German Missal Translation: “Collapsed”

Pray Tell recently reported, and then the National Catholic Reporter picked up, that the German missal translation has been tabled. Questions then arose as to whether this report on the meeting of the German bishops’ conference was over-interpretation, or even wishful thinking, on our part. But now precisely this interpretation has been put forth by the respectable German publication Christ in der Gegenwart (“Today’s Christian,” or depending on your translation theory, “The Christian in the Present”).

Stephan U. Neumann writes in an editorial report that “the new translation of the missal, for the time being, has collapsed (“gescheitert”). He writes in the October 13th issue:

The bishops originally wanted to approve a new translation of the missal in German at their fall plenary meeting. But this did not come about – nor will it be coming about in the foreseeable future. One would seek in vain in the official press release of the German Bishops’ Conference for the sentence, “The new translation of the Roman Missal must be considered collapsed.” But the dry, convoluted sentences under the headline “Completion of the Translation of the Missale Romanum” could not mean anything else but this.

The Vatican set up the Ecclesia celebrans (“Celebrating Church”) commission, roughly the equivalent of Vox clara in the English-speaking world, but with a key difference. The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) did the work of the 2011 English translation over many years, only to have it massively altered at the last minute by Vox clara, whose mandate was supposedly to advise the Vatican in its approval of the ICEL translation after approval by the English-speaking bishops. But the German-speaking commission Ecclesia celebrans itself did the translation work, consisting of several working subgroups. It is this translation that was not approved by the German-speaking bishops at their recent fall meeting. This means that the current German translation of 1975, slightly altered in 1988, will remain in use for the time being.

Two things led to the new translation being rejected as qualitatively worse than the current one: the election of a new Pope, and the “debacle” of the introduction of a new German translation of the funeral rites in 2009. In 2010 Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, president of the liturgy commission, termed the one-year-old translation as “a failure” after heavy criticism of its language by many pastoral ministers. One wished to avoid such a “disaster” again with the missal.

Priests and laity, with letter-writing campaigns and petitions, called on the bishops to keep the old translation. They found an open ear, for the bishops now announce that there is need of “further clarification” in the matter.

(The current German translation, it should be noted by English speakers, is not as simplistic and inelegant was the previous English translation from 1974 which was in use until 2011. The current German translation tends to be quite close to the Latin, with some stylistic freedoms taken for the sake of literary quality. Speaking very broadly, it is comparable to the more elevated English style of the 1998 English translation which English-speaking experts worked on for some 17 years and all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, only to be rejected by Rome.)

The German-speaking bishops in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland varied somewhat in their position on the new translation, Christ in der Gegenwart reports. Presumably the German bishops would have approved it if there hadn’t been a change in pope. The Swiss bishops were markedly more critical of it already under Pope Benedict XVI. They were fundamentally opposed to language in the liturgy which is not the language of people, and opposed to the literalism demanded by Rome. Instead of merely translating Latin words, they wanted the sense and meaning of the Latin to be expressed within the possibilities of the German language. It was felt that the new translation is stylistically inferior to the current one.

The Austrian bishops also did not want to lose the literary quality of the current translation. With a few exceptions, they have been speaking out for delaying the process. This was to prevent an unloved translation carried out according to Liturgam authenticam and to wait for better political times in the Church when it would be possible to improve vernacular translations. The bishops in Germany have now taken up this course.

According to Christ in der Gegenwart, the Ecclesia celebrans commission has pretty well lost its mandate, although officially it could only be dissolved by the Vatican. It is questionable what authority the commission still retains. Liturgiam authenticam bestows on the Vatican a new authority to force translations against the will of bishops, but it is unlikely this would happen with the change of pope. Pope Francis has repeatedly emphasized that the Roman curia exists for service and that he wishes to strengthen local bishops in their decision-making authority.

Christ in der Gegenwart says that the future is open. Liturgist Albert Gerhards of Bonn hopes that a new, small, competent working group could be given the freedom to work from the 1975 translation, both the Latin translations and the prayers original to the German language. “These cannot simply be taken over, as they are products of their time,” he stated. He would consider it possible and desirable to formulate anew some of the collects and post-communion prayers every 30 years. For to pray means to express the faith ever new in the historical and cultural situation of the faithful.

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25 comments

  1. ” Instead of merely translating Latin words, they wanted the sense and meaning of the Latin to be expressed within the possibilities of the German language. ”

    WOW!!! What a concept!!!! Too bad we didn’t think of that for the English language!! (tongue firmly planted in cheek!)

  2. Careful, Linda. You don’t want to injure yourself! 🙂

    Two years in and I’m still gagging on the new Messal transliteration. No, that is not a typo.

    Maybe I’ll go study more German.

  3. Four liturgists –American, Italian, French and German– were discussing the pros and cons of the translations of their respective Roman Missals. The America, extolling the beauty of the ENglish language, said: “Take the word ‘butterfly’; just rolls off the tongue, like a butterfly.” The French liturgist said: “Butterfly? What a crazy, hard word. The French is more beautiful: papillon. Soft, gentle.” The Italian, not to be outdone: “Butterfly? Papillon? What could possibly be more beautiful than the Italian ‘farfalla’?”
    Then the annoyed German liturgist exclaimed: “Ya? Und vot is wrong mit ‘schmetterling’?”
    —Sorry for the tangent. Just wanted to share a laugh.–

  4. I am grateful that the English Missal was approved before it could be derailed as the German one has, though it sounds like their present translation is not as lifeless as our previous Sacramentary was. Set those old Prefaces side by side with the new; there’s just no comparison. When I look at the old translation now it feels like Cliff’s Notes compared with the imagery of the new. It’s not perfect, there are a few words we aren’t used to hearing (oblation, supplication), but what was gained in beauty outweighs what was lost in simplicity.

    1. @Fr. Jarrod Waugh, CSC – comment #4:
      Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the ear of the listener. You have the benefit of seeing the words you are praying. I, particularly with respect to the Prefaces and Collects, am at the mercy of the diction of the celebrant. Many times I go to the Missal after Mass to understand what I was supposed to have heard.

    2. @Fr. Jarrod Waugh, CSC – comment #4:
      {rave}
      Fr Jarrod, the new translation really is a linguistic abomination — a case study in how not to translate public prose. Sure, the earlier translation was simple by comparison, but it was also in elegant formal English. The new Vox Clara translation is neither elegant, simple, formal English or vernacular, but the embodiment of someone’s theoretical idea of “if it sounds complicated it must be profound, if it sounds like Latin it must be Catholic, if it sounds like theological babble it must be transcendent” – an idea that is linguistically, spiritually and liturgically sterile.

      I propose that those who want to keep using the VC translation be allowed to do so if they wish, but that the rest of us be allowed to revert to be 1998 translation which is in good, elegant, fluid and understandable ENGLISH.

      Unlike the Germans, the English-speakers have lost that battle, but the war of liturgical liberation rages on. Let us unleash the beauty of the English language, the beauty of all languages too, so that it can serve our prayer and raise our hearts to God! {rave /}

  5. Mr. Wilson, I doubt that we will be able to agree on this one. It is simply untrue to claim that those who prefer the new translation do so only because it sounds more complicated. Many of the older translations of the texts read as if the scriptural imagery and allusions were bludgeoned out of them. It is certainly true that many of the prayers are now better understood with a hand Missal in front of you, but many people do that with the readings and psalms already. I simply find a lot of the old collects to be so bland as to not merit remembering, while the new ones might encourage me to look them up again and see if I caught that right. I prefer the latter.

    1. @Fr. Jarrod Waugh, CSC – comment #7:
      Coming to know Graham as I have over the years in this wonderful community known as “PrayTell” , I’m sure he will not want to be so pedantic as to request that you address him as “Father Wilson” as he has addressed you as “Father Waugh”, so I will make that request instead! 🙂

  6. Thanks Elias, I’m embarrassed to correct your defence of me, but I am not a cleric, just a committed layperson working in and for the Church for the last 25 years. And Fr Jarrod: no apology needed – thank you anyway, and please call me Graham.

  7. It has been my experience that those who are still having problems with the new translation are experiencing other issues that are related to authority.

    We had a visiting priest who had “problems” with the new translation and was completed surprised that our congregation knew all the responses and were uplifted by them. There was not a sense of confusion on their part but rather a deeper appreciation of the Mass.

    My comment to him was if the people did not know or appreciate the new translation, it was the fault of the pastor for not properly catechizing them.

    Just my two cents.

    1. “It has been my experience that those who are still having problems with the new translation are experiencing other issues that are related to authority.”

      Then your experience is limited, and your conclusions are entirely inaccurate. You might read the comments of a wider cross-section of priests here:
      http://www.csbsju.edu/SOT/Programs/Diekmann-Center/New-Roman-Missal-Survey-of-US-Priests/Survey-Comments.htm
      and here:
      http://www.csbsju.edu/Documents/SOT/Diekmann%20Center/Unedited%20Survey%20Comments%20-%202013%20Survey%20of%20U.S.%20Priests%20on%20the%20New%20Roman%20Missal.pdf .
      You’ll see that they have problems with the new translation mostly because they care about liturgy and about the people celebrating it.

      awr

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #12:
        The issue that the laity will not be able to understand or appreciate the new translation is a direct responsibility of the pastor.
        For example, if the pastor is positive towards the new translation, the laity will be satisfied with it. If the pastor is constantly deriding the new translation as a “linguistic abomination”, the laity will have that opinion.
        This is normal human behavior. Our actions can have grave consequences on other’s souls.
        Reviewing the survey questions and its methodology does not give much confidence in its results. ie. age of respondents, locality, years ordained, etc.
        Let’s say that your numbers are correct, what does it mean? Does it mean that those who don’t like the translation will not use it or continue to disparage it?

        The words we use in the liturgy are formed by what we believe and to imply that those who appreciate the new translation do not care about the liturgy lacks understanding of the beauty of the liturgy.

        What is the greater good that we are called to do? The assumption that American version of English should be the rule of all English speaking world is a stretch. Let’s face it, all translations could be better but is it worth it to continue to complain about it?

        The point has been made and now is the time to promote the new translation as it is not going anywhere anytime soon.

      2. @Raymond Gueret – comment #21:
        OK, you feel strongly about this and truly believe it’d be best if everyone agreed with you. The problem is that many, many people do not agree with you. However flawed the survey methodology, here are some 800 real live priests who really think all the things they wrote. But you’re decided not to listen to them, and I think it’s best that we leave it at that.
        awr

      3. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #22

        The issue is not that I agree or disagree with your 800 priests who don’t like the translation, the translation is here to stay for the foreseeable future whether the 800 want it or not. They have a right to their opinion.

        I understand their position but I respectfully disagree with them. You don’t have to agree with mine and that’s fine.

        There is something called the Praedo principle that I think is important as it relates to this situation. It is sometimes called the 80-20 rule. In business, 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your customers.

        Or if we look at the parish, 80% of the parishioners can be swayed with what occurs in the parish. The rest have their minds made up one way or the other. So how we approach the liturgy now will affect the 80%, positive or negative.

        What we are faced with now, is how do we positively affect the 80% with the current GIRM? Are we to inflict our personal biases on them or try to make lemonade out of what some call lemons?

        Deacon Raymond Gueret

  8. The new translation is indeed an abomination (sorry for the clumsy rhyme in what I have just posted — but heck, the translators of the new translation aka abomination would have to apologize for every line of their product if they had any ear for English or any sense of the language of prayer).

  9. I was just reading Augustine’s Confessions in a slightly old-fashioned, readable but, as I thought, indifferent translation from the 60’s. Then someone asked me to read a paragraph aloud, and suddenly I found myself giving some emphasis to the text, my voice rising and falling with the words almost in spite of myself, pauses imposing themselves, emotions coming through vividly. It’s magical. I realized: “That’s how it’s supposed to be! This text is designed for reading aloud!”

    It also does not read like a translation. Yes, the sentences are a little longer than the way one writes nowadays, the language is a little bit more formal than everyday words, and the personality of Augustine, of course, is quite unique. But the text flows in a natural way and the ways in which it stands out come not from being a translation but from the character of Augustine.

    That gave me an idea of what the new missal translators failed to accomplish.

  10. The 1998 “translation”, as I recall it, had some glaring problems of its own.

    Principally, it exceeded the province of a “translation” and actually changed the rubrics, added options, etc. It attempted to be more of an adaptation of the liturgy itself rather than a mere vessel for comprehension.

    It failed to resolve the glaring disparities in several texts (e.g., “et cum spiritu tuo”, “Gloria in excelsis”, “Credo”) from the Latin.

    Yes, the collects in the new translation are awkward oftentimes, but many of its other changes were good and warranted.

    I personally think it would be reasonable to revise the collects: no new musical settings, new hymnals, etc.

    1. @Felipe Gasper – comment #15:
      Well, these aren’t “glaring problems,” they are your opinions about how translation should be done. There are many views and theories on translation, and the official documents have shifted. 1988 didn’t exceed the province of a translation because the church policies of the time allowed for doing exactly that. Which is why all the bishops’ conferences approved it. The idea that a translation is “a mere vessel for comprehension” is just one theory of what a translation does. You can hardly fault 1998 for not following the totally new rules that came in 2001.
      awr

  11. I would go further than Anthony: something that is no more than a “mere vessel for comprehension” is not a translation at all. Even the horrid Lit Auth calls for translation to be more than a “mere vessel for comprehension”.

  12. I noticed somewhere, today, that Cardinal Bergoglio rejected the new Spanish translation for use in his diocese. Perhaps there is hope that he might allow use of the 1998 English translation if he hears it from the pews. One does not have to be an English professor, as I am, to appreciate the beauty of its Collects and Communion and Post Communion translations.

    The exchange here disappoints me in not alluding at all to the “theological” liberties of the rump (illicit) translations now in force, e.g. designed to emphasize guilt rather than the Good News, and the heavy sexist and “me” rather than “we” pronouns in the Creed, as well as “man” rather than “flesh.” Old enough to realize that “man” was universally understood as the common term for human being for centuries, I must appreciate that the impatience of women with sexism has long since warranted abandoning that usage. (Every time I loudly “correct” those ugly changes I think of the smug and bullying Cardinals Law and George–and Ratzinger) having their way and wish I was somewhere else.)

    1. @Bill Slavick – comment #18:
      Thanks – good comment and insights. Unfortunately, some grow tired if a few of us are continually raising these points and even providing links to documentation on this reasoning. It goes even deeper – you could include the reform away from seeing eucharist/sacraments as objects; a pelagian sense that we earn our salvation via graces thru the sacraments; focus on this type of Trentan theology (which was a reaction to the Protest reformers). The eucharist is an action – too literal translation puts a priority on the wrong things.

  13. Certainly a number of people object to the new translation, but their taste in language puts them in a distinct minority, at least in the US. The CARA survey in September 2012 found that 70% of U.S. adult self-identified Catholics agree with the statement, “Overall, I think the new translation of the Mass is a good thing.”

    That’s not to suggest that popular approval should be the arbiter of good language, but it’s not as though all of those who objected to the insipidities of the old translation had a duff ear for language. Wasn’t it Madeleine L’Engle who suggested that the only proper response to “And also with you” was “Likewise, I’m sure”?

  14. Where the new translation fails is in the collects where it doesn’t recognize that “O God, who were” and “O God, who have” are grammatically wrong and should be “O God, who was” and “O God, who has” unless they meant “O God, you were” and “O God, you have,” but “O God, who were” and “O God, who have” makes it sound like they left an S off of God, “O Gods, who have…” They seriously need to fix these two. Aside from that, the carping about getting rid of the childish wording and returning to proper translation of the Latin is silly.

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