, literary and rhetorical genres are to be retained in the translations, as are titles, the ordering of texts, the rubrics, and the system of numbering of the Latin.

The document also deals with the way translations are to be prepared. It says that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments will in future be more directly involved in preparing translations.

[Its] ‘recognitio’ is not a mere formality, but is rather an exercise of the power of governance, which is absolutely necessary…and modifications—even substantial ones—may be introduced by means of it (80).

It is the Congregation which erects a Commission such as ICEL and which approves or provides its governing statutes. Its work is strictly limited to actual translation and its personnel need to be vetted by the Congregation.

For the good of the faithful, the Holy See reserves to itself the right to prepare translations in any language, and to approve them for liturgical use (104).

Events of 2002
The Congregation maintained the pressure on ICEL and the bishops conferences by setting up its own committee of advice on English language translations called Vox Clara. The 12-member committee made up of bishops from nine countries has met twice under the chairmanship of Sydney Archbishop George Pell. According to its opening press release, one of its aims is ‘to enhance and strengthen effective cooperation with the conferences of bishops.’ The committee is reviewing samples of translated texts from the Missale Romanum. It is also working on a ratio translationis which will apply the principles of a literal translation to the English language, giving a list of English words to be equated with their Latin counterparts.

Next, after long delays, the third edition of the Roman Missal in Latin was published on 22 March 2002. With this finally in place, English-speaking bishops conferences received a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments refusing to grant its recognitio for the revised Sacramentary which the conferences had approved. The uncompromising two-page rejection letter—the greater part of which was devoted to criticising ICEL—came with seven pages of ‘observations’ on the translation. The tone was patronising. The Vatican authorities accuse the English texts of being ‘superficially attractive by virtue of their emotional impact’, ‘faddish and ill-adapted’, ‘monotonous’, ‘typical of many consumerist societies’ in its ‘desire for constant variety’, ‘sentimental, secularised, flattened and trivialised’, and so forth. The order and arrangement of the texts must follow the Latin. Pastoral introductions are excluded along with any prayers newly composed in English (including those we have been using for 25 years). The Latin grammar with its relative clauses is given a theological status and is deemed essential also in English. The careful use of inclusive language is rejected. In effect the book was being judged according to the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam, a document produced after the fifteen-year revision project was complete, and after the book was approved by bishops conferences and submitted to Rome.

During the month of May, conferences of bishops received another rejection letter from the Congregation. This one concerned the most recent (literal) translation of the Rites of Ordination. Accompanying the rejection letter is a modified version of the English translation of the Rites of Ordination. The letter indicates that the Congregation is ready to grant the recognitio to any conference of bishops that wishes to approve it as it stands. Every page is sprinkled with changes, some of them trivial (‘baptise’ is changed to ‘administer Baptism’, for example), while others appear to be ideological (at several points, sentences such as the following appear: ‘You are taken from among men and appointed on behalf of men for those things that pertain to God’).

Meanwhile changes continued at ICEL. The statutes were further revised and adopted. A new executive of the Episcopal Board was elected under the chairmanship of Bishop Arthur Roche of Leeds. The resignation of Dr John Page from the position of executive secretary was accepted and Rev. Bruce Harbert, 59-year-old English priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, was appointed. He is an interesting choice for the position. He is not only on the council of the Association for Latin Liturgy (founded over 30 years ago to promote Latin in Catholic liturgy) but has also been a sharp critic of ICEL’s work, past and present. However, he has worked on one of ICEL’s task forces, is a good Latin scholar and has held a variety of academic posts. ICEL’s work continues in a spirit of hopefulness. The translation of the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal has been sent to bishops conferences and has already been approved by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference. Work has begun on revising the Roman Missal and other liturgical books according to the new principles of Liturgiam Authenticam.

Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway in Scotland who completed his term as ICEL’s chairman felt he could not finish without making a strong statement entitled ‘Truth, Honesty and Justice: the Need for Authenticity’. He said in part:

Many good people connected with ICEL have suffered during this time of transition. The members of ICEL’s Episcopal Board have in effect been judged to be irresponsible in the liturgical texts that they have approved over the years. The bishops of the English-speaking conferences, voting by large majorities to approve the vernacular liturgical texts prepared by ICEL, have been similarly judged. And the labours of all those faithful and dedicated priests, religious, and laypeople who over the years devoted many hours of their lives to the work of ICEL have been called into question. The impression is given, and indeed is seemingly fostered by some, that ICEL is a recalcitrant group of people, uncooperative, even disobedient. This is mistaken and untrue. One is tempted to suspect that, no matter what ICEL does, its work will always be criticised by some because their minds are made up that the mixed commission is incorrigible and unworthy of continued existence.

The final development of 2002 was the retirement of Cardinal Medina Estévez and the appointment of Cardinal Francis Arinze to replace him as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. A Nigerian, Arinze is said to be sharp and articulate, and a good communicator. Dubbed a moderate conservative, he is probably a good example of leadership from the African Church, combining firm authority with spiritual charisma. He speaks English well. He is familiar with the corridors of Rome, having led the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue for 17 years. In this position he was able to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation.

After the battles of the last five years, there seems to be a mood of optimism that the work of renewing our liturgical books can once again move forward. Those involved in ICEL and bishops conferences are certainly working within tighter constraints and the scope of possibilities has certainly been reduced. But there is a genuine hope that the bitter and unproductive conflicts are behind us and that constructive work lies ahead.

The first intervention of Cardinal Arinze admittedly was not particularly encouraging. He signed a letter within days of his appointment giving the Congregation’s response to the new ICEL statutes. The letter criticises the statutes because they do not give Rome the right of veto over ICEL personnel, discretionary power over their terms of appointment, and do not acknowledge that it is Rome which establishes and directs commissions such as ICEL.

Issues at Stake
There are two crucial issues at stake in this whole unedifying and sorry saga: what language are we to use in worship and who has the responsibility for determining it.

The emphasis on accurate, exact and literal translation of the Latin is meant to ensure doctrinal fidelity. However our liturgical rites are not academic reference books. Liturgy is the prayer of the people of God. For a liturgical translation, a primary criterion is to find the language which springs spontaneously from the heart to the lips, giving a voice to praying people and lifting the spirit to God in worship. The text is to be proclaimed and heard, sung and prayed by real communities.

By definition, a vernacular is the language in use in a particular place. A living language is constantly evolving (inclusive language is just one example of this). 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, the vernacular functions differently. Translation is a delicate art. Each Latin word cannot just pass over into a corresponding vernacular word. A translation cannot 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.

We have also had to learn how to pray in the vernacular. Thirty years ago, it was thought that we would have to keep the language simple and direct if it was to be understood in the hearing. We who speak English have learned through our experience of vernacular worship that greater complexity and richness is both possible and desirable. ICEL liturgical translations have developed and changed accordingly.

The second issue concerns the responsibility for liturgical translation given to bishops conferences by the Second Vatican Council and the Code of Canon Law. It is hard not to see the events of recent years as a battle for control between the Roman Curia and local bishops conferences. The role of the Holy See in granting its recognitio was described in 1969 as ‘the seal and guarantee of unity and harmony’. The involvement of the Holy See is important because it strengthens and expresses the bond of communion between the bishops of the world. The events of recent years, however, have seen Rome assert its right to determine the structures and procedures for translation into the vernacular, the principles and scope of translation work, and even the very words and expressions to be used in English liturgical books. What is left of the responsibility given to bishops conferences which they have so conscientiously discharged in the decades since the Second Vatican Council?

Fr Tom Elich is director of The Liturgical Commission in Brisbane and coordinator of liturgical studies at St Paul’s Theological College. He was a member of several ICEL committees during the 1990s.