Formal Equivalence – hah!

While having a few days off in France earlier this year, I am ashamed to admit that I found myself reflecting on Liturgiam Authenticam. As is well known, this document insists on a literalist translation of liturgical texts and the use of Latin cognates and syntax whenever possible. It claims that the “dynamic equivalence” theory of translation is now dead and discredited and that “formal equivalence” is the way to go, despite the fact that professional translators know that exactly the opposite is true. (“If we didn’t use dynamic equivalence, we’d very soon be out of a job.”) It earned Dr Peter Jeffery’s description of it as “the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation”. (Dr Jeffrey’s demolition job on the document was recorded in 2010 here).

I found myself wondering what would happen if we applied the provisions of LA to other aspects of our everyday lives, in this case touring abroad. My reflection was prompted by a notice in a French hotel lavatory: sacs pour garnitures périodiques. How would LA have us translate this into English? “Sacks for periodical garnish” or “Sacks for periodic accessories”? What on earth could either of those mean to anyone? “Sanitary disposal bags” is the accepted phrase.

Or how about the French road signs Allumez vos feux, literally “Light your fires”, or Avancez jusqu’au feu, “Advance as far as the fire”? “Turn on your headlights” and “Drive right up to the traffic lights” are what we would say.

Perhaps a more liturgical slant is to be found in Attachez vos ceintures: décollage immédiat, literally “Attach your cinctures: immediate ungluing” rather than “Fasten your seat belts: take-off is imminent”. Still with liturgical vesture, there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding with aube, which normally means “dawn” or “a beginning”, occasionally “twilight”, but can also mean “alb”. Thus the phrase aube nouvelle means “A new day is dawning” or “A new beginning”, and not “new alb”.

Without multiplying examples, I think the point is clear: formal equivalence would simply not work in real life. So why do we try to make it work when we come together to worship? Even if you accept the argument for a sacral language, it needs to be a genuine language and an accurate one.

More urgently, when will we realize that Liturgiam Authenticam is a laughing-stock and needs to be replaced (not repealed, for it is not the Vatican way ever actually to repeal anything), and acknowledge that the 1969 document it supplanted, Comme le prévoit, was actually full of wisdom grounded in common sense?



  1. But in spite of everything, the product of Liturgiam Authenticam, the New Translation remains with us. LA might be a laughing-stock, the Translation that we have in consequence is an occasion of sadness.

    1. @Fr. Jarrod Waugh, CSC:

  2. “Even if you accept the argument for a sacral language, it needs to be a genuine language and an accurate one.” I do accept the argument, and I do agree that it needs to be both genuine and accurate. And I myself am not convinced that MR III has accomplished these objectives altogether. To say it’s “better” than what we had depends on what one means by “better”. In some ways, arguably it is. But in other ways, I’m not so certain.

  3. In my opinion, the privileged seasons are the best parts of the new translation, in the propers and the prefaces. Ordinary Time is sort of “meh” (though Pf. IV for Sundays might be my favorite text in the whole thing), but OT was ALREADY banal in the old translation–so that’s basically a wash.

    I think what is gained in the biblical imagery of the privileged seasons’ texts outweighs the tongue-twisting of some of the collects, and is a net gain for their richness vis. preaching. And I think the whole thing is better suited for chanting, which to me makes it also a net gain for the aesthetics.

    That being said, there are still parts that I think are basically unusable, like most of the Prayers/Blessings over the People, which is really too bad. But I would still argue that at least now the decent ones are sometimes used, whereas before I hardly recall them ever being used at all. So, still, net gain.

  4. I am hopeful that whoever takes over the USCCB Liturgy committee will declare a 50-year hiatus on any new translation.
    The competition and backbiting of which translation, which methodology, which meaning, which language, etc., has really done nothing to improve things. Perhaps the quiet workings of another one or two generations of linguists and translators can provide us a break and eventually lead to a less rancid environment for the right words.

    1. @Sean Keeler: 50 years? Well,. by that time I will (hopefully) be participating in heavenly liturgy, in which words and language will not be necessary. But until such time, please . . . we need help!!

  5. And in the meantime people suffer and become more and more detached from the liturgy. I can’t remember at this point how many people I have talked to who have used a variation of “I just don’t pay any attention to the words anymore because they mean nothing to me”. People have not been enriched by this translation no matter how many liturgists keep saying it is more beautiful.

    1. @Reyanna Rice:
      People were already becoming more and more detached from the liturgy. It’s not as if the average person was honed-in on the texts before. The lectionary is much more important, I would argue, in that sense. At worst I think you can say, “they were paying less and less attention and that has continued.”

      1. @Fr. Jarrod Waugh, CSC:

        “The lectionary is much more important.”

        If you think that having a good translation of the missal is not as important as having a good biblical translation you have already settled for second best.

        The translation of the missal should be the best it can possibly be.

        The post is about formal equivalence versus dynamic equivalence. What are the principles of Liturgiam authenticam which you approve of?

      2. @Gerard Flynn:
        Well, that’s not what I said, as the following clause indicated, but I would stand by the assertion that the translation of the Lectionary is more important to the average parishioner’s ability to engage with the liturgy than the translation of the Missal, and I didn’t draw the dichotomy you seem to be implying.

        I am questioning the assumptions of the post as a whole, that LA is a “laughing stock” and that the English Missal translation we have is fatally faulty. Clearly not everyone agrees with those premises.

  6. Instead of pitting dynamic against formal equivalence, Paul, you seem content above to match the former against some hypothetical tertium quid whose distinguishing feature is that it insists on decontextualizing the component parts of idioms or rejecting one perfectly legitimate equivalent in favor of an obviously inappropriate choice (aube=alb in my Fr/Eng dictionary – nothing dynamic there). The real difference between formal and dynamic equivalence, in real life, lies in the importance accorded to preservation, when possible/intelligible, of original syntax and structure. Formal equivalence, by remaining attentive to how grammatical structure can convey shades of meaning, lends itself to fields in which precision is paramount (very few people want a dynamic rendering of legal contract, for instance) whereas dynamic equivalence’s focus upon preserving an overall *effect* upon the audience, even if precision or nuance could be lost in the process, recommends it for creative arts.

    Of course, dynamic equivalence hinges upon two crucial judgments of the translator insofar as he determines what the sought-after effect is and what means are likely to produce the same in the target language. It is here that the argument over MR2011 really seems to play out, since the dynamic camp’s big beefs are “that’s now how people actually talk” and “it just doesn’t flow as well,” to which the formalists respond “but that’s how the liturgical text actually talks” and “your not liking the sound of it doesn’t make it inaccurate.” Importantly, the contention that a dynamic translation of the Missal requires natural, flowing, easily understood speech depends upon the original Latin being just as natural. But AFAIK modern scholarship indicates that liturgical Latin was, from the get go, a cut above the vulgar tongue, meaning that a dynamic equivalent would, if true to original effect, need to remain somewhat stylized and extraordinary. The Latin is frequently also literarily/rhetorical beautiful, so inelegant translation represents a certain failure, but the mode of proper “dynamism” remains open to contention on its own terms.

    1. @Aaron Sanders:
      An awareness that grammatical structure may convey shades of meaning is nothing exceptional and not a reason to opt for formal over dynamic equivalence. Of course it does. The problem arises when a translator tries to apply the same grammatical structure to the destination language as that of the host language. The result is daft as Paul’s examples illustrate.

      Your point about dynamic equivalence’s not being appropriate for legal contracts is leading nowhere. If, for study purposes, such as the frequently-cited use of an English translation to help translate the missal into other less commonly-known languages, one requires a verbatim translation as part of a process, the thing to do is to produce an interlinear version, such as those commonly used in biblical studies. There is a place for such study texts. But a translation whose primary purpose is public worship is not it.

      1. @Gerard Flynn:
        Attention to grammatical structure may seem a rather obvious imperative and yet if we turn to the ICEL Sacramentary we’ll find it was therein oft overlooked with, e.g., purpose clauses tacked into the English with an “and” as simply additional information. It is not as if English lacks such constructions as purpose clauses (or adverbial clauses within which to package ablative absolutes, for that matter); the translators just didn’t like the sound of the perfectly grammatical English that employs them. Regardless of whether we think these syntactical units are significant to the meaning (I would contend the purpose clause most certainly is whereas the manner of rendering absolutes is not), the point of my post is that these are the considerations upon which the debate between formal and dynamic equivalence hinges, not Paul’s rather contrived straw men. Only if we are clear about what the poles of the formal-dynamic spectrum are can we fittingly determine which part of that spectrum is appropriate to the needs of the liturgy. I asserted neither that the liturgy was akin to a legal contract nor creative art, only proffering these as what I considered least controversial examples of apt uses for types of translation. You have asserted rather than argued that public worship requires dynamism – on what grounds? There seems to be a presumption that liturgy is meant to give voice to the heart AND that this can only occur in everyday speech; my grandfather-in-law who prays like the KJV might disagree, many others might agree. But even if this contention is true and factors in, we cannot forget that liturgy is theologia prima, and the difference of an iota can render a theology dangerous. Thus it does not seem at all clear to me that only formalism or dynamism ought to hold exclusive sway.

  7. I second Fr. Waugh’s comments above: I am grateful for the current English translation of the Mass.

  8. Over the last five years the Pray Tell Blog has been a source of solace for me. The idea of translating a text using formal equivalence seemed to me to be obviously problematic given that different languages use different syntax etc. I put aside my misgivings and provided my parish with all of the books and materials they need to use the New Translation. It became very clear, very early that the new translation is completely inadequate as a basic text for the liturgical prayer of the church. I am a 51 year old Catholic Priest. My uncle was also a Diocesan Catholic priest. I have relatives who are religious sisters who have given me an edifying example of religious life.

    I am neither an older priest who some might accuse (unfairly I believe) of harking back to the Second Vatican Council or a young priest striving for a “reform of the reform”. I run a parish of 525 souls (latest estimate) from about 40 countries in London.

    By my own estimation this is a vibrant parish. We have liturgies embracing Gregorian chant, traditional hymn singing, contemporary liturgical music. We have flowers, sprinkling rites, incense, baptisms during mass. We have a Justice and Peace Group, a St Vincent de Paul society, social gatherings.

    In short this is a completely ordinary Roman Catholic Parish where the Body of Christ is made visible in the Sunday assembly, where people pray throughout the week, where we have a practical concern for the poor.

    Before I became a priest 18 years ago I worked for 5 years as a Quantity Surveyor rising to a relatively senior position.

    I mention all of the foregoing simply to claim on my own behalf that I am no more and no less than a thoroughly orthodox, well trained, gifted diocesan priest who has been given the immense privilege of leading a Catholic parish.

    My priestly uncle had a gift for words which I partly share. It gives me no pleasure, but I want to state that I judge the new translation to be awkward, obscure, often incomprehensible and in urgent need of replacement as a…

  9. The Amen Corner in the latest issue of Worship (vol 89-6, Nov 2015) has Paul Turner discussing “Misal Romano: A Tale of Two Translations.”
    Although he does not address formal vs dynamic equivalence directly, he does discuss the variety of Spanish translations of the MR3. It was eye-opening and well worth reading. The various Spanish Missals have found another way to dissolve the infelicities of formal equivalence.

    1. @Ronald C Chochol:
      Would it be possible for Pray Tell blog to get permission to post Paul Turner’s discussion on the blog? I would be interested in reading it and do not have a subscription to Worship. As the layperson in our large bilingual parish who coordinates liturgy, and who has served in many Spanish masses – funerals, quinceaneras, bodas, I’ve watched with interest the freedom the priests in my parish and diocese seem to feel when using the Misal Romano, versus the English Roman Missal, especially after 2011. The fixation with “say only the black, do only the red” is not apparent in the Spanish liturgies. Perhaps the Worship article might enlighten me as to why.

  10. There was beauty and poetry in the Sacramentary. RM3 is drek. Trying to defend this mistake of a translation is sad.

  11. Postconciliar Roman Catholicism has become three semi-autonomous rites in one: traditionalist, broad church, and evangelical. The final term is not indicative of theology but of an self-conscious method of progressive liturgy and community formation focused on “active participation”, the affective qualities of worship, and an emphasis on social justice initiatives, among other interests. This liturgical situation resembles the ecclesial situation in many member churches of the Anglican Communion especially in the relatively recent past.

    I am not surprised by this liturgical fission. Quite the opposite: the extreme pressure of the Tridentine era forced natural liturgical schools to live together under one liturgy which satisfied no one group.

    It would profit all if one editorial/translation team were in charge of the maintenance (and hopefully, an update of) the 1962 Tridentine liturgy; one team were in charge of revising the current Roman Missal to the extent this is possible; and yet another team set to preparing the 1998 Sacramentary for issue.

    I suspect that after a while there would be a fair amount of liturgical self-selection. Churches would be variously known for celebrating one of the three liturgies. Is this informal schism necessarily detrimental? Perhaps some in the progressive camp might view balkanization as a major defeat for a Catholicism which could participate with a united voice in contemporary discourse through one Mass. And yet, fifty years of reform has shown that there are some who will absolutely not obey the reforms (traditionalists), some who muddle along with a poorly proofread missal (many broad churches), and yet others (evangelical progressives) who might want the liturgy to constantly deconstruct itself. It’s nuts to think that any one of these liturgies and liturgical ideologies can satisfy all.

  12. As if ancient cultures alone were capable, or were more capable than those of our times, of finding words to express people’s awareness of the holy in their midst. As if the Holy Spirit visited only the patriarchal sees and guided them alone in finding adequate wording for the people’s faith. As if we were incapable of developing an awareness of the finite and fragile world around us that would inform the way we pray now and later. Men and women have indeed encountered traces of the divine in all times and places, from St. Mary’s Forane to Assisi to Guadalupe. And we have numerous examples of spiritual non-Latin originality that we all have prayed (e.g. “channel of your peace”) that should make us dare to use our own “vulgar” tongues to answer God’s call. But I accept that, while the former pope remains among us, such efforts will only be “whispered in the ear” and not “shouted from the rooftops.”

  13. The problem with answering criticisms of the current translation with “well, it’s better than what we had before” is that, even if it is true, it’s not really an answer to criticisms of the translation. We might think that Putin’s regime in Russia is marginally better than the old Soviet Union, but it is hardly an adequate response to criticism of Putin to say, “yeah, well he’s better than Stalin” (even if he is better than Stalin).

    I’m also not sure exactly what it means to say that the new translation is “better”, on balance, than the old. In some ways, when comparing the failings of the two, we are comparing apples and oranges, since I think they fail in very different ways.

    I think the old translation often failed as a translation, whether judged by the standards of formal equivalence or of dynamic equivalence. It often left out significant ideas that were present in the Latin, or used concepts to express them that were not even in the ballpark in terms of meaning. It worked, however, as English prose: sometimes a bit bland, but always clear and occasionally quite striking (I still miss “Lord, may this sacrifice, which has made our peace with you, advance the peace and salvation of all the world” for EPIII).

    I think the new translation often fails as English prose. It uses an overly Latinate vocabulary, eschewing the vivid Anglo Saxonisms that are part of the glory of English and covering everything with an aura of abstraction. Its sentence structures are often convoluted to the point of being laughable/hilarious (just to show I’m willing to go with both the Anglo Saxon and the Latinate). It does usually contain all of the ideas of the Latin, but often in a way that does not allow them to be conveyed to hearers.

    So the old and the new are to my mind both bad English translations: the new failing as English and the old as a translation.

  14. Maybe the root of some of the dissatisfaction is that the Roman Missal itself is a less than optimal product. Is it enough to recycle old texts into new locations? Part of the traditional genius of Rome is that it could observe and absorb the best of other cultures. What is in the Latin edition of MR3 that came in through the best of the world’s sacramentaries in the thirty years that preceded it? Any contributions from the Orthodox? The BCP? The Italian Sacramentary? Bueller? Bueller?

    I would agree that a moratorium is in order on the other rites getting butchered by LA. But I’d like to know why there’s not more call to update MR3 into a better universal support for the worldwide Church.

  15. I will be interested to see how Divine Worship, the Missal for the Anglican Ordinariates, handles many of these concerns. I imagine several of the Collects were lifted verbatim from the Anglican Missal, and they have quite sonorous translations of the Latin Collects, provided one has trained the ear for it.

    At the very least, I pray it renders relative clauses in Latin as relative clauses, rather than redacting them into direct addresses. The Collect for Purity is a classic example: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

  16. If there were a similar critique of the old translation that is constantly given for the new then the arguments against it might carry some weight. For whatever flaws there might be in Liturgiam Authenticam and formal equivalence it must be remembered that it was a reaction to the serious flaws in the use of dynamic equivalence in the previous translation. For many the new translation has been a welcome relief from what came before.

    Additionally, it must always be remembered that there is a difference between theory and application. Examples of prayers translated by means of formal equivalence that could be improved does not negate the validity of its use. Would it not be better to suggest improvements for specific shortcomings in the translation rather than attempting to discredit the entire project?

    Nor does the use of formal equivalence deny the use of dynamic equivalence where it is needed. It was its overuse in the previous translation that discredited it. If the advocates for a greater use of dynamic equivalence wish to be taken seriously then they need to address honestly the complaints of those who see serious flaws in its usage rather than merely attempting to demonize them through ridicule.

    1. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
      The only problem with your stance is that the 1970-75 translation was a transitional work, not a permanent effort. A proper comparison would be between 1998 and 2010.

      Dynamic equivalence has never been discredited, only unceremoniously drop-kicked.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        Your dismissal of the relevancy of the 1970 translation in the current debate will not do. This translation was in use for 40 years and is what most people think of when discussing dynamic equivalence. There needs to be an honest critique of its flaws and how a new translation using dynamic equivalence would avoid them if proponents of this method would wish to make any progress. Additionally, there are many who would claim that all translations would only be transitional, needing revision every generation or so.

        As for dynamic equivalence never being discredited, it has indeed been so by a large segment of the Catholic population. One of the problems of the liturgy wars is that there has been no attempt at a true dialogue with those who disagree. The entire liturgical reform has been based upon criticisms of perceived weaknesses in the traditional rite. If it is just to criticize the traditional rite then it must be acknowledged that it is also just to criticize the new rite. These criticism need to be acknowledge and addressed rather than just dismissed.

      2. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        Fr Forte, I’ve been on the ground, so to speak, for over thirty years. I recall in the 80’s, after MR2 was out (in 1981) that the expectation of a new sacramentary was just a few years away. I’ve lived through many pastors saying, “Hold off ordering that new sacramentary, Todd; it will be outdated in a few years anyway.”

        Sorry, but beyond being a transitional piece to get a revised vernacular liturgy into use, 1970 had no relevancy beyond the 80’s. I rather object to the bait-and-switch from 1970 critics. Learn the real history and intent of the liturgy, please, and consult more widely than the cottage industry on slavish translations. Fr Z and others are all latecomers to this party. If you want to criticize 1970 on its own merits, take a number.

        Among my colleagues, especially my progressive ones, there were frequent criticisms of the English MR1’s flaws–and there were many. It’s one of the reasons many liturgists anticipated a better, permanent product just twenty years ago.

        Most of the criticisms of MR1 were addressed in the 1998 Sacramentary, a work approved by all the world’s English-speaking bishops. Quite frankly, unless you and others are prepared to discuss that effort as a comparison with the 2010 Missal, I think you have intentionally sidelined yourselves from serious conversation.

        1970 couldn’t have been all that bad in Rome’s eyes, as it was continued to be mandated for use for over a decade by the CDWDS after it became obsolete. If you have a beef, take it up with our old-school comrades from the JP2/B16 curia.

        My main problem with both 1970 and 2010 is the lack of artistry in both. Neither really lifts the spirit to heights. 1970 had the advantage of being a breath of fresh vernacular air after centuries of unintelligible liturgy. And 2010 stands on a strong tilt to Norman French-derived vocabulary. nine centuries later, it’s still the voice of the masters dictating to the population.

        But MR3 has given me more pause with the original product. I do think it’s time to consider a very serious reworking of the Roman Missal, 4th edition. Let’s look at the flaws in the source and address those, please. It is not the Bible. It is not, as a whole, inspired canon. Any thoughts on that?

      3. @Todd Flowerday:
        Being a priest for twenty-four years I too, like you, have been on the ground for quite awhile. There may have been criticisms of the 1970 translation in private all I have seen at PTB is harping against the 2010 translation. And while there may have been early expectations of a new translation the fact remains that the 1970 translation was used for 40 years and it remains the image of what many people think of as the result the use of dynamic equivalence. So its relevance in this discussion remains.

        I must add that I take issue with your condescending characterization that I do not know “the real history and and intent of the liturgy.” I am quite familiar with both. The charge, often made, that if someone does not agree with the proponents of more progressive understanding of the liturgy that they must be ignorant does little to advance a charitable discussion of the issues.

        I also do not agree with you that the 1998 translation addressed most of the criticisms of the 1970 translation. I am more than willing to discuss its shortcomings. I would start with the critique made by Cardinal Medina Estévez in 2002.

        I would agree to a reworking of the present Roman Missal but in order to bring it back more in line with the liturgical tradition of the Roman Rite. While the Missal may not be inspired like the Bible it is a part of our Sacred Tradition and should be respected as such. While it can be tweak, as it has been over the centuries, its overall integrity should be, and should have been, respected.

      4. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        I’m not so sure that liturgy conferences, grad school classrooms, and professional meetings are all that public. But they weren’t behind closed doors either. Granted, it was all before the internet became the de rigeur place for the culture of complaint.

        It’s quite true that I don’t know the extent of your knowledge about liturgy. I don’t recognize your name, so I do know you weren’t around for the many discussions of which I was a part. I do think you have to consider why there was so much excitement about MR2 if most priests and liturgists thought the English MR1 rendition was so great. Quite honestly, I knew few (professional, granted) liturgists who were wholly satisfied with the 1970 work.

        I have read the cardinal’s 2002 critique, but I don’t think much of it at all. If you want to take the discussion to email, I would be happy to correspond on it.

        I don’t think much of your accusation that some people, working at the service of the Church and laboring with its mind were somehow disrespectful of the Missal by translating in a way with which some find fault, or that others might criticize it. Far better for criticism to be respectful and public than operating behind closed doors.

        It’s not hard to find my website or email, and I invite further dialogue if you wish.

  17. It’s interesting to me that the majority of the comments have been about the revised translation of RM3, which I didn’t even mention. That didn’t prevent some folk getting rather defensive about it, though.

    I thought I was posting about principles of translation, not the Roman Missal.

    My point was that if you apply LA principles to everyday life they fail completely. Once I had had the initial reflection quoted above, I found myself applying LA to everything I read in French during those few days: posters, restaurant menus, newspapers, brochures, road signs…. I couldn’t stop! In virtually every instance, I found that if you translated the French into English using LA principles, you would get the same sort of bilge as the original garnitures périodiques produced.

    As someone with over 40 years’ experience of translating French into English, I am very familiar with the challenge of producing a text which reads and sounds as if it was originally written in the receptor language, which is always what good translators strive for. (And I don’t think a single one of the defenders of the RM3 translation could in all honesty say that it sounds as if it was composed in English.)

    I remain convinced that LA’s version of formal equivalence is doomed to fail (a) because it tries to foist the vocabulary and syntax of a long-dead language onto a living one and (b) because it does this in obstinate pursuit of an ideological principle which has been shown to be untenable.

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      Actually you were posting a caricature of formal equivalence by using reductio ad absurdum to illustrate your point. Liturgiam Authenticam does not require such ridiculous translations that you have given. If we were to look beyond translations of the liturgy to those of the Bible we would see a broad spectrum of the use of both formal and dynamic equivalence: from the New American Standard on one side to the Living Bible on the other. The relationship between these two principles need not be either/or but rather a combination of the two. I would suggest the rule of formal equivalence when possible and dynamic equivalence when necessary.

      As for the charge of foisting a Latinate vocabulary, one of the criticism again the proponents of dynamic equivalence is that they ignore the fact that English has received a number of technical theological and liturgical terms from Latin that have been in common use for centuries. Today they are just as much a part of the English language as those of Anglo-Saxon origin. Their suppression in favor of common vernacular terms would be unfaithful to what has become standard English usage.

  18. @Paul Inwood (#29): As someone with over 40 years’ experience of translating French into English, I am very familiar with the challenge of producing a text which reads and sounds as if it was originally written in the receptor language, which is always what good translators strive for.

    Is it always “what good translators strive for”, though?

    I’d actually argue that, in the context of liturgical translation, having a text that reads as if it were originally written in the receptor language is not necessarily the desideratum you obviously consider it to be.

    My point was that if you apply LA principles to everyday life they fail completely.

    But the liturgy is not “everyday life”, and thus I don’t see why the principles of LA are somehow “doomed to fail”. LA deals with liturgical texts, not road signs, menus or brochures!

  19. @Matthew Hazel (#30):

    Oh, I think a good translation, in liturgy and without, should indeed sound like it was written in the receptor language.

    There are ways that liturgy is very much like everyday life, and ways it is not. (This is a very large issue of sacramental theology I won’t go into here, I’ll just note the tendency for some to downplay the first and overemphasize the second.) I wouldn’t want translations to be unlike everyday life because they are so stilted and unnatural and awkward and ugly.

    OK, just one comment on the liturgy/everyday life issue: liturgy is both like and unlike everyday life in that it takes so many of the elements of everyday life and ‘redeems’ them, uses them as they are meant to be which is at their very best. One comes away from good liturgy saying “grace is everywhere, I now see my everyday life through better eyes,” not “that was a pleasant escape from everyday life and I regret I have to return there.”


  20. @Fr Ruff (#31): I’ll just note the tendency for some to downplay the first and overemphasize the second.

    Whereas both of the translations of the Pauline Missal made under Comme le prevoit overemphasised the first, and downplayed the second. Moreover, IMO, the translation philosophy and some of the provisions of CLP meant it was going to be a massive uphill struggle to avoid the overemphasis on the “everyday life” side of things.

    Perhaps in another 40-50 years time – if the post-conciliar liturgy lasts that long – we might be at a point where both “sides” are happy with the translation.

    Oh, I think a good translation, in liturgy and without, should indeed sound like it was written in the receptor language.

    It may be a minority view round these parts, but I just don’t think that’s always necessary, and can sometime be detrimental to the reason the translation exists in the first place.

    1. @Matthew Hazell:
      So interesting that Matthew Hazell thinks it’s doubtful that the post-conciliar liturgy still be around in 40-50 years.

      You’ve shown your cards there, Matthew.

  21. I’ll admit that “everyday life” might have been a less-than-perfect choice of words. Let me rephrase, and see if Matthew’s point is still valid:

    My point was that if you apply LA principles to real life they fail completely.

  22. Hi.

    I’m not a Catholic, so I hope my contribution here won’t be unwelcome – but I am a translator, and I’ve been pointed to this post by a friend of mine.

    As I see it, there are a few problems here.

    First, the dichotomy between formal and dynamic equivalence is not the only way of conceptualising the dilemma(s) of translation. I would prefer to contrast a translation which is more or less proximate to a speaker of the source language (L1, in the jargon) with a translation which is more or less proximate to a speaker of the target language (L2). Note that there is a spectrum here, not just two binary options.

    Second, the examples given by Paul Inwood are a bit strange. “Feux” means “(electric) lights” in modern French, as a separate and parallel meaning to “fires”. Choosing to render the “feux” of a car as “fires” is not just an over-literal translation choice – it is the _wrong_ choice of lexical item from the target language. It isn’t really a translation at all.

    Third, theoretical models of translation are no more than models. When I translate a text, I often find myself veering between proximity to L1 and L2, rather than keeping to a single unchanging approach throughout. I expect most other translators do the same.

    Fourth, I would disagree with Paul Inwood’s statement that producing a translation that looks like an original composition in L2 is “always what good translators strive for”. That is a matter of debate rather than something that can be asserted flatly. It is a particularly problematic statement in the field of religious translation – for example, a translator of the Qur’an might deliberately set out to keep the translation close to L1. But you guys are the experts on this side of things, not me.

    1. @John Morris:

      I’d like to thank John Morris for his contribution to the discussion.

      Second, the examples given by Paul Inwood are a bit strange. “Feux” means “(electric) lights” in modern French, as a separate and parallel meaning to “fires”. Choosing to render the “feux” of a car as “fires” is not just an over-literal translation choice – it is the _wrong_ choice of lexical item from the target language. It isn’t really a translation at all.

      I agree totally with this. The problem, however, is Liturgiam Authenticam, with its seeming insistence on using Latin cognates wherever possible, even when these are not understood by the faithful, or are simply wrong (as in the “feux” — “fires” example). This is why we have the troublesome “consubstantial with the Father”, when “of one being with the Father” (as formerly used in the British Isles) would have been perfectly fine, as well as comprehensible. (“One in being…”, used everywhere else, was not fine.)

      1. @Paul Inwood:

        Thanks for the clarification. If inappropriate translation decisions are being made in order to carry a Latin root over into the English text, that’s clearly a problem.

        I have now read some of “Liturgiam Authenticam” (not all of it, because it seems to be quite a long document), and I have two general impressions of it. First, it’s a classic committee document. Anyone who has ever worked in a bureaucratic organisation will immediately recognise the style. Parts of it seem to be saying quite different things, presumably because they were written by people with opposing views.

        Second, I disagree with the basic principle of prescribing rules for translation from above, whether they happen to be literalistic or otherwise. Leave it to the translators, for goodness’ sake.

        Where I think I would take the “conservative” side in all this is that I think it’s inevitable that the language of religious texts will tend towards a stylised or non-standard form. I can’t comment on the theological aspect, but it’s a well-documented phenomenon and it seems to speak to a psychological need. It’s just a shame that the Vatican has clearly decided to prescribe this for Catholics from the top down rather than let it emerge naturally.

    2. @John Morris:

      Welcome John. I’m non grata on PTB, but still post here often. May this not be your fate.

      John: It is a particularly problematic statement in the field of religious translation – for example, a translator of the Qur’an might deliberately set out to keep the translation close to L1.

      “Interpretations” of the Qur’an in the various colloquial “Arabics” (never “translations”, as Allah’s dictation to Muhammad is the authoritative text)
      are never viewed as the ultimate locus of piety. A Muslim who memorizes the Qur’an (a Hafiz, a great honor) commits to mind the canonical classical Arabic. This is not to say that catechesis in the vernacular is not important. Even an emphatically L1 highly classicized vernacular Arabic is never the hub of Muslim worship, only the source text.

      For a long time and with rebuke, I have contended that the canon missae, in its sparkling Latin prosody, should never have been translated from Latin, let along be supplanted by (ahistorically created) L1-L2 eucharistic prayers composed in and translated from a very simplistic Latin. One could say that I consider the Canon to be the historical hub of Roman worship. And yet, my views are heterodox because of my presumption of a primacy of liturgical history which demands rigorous boundaries for L1.

      If liturgy as history is dead, and if a Kuhnian/Foucauldian notion of postmodernism as the constant change of liturgical action within institutions has triumphed, then the different streams of ideological power clash and churn to create more ahistorical liturgy in an infinite process. The postmodern liturgist, far removed from the cloud of history engendered by te igitur clementissime pater […], is even removed from didacticism. The new equation is L(n) … L1, as any source, even historical Latin constructs, must be reduced to a perpetually malleable didacticism. Even if the theology of the eucharistic prayer when prayed at Mass is misunderstood by most in the vernacular, the presence of the vernacular itself provides an affective comfort which in turn perpetuates the ability to turn the postmodern translation wheel. In Roman Catholicism, paradigm shifts are purposeful because constant splitting and joining of liturgical ideas certainly replace historical reverence and perceived constancy.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo:
        In my view, you are hardly non grata here. Even if you were just keeping us honest, but it seems more than that to me.

        The prime value in the greater context of the Christian life and mission, is the aspiration of all (not just religious classes) to everyday holiness. It is a mystery to me that the exaltation of traditional texts would be touted when they so often get in the way. The texts are a means to the end of good liturgy. And liturgy, in great part, is merely the means to an end of forming a Body of disciples.

        I know many people, including colleagues progressive and traditional, put great stock in the texts of the Missal. But they are not part of the essential core of Christianity, or even Catholicism. We didn’t have most of them 1500 years ago, and 1500 years hence, we could still be going strong and fruitful as a Church without any of them at all.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo:

        Thanks for the welcome.

        I agree about the Qur’an – as I understand it, even a translation which is proximate to the Arabic would not be a true substitute for the divine text. My point was simply that producing something that sounds like a native L2 text isn’t always the translator’s goal. You sometimes find this in literary translations too – the translator wants the reader to know, as part of the aesthetic experience, that s/he is reading something culturally foreign.

        You have hinted at a fascinating point which I hadn’t fully appreciated. I’m referring to your reference to “(ahistorically created) L1-L2 eucharistic prayers composed in and translated from a very simplistic Latin”. I take this to mean that we are dealing with the phenomenon of prayers being drafted AS ORIGINAL COMPOSITIONS in Latin and then translated into modern languages. This is obviously distinct from what I would presume to be the standard practice of modern Catholic translators rendering historical Latin texts into modern languages.

        I am not aware of any parallel for this in the secular world. Can someone shed some light on why the exercise is carried out in this way? There is at least one other option that comes to mind. The scholars in the Vatican could write a piece of theological prose (in any language) which sets out what they want the prayer to say. They then delegate the COMPOSITION of the prayer to writers and poets who habitually work in the various target languages. The writers then engage in dialogue to try to achieve some convergence of their work products.

        Oh dear, just three posts in and I’m already telling the Pope how to do his job. I’m also in danger of doing Catholic translators out of a job….

      3. @John Morris:


        And further — we have Eucharistic Prayers (for Masses with Children) which were composed in French and German, and then translated into Latin (so that they could be officially promulgated in the worldwide Church). They were then translated into vernacular languages, including being translated back into French and German! (The latter versions, needless to say, bore only a passing resemblance to their energetic originals!) Those same Latin texts have now been retranslated into vernacular languages following the dictates of Liturgiam Authenticam, and bear even less resemblance to the originals… Fortunately bishops’ conference have so far mostly resisted these new versions, so we have the bizarre situation of an original version still in use, but with the central section “consecration” using the words of the recent version “because that’s what’s in the new Missal”. The rationale of producing prayers that would be accessible to children has almost (but not quite) been lost.

      4. @Jordan Zarembo:

        Jordan, you are one of the reasons I still read this blog! Without your contributions I would rarely come here.

        Not that I always, or ever, agree with you. Sometimes I don’t even understand you lol. I think it is more likely that the vocabulary and syntax of your post will sway more people away from formal equivalence than its content will convince of our need for it. Very confusing, but well worth reading.

        The Qur’an is an interesting benchmark. It’s language is sacred and inviolable in a way that no Christian book is. The formal equivalence approach appears to be heading toward that sort of reverence, something that I think should be resisted. The point of translation is to support the worship of living people in living communities, not to identify artifacts from the past. Liturgy is history, in the sense that landing on the moon, electing a leader, or other events are history. It should not be frozen into a certain culture’s artifacts, as the Qur’an is. Liturgy needs to be celebrated as always new while always ancient. (Insert St Augustine’s description of God breaking into his life. confessions 10.27)

  23. “I would prefer to contrast a translation which is more or less proximate to a speaker of the source language (L1, in the jargon) with a translation which is more or less proximate to a speaker of the target language (L2). Note that there is a spectrum here, not just two binary options.”

    This. I don’t have 40 years experience translating French into English but I have done a little for some years. Moreover, I’ve been translating poetry. I’d like to suggest that there is no possibility of a literal translation of liturgical texts, because by their very nature they are more akin to poetry than, let’s say, legal treatises. This is because the message they convey requires symbols that aren’t reducible to one-to-one equivalencies between languages, or even within any given language. These symbols are over-determined, or if you prefer, highly nuanced and not pin-downable (that last was deliberate) in terms of everyday experience. The reality that they gesture towards can’t be encapsulated in any final phraseology. So we muddle forward with the language that we have. More to the point: our struggles with translation reflect our struggles in understanding a primary message that always ends, for us, in mystery. So there’s no hope in getting it ‘right’. We aren’t dealing in hard science.

    That being said, the notion of a living liturgy being delivered in interlinear style prose is just horrible. Surely out faith is sung, because it involves our hearts and minds together. So for heaven’s sake, let’s have a spoken liturgy that reflects our joy and sorrow and all the rest as well as our theology. With inspiration we can bring all of the Latin notions into English in a way that carries the poetry of the original intact–but it won’t look or sound like a prosaic crib.

    1. @jeff armbruster:

      I’d agree with all of this.

      As an example, translating Didier Rimaud’s poetic and hymnic texts into English is a difficult task, not only because the symbolsm he uses by no means always translates into symbols that would speak to an English-speaking person but also because French spirituality and Anglo-Saxon spirituality have rather different characteristics and a quite different feel. The translator’s problem is then to produce something which retains the primary thrust of the original, something which retains the striking characteristics of the original, and yet something which speaks to today’s reader/listener. Additionally, in the case of a text with music, the translation has to fit with the existing music. A literal translation, however faithful to the author’s intentions, will simply not do.

      Apply this to translating early mediaeval Latin texts, and you have exactly the same difficulties. Not only is the world view different now in the 3rd millennium from what it was 1500 years and more ago, but the two spiritualities are worlds apart.

      Having mentioned music above, this may be the place to draw attention to the fact that some of the texts in MR3 have been “padded”, specifically so that they will fit with the traditional Gregorian chant melodies — for example, the Ubi caritas. In other words, in these instances the translators/revisers disobeyed their own rules for the purposes of music.

  24. They are prayers, not historical artifacts in danger of being eradicated by the act of translation. They are part of the living liturgy of the living church.

  25. When MR3 was implemented, I expected negative reactions and pushback from our people. But after some griping about the changes to congregational responses, most people settled in just fine. Not because they came to appreciate the new text, not out of acquiescence or obedience, but because the average Catholic does not pay an ounce of attention to the ritual texts of the Mass. They didn’t with the old Sacramentary, they still don’t with the new missal.

    In a recent conversation with a parishioner, he admitted that the only parts of Mass that he pays attention to are the Gospel, the homily, the music, and the announcements. He called everything else, “blah, blah, blah.” He even asked if it would be possible to eliminate those other parts so we could focus more on the preaching and music. Could we still distribute Communion even if we skipped over the other stuff? This was coming from a lifelong Catholic who is highly involved in the parish and regularly attends Mass.

    One could argue that MR3 has widened the gap between ordinary Catholics and the prayers of the ritual. But more likely, they weren’t listening anyway.

    1. @Scott Pluff:
      Your observation is spot on, Scott. I wonder if the composition of MR4 couldn’t be adjusted to provide more of that focus your friend seeks. I don’t get too upset about MR3 because it is truly, for most solid Catholics, part of the “blah blah blah.”

  26. @Jordan Zarembo:

    May I also add my voice to Todd’s and state that Jordan is definitely not non grata here. We may not always agree with you, Jordan, but we respect your scholarship and your point of view. Keep posting!

  27. What we’ve got now is in no way superior to what went before. It’s laughable and tragic that the mass that is supposed to be in the vernacular isn’t even in English. It’s this macaronic mess, neither latin, nor english. LA needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history, and the ’98 Sacramentary should be rushed into service.

    1. @Steve Woodland:
      Whatever the virtues of the 1998 Sacramentary, to say that the present translation is not superior to the 1970 translation is unfounded. In addition to being good in the receiving language a translation must be faithful to the original language. In this the 1970 translation was an utter failure. Indeed, it was more of a paraphrase than a translation.

      Furthermore, while the present translation could be improved in parts, it is not as bad as many are making it out to be. That its style may be more formal than you would like this does not make it bad English. Many people have found it to be a welcomed relief to what came before. Hyperbole does not advance your argument.

      1. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        You may not like it. That doesn’t make the claim unfounded.

        1970 translation had the virtue of being English. That cannot be said of the current ‘interlinear’ translation. As a study-aid it’s fine. As a text for proclamation it is not.

        You are confusing formality of style with obfuscation of meaning.

  28. It is not the formality of the language that I object to, it is it’s incoherence. As I stated before, the current translation is not English. It’s Latin using English vocabulary. At the very least it is poor formal English.
    Latin and English are two different languages. If the Liturgy is to be in the vernacular, it needs to be idiomatic in that language, irrespective of the tone, lofty or otherwise, that it is trying to achieve.

  29. Steve’s comment is spot on. On the quality of coherence, MR1 is vastly superior.

    That said, comparing the translations is rather like weighing a field of grain versus an orchard. Most people eat both fruit and grain. I see the value in MR3 as rather narrow, perhaps an apricot orchard. It might serve the Church well to translate the Roman Missal into vernacular languages for which the CDWDS and some smaller bishops’ conferences have no expertise.

    As a reference work, perhaps it is suitable. As part of a living liturgical tradition, no.

    The reason why it’s not as bad is that it fails to capture the spiritual imagination of believers. It reinforces the experience of the past few generations that the prime texts of the Mass are the Lectionary, the homily, and words we sing to music. Was that the intention of the framers of LA? That’s a good question to ask because that’s what has happened.

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