UPDATE 4-25: The full text of the pope’s letter in English translation is here.
In a lengthy letter to the bishops in Germany (German-language bishops in other countries are also to receive the letter), Pope Benedict has explained in some detail his reasons for insisting upon “for many” in the Eucharistic prayer. About a year ago, the German bishops informed the pope that there was division among German-speaking bishops on the question of “for many” vs. “for all.” The danger was imminent that, even if the bishops’ conference were to unite around the wording “for many,” some regions would opt to keep “for all” in the forthcoming publication of the official hymnal Gotteslob (“Praise of God”).
The question is how to translate the words of the Lord in the Last supper narrative of the Eucharistic prayer, “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which will be poured out for many” (Mark 14:24; cf. Matthew 26:28).
The pope’s letter is pastoral in tone. He hopes that by persuasion he can bring about unity. The pope makes his case by placing the question in the larger context of difficult translation issues since the Second Vatican Council.
To translate this as “for all” is not purely translation, but interpretation. Significantly, the pope says that this interpretation was and is “well grounded.” There were and are good reasons for conveying it as “for all.” The problem is that this interpretation, however good, is going beyond translation. He writes, “This intermixing of translation and interpretation belongs, to a certain extent, to the principles which guided the translation of liturgical books immediately after the [Second Vatican] Council. One was aware of how far removed the bible and the liturgical texts were from the language and thought of people in today’s world… One felt not only justified, but indeed obligated to intermix such interpretations in order to shorten the route to the people whose heart and understanding were to be reached by these words.”
Although there is justification for “substantial, not necessarily literal translation,” wide divergences between various vernacular languages have come about, as have “banalities” that represent “real losses.” The pope has become convinced in the course of the years that there are limits to the principle of translation with structural rather than literal correspondence. According to the pope, the 2001 Roman document on translation, Liturgiam authenticam, placed the principle of literal correspondence in the foreground, “of course without prescribing one-sided literalism.”
The pope believes that “the sacred word must appear as itself as much as possible, even with its foreignness and the questions it brings.” Interpretation, by contrast, is the task of the church. The very “structure of revelation” demands that the word is read within the “interpretive community of the church.” This is why the Holy See has determined that the Latin “pro multis” must be translated (emphasis in original) and not be given in what is already an interpretation.
The pope emphasizes that Christ died for all, and that the church’s teachings on this point has not changed. “That Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God is the man for all people, the new Adam, belongs to the fundamental certainties of our faith.”
There is a two-level loyalty to the original text at play, according to the pope. The church has reverence for the words of Jesus. Jesus, for his part, said “for many” because he saw himself as God’s suffering servant of Isaiah 53, as the fulfillment of the prophetic words of Isaiah. This double loyalty is the concrete reason for the church’s formulation “for many.”
The pope is well aware that this places an “enormous responsibility” upon those who interpret the Word of God. Changes in liturgical forms and texts have a great human impact and can be disturbing, the pope says, “as we all know from our experiences in the last 50 years.” Catechesis is necessary, and it must precede the change from “for all” to “for many.” The pope writes to implore his brother bishops urgently to undertake such catechesis.
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The pope distinguishes between “substantial” and “literal” (inhaltlich and wörtlich) translation, which of course reminds English speakers of the distinction between “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence.” Forty or fifty years ago, this distinction was widely employed in translation studies. A possible problem with the pope’s position is that the distinction has been abandoned by so many translation theorists in recent decades.
All translation strives for some sort of equivalence. But there are so many types of equivalence, and consequently every translation, in making the choices that inevitably must be made, ends up being “dynamic” in some sense. There is no “wörtlich” translation, strictly speaking. Every translation makes some sort of decision – an interpretation – about what the “inhalt” is or how it is to be expressed.
A further interesting point is that the recently-approved English translation of the Roman Missal is not always satisfied with pure “translation” but clearly opts for “interpretation” in some cases. For now I’ll simply note the point and leave it to readers to give examples they have found, if they wish.