Every twenty years or so, I find an article or book that serves as my favorite foundational document on the topic of liturgical translations and texts.
In the 1970s-1980s, the article was Matías Augé [Benet]’s “Principi di interpretazione dei testi liturgici,” in volume one of the Anàmnesis series produced by various professors associated with the Pontifical School of Sacred Liturgy at Sant’Anselmo, La liturgia, momento della storia della salvezza (Torino: Marietti, 1974) 159-179. In some twenty pages Fr. Augé deftly introduces the reader to a method of reading liturgical texts grounded in a careful study of their underlying genre and structure. Drawing on the insights gained in his 1968 dissertation on the “super populum” in the Verona collection of libelli missarum (then called the Leonine or Veronese Sacramentary), the author magisterially analyzes typical Roman minor euchological forms such as the collect, prayer over the oblations, and post-communion prayer.
In the 1990s-2000s, the article was Renato de Zan’s “Criticism and Interpretation of Liturgical Texts,” in volume one (“Introduction of the Liturgy”) of the Handbook of Liturgical Studies edited by Anscar Chupungco (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997) 331-365. De Zan magisterially surveys proposals for a hermeneutics of liturgical texts in the light of nine questions; providing the answers to these questions from his method:
- What is the exact text being studied?
- What is the meaning of this text?
- What is its historical identity?
- What is its communicative and pragmatic identity?
- How has this text evolved historically through liturgical use?
- What is its literary identity?
- What is its contextual identity?
- What is the text’s theological value?
- What is its new shape (translation) in a world that is culturally different from the one in which it originated?
Since much of my own doctoral dissertation work was spent in exploring the thickets of semiotic theory to gain theoretical knowledge of how sound (music, text, noise) symbolizes liturgically, I only wish de Zan’s articles had been available to me while I was writing.
I believe I have now found the work for the 2010s and beyond, one that summarizes the best insights from these earlier articles and breaks new ground in the interpretation of liturgical texts. It is Juliette J. Day’s Reading the Liturgy: An exploration of texts in Christian worship (London et al.: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2014). According to the biographical blurb on the book, Day is University Lecturer in Church History at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and Senior Research Fellow in Liturgy at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford, UK. The work combines Day’s interest in early liturgical practices (here I situate her with historical scholars such as Max Johnson, Michael Driscoll, and Paul Bradshaw) with her concerns for the linguistic forms of contemporary worship (and in this area I situate her with Paul Turner, Joyce Anne Zimmerman, and Kathleen Hughes). Having used the book as a text for both graduate and specialized study in liturgical texts, I highly recommend it for those intrigued by hermeneutical theory applied to liturgical texts.
The conclusion of Chapter One (“Text”) should give a sense of the breadth of Day’s interests and erudition as well as the clarity and precision of her engagement with the topic: “In this book we shall concentrate on the specifically textual aspects of the liturgical text, that is not what it says but how it says it [emphasis added]. Readers ask ‘who wrote this book?’ and seek to contextualize the content by identifying the author [Chapter Two: Authorship]; they ask ‘what type of book is this?’ and from that know what it is likely to contain and for what purpose [Chapter Three: Genre]; they look for consecutive units of meaning, the narrative [Chapter Four: Narrative]; they become aware that the text makes reference to other texts they know [Chapter Five: Intertextuality]; they use linguistic units which are familiar and yet unfamiliar, everyday and yet not quite the language of everyday [Chapter Six: Language]; and lastly their experience as book readers enables them to use the technology of the liturgical book [Chapter Seven: Paratext]. In the worship event, all these skills are deployed unconsciously by literate worshippers, and even those less literate will know that these skills are required when they fall short [Chapter Eight: Worship]….”
Just today I received word of Pope Francis’ motu proprio Magnum Principium, in effect restoring primacy to bishops’ conferences to determine appropriate liturgical translations for their territories. I believe Day’s Reading the Liturgy should be required reading for all those who embark on the art and task of liturgical translation as well as for all those who would evaluate those translations. May it help inspire us all toward a less rancorous and more grace-filled process for future liturgical translations.