Did you know that the new Missal translation is controversial? People have widely varying theories on how to translate liturgical Latin into English, the extent to which liturgical vernacular should be comprehensible and accessible, the extent to which it should be elevated and distinctively ‘sacral,’ and what counts as poetically high-quality English.

There are also strong feelings about the translation process itself, given the twisted path this translation has taken. Nearly two decades had been spent on a revised translation, which was completed in the 1990s and approved by wide margins by all the English-speaking national bishops’ conferences. Rome rejected this translation in its entirety and in 2001 issued completely new translation guidelines.

The bishops’ conferences, working through their translation agency ICEL, developed several drafts these past eight or nine years following the new rules, with widespread (but secret) consultation at each step. ICEL now sends drafts to Rome as well at every stage, and the changes called for by the Congregation for Divine Worship and its advisory committee, Vox Clara, have been incorporated. The deadline for the national conferences to submit their final version to the Holy See for approval was last December (2009).

This summer the story began to leak that Vox Clara, or at least a few members of Vox Clara, had radically revised the final text without consulting the national conferences. In fact, it seems that their revising began already last September, meaning that the revisers worked from a draft earlier than the final one and largely ignored the last round of consultation from the national conferences. You probably have seen the number 10,000 – or at least 10,000 – batted around on the blogs in regard to the extent of the revisions. The Holy See gave final approval to this radically revised version on March 25. Then the final text continued to be revised behind the scenes until a final version was received in the US a few weeks ago. Cardinal George announced on August 20 that this would be the Missal text and it would begin being used in the U.S. on the First Sunday of Advent 2011 (November 26/27). Some national conferences are pleading for further changes to address major problems in the final text, but nobody knows where this will go.

The text of the Order of Mass is at the USCCB website. The rest of the Missal will be sent to publishers when its final editing is done. Then publishers will prepare altar Missals and congregational resources.

*          *          *

What should you look for when you see the final text? For what it is worth, here is my list of what I will be looking for.

Accuracy. Rome has set a high standard for itself regarding accuracy, and one will hold Rome to its own standard. When Rome rejected the 1998 translation, it used rather insulting and demeaning language to critique the work ICEL had done for the national conferences. The new translation rules are quite fierce in stating that the original text “must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner.”  It gets this specific: “The connection between various expressions, manifested by subordinate and relative clauses, the ordering of words, and various forms of parallelism, is to be maintained as completely as possible in a manner appropriate to the vernacular language.”

My preliminary analysis of the Order of Mass shows that the final (Vox Clara) text deviates in surprising ways from the Latin. To be sure, one’s loyalty to Holy Church probably doesn’t hang on such things as whether in primis means “above all” or “firstly.” But the larger question is whether Rome has principles it applies consistently, especially after Rome was so heavy handed in using such principles to reject the 1998 translation approved by every English-speaking national conference. It seems that many of the deviations in the final version are in a “pastoral” direction. This is probably for the sake of greater comprehension or more natural English or the preservation of familiar texts. If the rest of the Missal deviates in a similar way, the same people who welcome these “pastoral” changes will at the same time have very good reason to ask, “So what was the reason again why the 1998 translation was thrown in the wastebasket?”

One sees how Rome has managed to paint itself into a corner. Its credibility will probably take a hit now no matter what it does. Either Rome loses points for failing to be pastoral; or by being pastoral, Rome loses points for having no principles it applies with consistency. Or, from the other side of the question, Rome will alienate its own most staunch defenders, some of whom have put themselves on the line by strongly defending translation literalism, if it now freely abandons that literalism. This has already happened in the Order of Mass. It will be very interesting to see how accurate the rest of the Missal is.

Consistency of “register.” This term refers to the overall aesthetic tone of a text – whether it is colloquial or more elevated or contrived or antiquated or something else. Sometimes the English word which corresponds most exactly to a given Latin word can’t be used because it is too colloquial or too archaic to fit well with the rest of the text. The bishops in the national conferences and ICEL have worked hard to develop, as called for, a “sacred vernacular” with a register which is elevated while still being accessible and natural-sounding. Of course, appraisals of their work have varied widely.

The final text will be judged for its consistency on this point. It seems oddly inconsistent that the Order of Mass uses a phrase in a Eucharistic Prayer as stilted as “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall” (replacing “Let your spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy”), but then changes the absolution of the Penitential Act back to the user-friendly current version, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgives us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life” instead of the more literal previous final version, “May almighty God have mercy on us and lead, with our sins forgiven, to eternal life.”

When one sees the final text of the entire Missal, one will look closely at all the changes made by Vox Clara. Are they consistently in a pastoral direction? Or are they consistently in the direction of greater accuracy even if this is more stilted and unnatural? Or do the changes go every which way? It would be odd, not to say indefensible, if the final version were to introduce elevated words like “beseech” and “laud” in some places, while it cut and pasted the highly accessible current translation into the text at other places.

Poetic quality. This will be a somewhat subjective judgment, as judgments of aesthetic quality tend to be. The new translation rules call for both accuracy and beauty in the vernacular text. It is not always easy to achieve both. Sometimes one might choose a word for its accuracy even though it sounds rather stilted (i.e., lacking in beauty). Other times one might choose a word which is slightly less accurate because it is more beautiful. One might justify the latter decision because one realizes that no vernacular translation can ever be entirely accurate, and words like, eg. “substance” and “being” can have very different meanings for us than they did for people in earlier times. It will be especially interesting to look at the final lines of the Preface, for they are among the most lyrical and exuberant in the entire Roman liturgy. One hopes that the call to join with the angels and saints will be expressed in English which is at once beautiful and entirely natural.

Some judgments of the poetic quality of the revised Order of Mass in its earlier final version have been rather negative. It will be interesting to see how the poetic quality of the entire Missal text is judged.

Rhythm and musicality. As called for in the new translation rules, the bishops’ conferences and ICEL have collaborated closely with musicians the past eight years in developing texts intended to be sung. Translators have recast, if at all possible, passages which musicians judged to have difficult accent patterns. This has been especially important in the case of the Preface, because ICEL has developed a Preface tone which is slightly more ornate than the one currently in use and which has a particular musical formula at the concluding cadence. It will be very important to see how well the revised text works in its musical setting. Have the Vox Clara revisers taken into account, as called for in the Roman translation document, the sung rendition of the text? Have they consulted with the musicians at ICEL who developed the English chant formulas? It would be unfortunate, not to say disastrous, if the final revisions are unsingable in some places because the musical aspect was ignored by the Vox Clara revisers.

Pointing of orations. “Pointing” is the technical term for placing little marks to a text to indicate how it is to be chanted. A text might be pointed with gràve and acúte marks or with underlining. For simple, easily memorized musical formulas, these discrete marks give everything one needs to chant the text. ICEL has developed a system of pointing which allows the celebrant easily to chant the Collect, Prayer over the Offerings, and Prayer after Communion of every Mass. Those who attended the USCCB/FDLC workshops this summer have seen a welcome further development of this system. In addition to the acute and grave marks for the so-called solemn prayer tone (which is actually quite simple), there is underlining for the better known so-called simple tone. Modern printing technology makes it easy to develop a style of pointing which is both clear to the user and does not distract from the text for the priest reciting the prayer.

Of course such pointing marks are not found in the Latin Missal. Latin liturgical texts, rather, have accent marks to assist in accurate pronunciation for every word with more than two syllables. For those familiar with Latin, pointing marks are not necessary because the cadential accent patterns in Latin are so consistent. Because English has a wider variety of accent patterns, pointing helps the priest to be confident in chanting the English prayer text without having to make editorial decisions for himself.

The Roman postconciliar documents, starting with Musicam sacram in 1967, have repeatedly called for presidential singing of items such as the orations. The English-speaking Church (I’m speaking from my perspective in the U.S.) has already begun to follow the Roman lead, and it seems poised now to move toward even greater implementation of the Roman ideal.

It is hard to imagine that there would be any objections to the addition of pointing marks to the English-language Missal. To prohibit pointing because such is not in the Latin Missal would be a new high-water mark of Pharisaic legalism in our Church. One hopes that the Roman authorities will give their warm support to the proposed pointing system. Even more, one hopes that the pointing will help priests in the spirited and reverent chanting of the orations.

A particular issue: the qui-clause. Liturgical Latin quite often has subordinate clauses which begin with qui, “who.” The most familiar example is found in the Agnus Dei. In Latin, the text qui tollis peccata mundi does not tell God in a declarative statement, “you take away the sins of the world.” Rather, the petition “Lamb of God, have mercy on us” is interrupted by a subordinate clause modifying “Lamb of God”: “who take away the sins of the world.” (Some argue that contemporary English speakers no longer hear this in the second person and the verb form must now be “takes,” but that is another issue.) The new translation rules strongly advocate preserving this syntactical subordination, which is a major change from what we’re accustomed to in the current translation. However, it has already been decided that the English Agnus Dei will remain as in the current translation, though it violates the new translation rules.

There are two other important places where one will want to examine the translation of the qui-clause: the Collect (now called the Opening Prayer) and the Preface. Perhaps the Collect will be translated (and I’m using a text of my own invention to make the point), “Almighty God, who have given us your Son, grant…” Or perhaps it will be “Almighty God, who has given us your Son, grant…” Or perhaps it will be “Almighty God, you have given us your Son; grant…” Similarly, after the opening section of the Preface, the second major section often begins with a qui-clause. If the new translation rules are followed, this section will begin, eg. “Who, though he was in the form of God,…” Some have argued that this is poor grammar because you can’t use an element of a subordinate clause in English as if it is the subject of a new sentence. I don’t agree – I think the issue is the grammar and syntax proper to a liturgical Preface.  The question is what ‘register’ of language one thinks is most accurate and/or pastorally advisable.

One will examine all the qui-clauses in the new Missal as a whole. Are they treated consistently? If not, is there a convincing reason for varied treatment? English-speaking worshipers would have considerable difficulty praying with a Collect which uses the literal, now archaic “O God, who have…” – at least at first, because it is so unfamiliar. If the Collect is treated that way, then I think one should have treated the qui-clause of the Agnus Dei in the same way. There would be no better way to acclimate worshipers to the unfamiliar construction than by placing it on their lips three times at every Mass. It would be rather odd to argue that worshipers cannot relate to this construction when they are engaged actively in singing it, but that they can readily comprehend it when they are passively listening. Or doesn’t it matter whether anyone listens to a Collect?

*     *     *

Perhaps some readers are already objecting to my remarks because we should now put aside all possible objections and prepare for the smoothest possible transition to what is already a done deal. There is nothing to be gained, they are saying, by preparing to look so critically at the new Missal text when it comes. These readers should note that they are not presently reading a parish bulletin or listening to a Lenten adult education talk. They are reading a blog which does theology for a self-selecting audience which chooses to be part of discussions at this level. Were I speaking to a parish or a diocesan presbyterate, I would have different goals and say different things.

The vast majority of worshipers probably will not care about most of the rather arcane issues I have raised here, and that is probably as it should be. This is a blog post written by a scholar for scholars (whether or not they are in academia or have formal degrees). One might think that the People of God, the vast majority of people who sit in the pews and do not read blogs like this, are much more important than the scholars. Who cares what the scholars think? How important, really, are the scholars’ wounded sensitivities?

This line of thinking is short-sighted in the extreme. If it triumphs, it is the People of God who will pay the price.

If the Roman authorities take it upon themselves arbitrarily to revise the work that many, many others have carefully done over many, many years, and if they do so with incompetence, it will be exceedingly difficult to attract quality scholars to any future translation project. Who will want to waste their time on such a farce? What musicians will want to waste time developing chants which are rendered unusable by bureaucrats who either don’t know what they’re doing or don’t care? If the Church loses the brightest and the best from its work of liturgical renewal, we all will pay a high price.

Pope Benedict is well known for his writings on beauty and reverence and holiness in worship. He has made it a high priority to move the Church toward his vision of liturgical renewal. As controversial as the Pope’s liturgical views are, I for one would welcome greater beauty and poetic quality in our liturgical texts. Let us hope that the Pope’s closest collaborators in the Roman curia, along with  their cronies, do not succeed in thwarting the Pope’s ideals. If there is any danger that they might do so, let us hope that the Bishops rise up in protest.

Send to Kindle