Translation and ecclesiology

Rob Mickens writes in The Tablet (subscription required) in this week’s “Letter from Rome” :

“Translating documents into English has become a challenge for the Vatican. And, more than ever, this Italian-dominated organization is showing signs that it may not be up to the task.

“The controversial translation of the Roman Missal, which the Vatican-sponsored Vox Clara Committee all but removed from the hands of the world’s English-speaking bishops, is only one example. As a theologian recently pointed out, this has greater ramifications for the Church’s ecclesiology than for the texts it uses at Mass. Trumping local bishops – to whom the Second Vatican Council entrusted responsibility for translations of the official Latin texts into their respective languages –is more seriously an affront to the principle of shared responsibility enshrined in the Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.”


  1. I keep reading things about Vox Clara insinuating that the members don’t have competence in English. But its membership (as of August, 2009) tells a different story…

    Cardinal George Pell, Sydney (Australia)
    Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, Emeritus Mobile (USA)
    Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Emeritus Westminster (England)
    Cardinal Justin Rigali, Philadelphia (USA)
    Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., Chicago (USA)
    Archbishop Alfred Hughes, Emeritus New Orleans (USA)
    Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., Ottawa (Canada)
    Archbishop Peter Kwasi Sarpong, Emeritus Kumasi (Ghana)
    Archbishop Kelvin Felix Emeritus Castries (Saint Lucia)
    Bishop Philip Boyce, O.C.D., Raphoe (Ireland)
    Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Bombay (India)
    Reverend Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B. (USA)
    Reverend Dennis McManus (USA)
    Monsignor James P. Moroney (USA)
    Monsignor Robert K. Johnson (USA)
    Monsignor Gerard McKay (England)
    Abbot Cuthbert Johnson, O.S.B. (England)
    Reverend Anthony Ward, S.M. (CDWDS)

    1. No, I don’t know that, quite honestly. And it’s been reported here several times that one of the Vox Clara members (Msgr. Moroney) is tweaking the translation. So which is it? Are they, or aren’t they, involved in developing the translation?

  2. One might observe that those on the VC committee might speak English, even as a first language, but this does not equal competency, nor speciality, in translation issues and the English language. Just because one walks it does not make one a neurologist or osteopath.

      1. The results which have leaked out so far give good reason to be very concerned about competence.

  3. Anthony Ruff, OSB :
    The results which have leaked out so far give good reason to be very concerned about competence.awr

    I beg to differ. The samples that I’ve seen so far do not suggest incompetence, but a difference in register and tone.

  4. Fr. Anthony is right on. The tin ear for the English language in the proposed text is astounding.

  5. Douglas Hofstadter writes about the arduous art of translation in “Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language:” “Any good translator’s ideal is to get across to a new group of readers (or hearers) the essence of someone else’s fantasy and vision of the world, and yet, as we have repeatedly seen . . . the mediating agent necessarily plays a deep and critical role in doing such a job. . . . Translators are not like cameras – they are not even like cameras with filters.”

    Vox Clara’s guidelines notwithstanding, the ecclesiology of the translators will be, I suspect, the dominant “filter” through which our new texts are written. What is the leitmotif of the Vox Clara guidelines? Remember, translators are not simply cameras that give us an “image” of the original.

    If Vox’s goal is to communicate ideas, we will have readable, proclaimable, hearable translations. If the goal is to create a “sacred language,” we will have a different result.

    From what I have read, there is much to praise in the new translations, but also much to be concerned about.

  6. Perceptions about competence in translation does involve some subjectivity. One’s man favored expert might not be another man’s favored expert. Many people choose their experts based on preconceived preferences of their own. This is not always done consciously. Nevertheless, on this blog we’ve heard from one person who attended a trial run and her report was not all negative.

    I wonder how Msgr. Moroney’s role today compares to Mgr. McManus’ role during the days that the old ICEL was adopted in English speaking countries? I know that some English-speaking conferences were most reluctant to adopt the now dated ICEL translation and were pressured to do so. England and Wales comes to mind. I think they held out for awhile.

    1. I wonder how Msgr. Moroney’s role today compares to Mgr. McManus’ role during the days that the old ICEL was adopted in English speaking countries? I know that some English-speaking conferences were most reluctant to adopt the now dated ICEL translation and were pressured to do so. England and Wales comes to mind. I think they held out for awhile.

      (1) Fred McManus had nothing to do with the translation itself. He was only a member of ICEL’s Advisory Committee — i.e. an admininstrator. Jim Moroney, however, is reputedly rewriting the translation all by himself — a very different story.

      (2) England and Wales did not hold out for a while. In fact they were kept waiting by Rome, which is why the 1973 text did not begin in those countries until 1975.

      (3) No episcopal conference was pressured or reluctant to use the 1973 text. On the contrary, they were left free to do what they wanted and were all enthusiastic about the text. This is a good example of the half-baked misinformation that is out there. Robert, you simply shouldn’t believe the wishful thinking of people on other blogs.

      1. I guess it’s a small matter of style, or perhaps a recognition of that indelible mark on the soul of the ordained. My wife has two uncles who are priests, and without fail her whole family refers to and addresses them as “Fr. Tom”, or “Fr. Russ”. And I have at least three priests who I consider pretty good friends, and I always address them as Father or Monsignor.

      2. I remember reading somewhere how the English bishops were holding their own against old-ICEL’s translations – I think it started with the Rite of Funerals. Even the Tablet carried a scathing critique of old-ICEL’s translation of the Roman Canon. But eventually, they acquiesed because it was told that Rome wanted a single translation of the texts.

        To this day though, the English bishops conference has a non-ICEL translation of the Divine Office (Deo gratias for that!) and the psalm responses are non-ICEL. The story goes that they chose to snub ICEL knowing full well that ICEL would produce a translation slightly (turned out to be just one year) later.

        Not all people supported the style of the 1970s ICEL, nor should we expect everyone to support the style of the 1998, or the 2010. But charity and obedience are key – they could either drag others to hell with them, and thus be a scandal to the faith of others, or do what is within their power to help other people receive and pray the new texts well.

  7. Reliable sources indicate that rather than “rewriting the translation all by himself”, Msgr. Jim Moroney, as US secretary for Vox Clara, has been charged with the task of fixing typo’s and mistakes and addressing the list of imperfections forwarded to him by those on ICEL who have seen the latest ‘final’ version of the text.

    1. I’m afraid these reliable sources are in fact not very reliable. Moroney is not the US Secretary for VC; he is a consultant to that body. His record on typos and inconsistencies is poor. The problems with the ‘final’ version involve far more than typos and elementary mistakes. As far as I am aware, ICEL have not submitted a list of imperfections, though they have indeed asked questions (which have not been answered).

    2. Monsignor Moroney, when a new bishop was named for his home diocese of Worcester, as editor of the diocesan newspaper, caused these words to be splashed across the front page of the next edition:


  8. And other (equally?) reliable sources say that ICEL has been given the role of being simply the proofreader/copy editor of what Vox Clara has imposed after the canonical “approbatio” of the eleven episcopal conferences.

    Further, Mgr. Moroney is not the “US” secretary to Vox Clara. He is THE secretary to Vox Clara.

  9. Paul Inwood is certainly correct in saying that the reliable sources are not very reliable. And I should have said that Mgr. Moroney is the executive secretary of Vox Clara.

    It appears that Mgr. Moroney ,with the several other Vox Clara consultants ,is responsible for the extensive revision of what the conferences canonically approved. I thought that the former ICEL had been (unjustly) upbraided for giving the scholars a greater say in the process than the bishops.

  10. Mgr. McManus was President of the Liturgical Conference since 1959 while an assoc. editor of “Worship”, became Director of the Secretariat of the US Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy in 1965 (resigned as President of the LC to become a consultant there) where Fr. McManus, according to the BCL newsletter in 1974, oversaw the publication of the official liturgical books used in the USA. By the way, executive authority over the ICEL lay in the Int. Episcopal Committee. The secretary-treasurer of the Int. Episc. Committee in 1966 was Mgr. McManus. The US Advisory Committee to ICEL that did the actual work of translation included, among other, Mgr. McManus.

    And Paul, the British formed their own translation assoc. due to their displeasure with the former ICEL, It was the Assoc. for English Worship, Rev. Mark Elvina was their secretary. In 1974 the only national hierarchies that had not adopted the ICEL texts were England & Wales, Scotland, & Ireland. In June of 1974 Cardinal Knox approached these hierarchies personally persuading them to adopt the common translation and they finally gave in making the texts mandatory by 1975 (five years after the USA). In the 13 April 1975 NC Reg. US ++ Dwyer (of Portland OR.) lamented the capitulation of the Irish and British bishops. His Excellency wrote “It is disheartening to note (that the above mentioned hierarchies) who for so long have held out against the imposition of the horrendous ICEL translation of the Mass…

    1. Robert,

      Your information is partial and inaccurate. The Advisory Committee of ICEL was not a US committee but an international one. Some members of that committee did indeed carry out some of the translation work, but not all of them did. A significant proportion of the work was done by other consultants/translators that the Advisory Committee called upon for this purpose.

      I am well aware of McManus’s role(s) in ICEL. I was simply pointing out to you that because someone is a treasurer or in an administrative role does not necessarily mean that this person has done any translation work.

      The Association for English Worship (whose secretary’s last name was Elvins, by the way, not Elvina) is a complete red herring. This tiny but noisy pressure group did not do any translating work to be found in current liturgical books. They only came into existence as a reaction to the ICEL text. Their views were taken into account in the production of the 1998 ICEL Missal.

      The reason for the delay in the hierarchies adopting the ICEL texts was that by 1973/4 there were no less than three translations of the collects, etc, available from which to choose: the England and Wales National Liturgical Commission one, the ‘Glenstal’ one that was (and still is) used in the British Isles version of the Divine Office, and the ICEL version. Rome itself could not make up its mind which of the three should be used. (ctd)

      1. (ctd) To say that the British Isles hierarchies held out as long as possible is not in accordance with the facts. The problem, as indicated above, lay in deciding which translation to use, given that the NLC version had already appeared (along with a translation of the antiphons) and was in use across England and Wales alongside the ICEL Order of Mass. In the event, to appease the publishers of the NLC version, that version continued in use alongside the ICEL version of the antiphons and euchological texts for many years, but only in people’s disposable worship aids, which for many years contained both NLC and ICEL. [They now contain only the ICEL version.] From 1975 the altar missal and people’s hand missals and mass books contained only the ICEL version, and continue to do so.

        You are confusing the Order of Mass with the complete Missal, which was not available for use until 1973, even in the USA. The British Isles hierarchies were therefore only two years behind their US brethren, not five, as you state. Those hierarchies had already begun to use the Order of Mass in 1969/1970; but the full Missal was not available in English at that point.

  11. continued:

    …have at last thrown in the sponge and conceded victory to the liturgical barbarians. So now the entire English-speaking world is forced, by hierarchical fiat, to endure the inexactitudes and ineptitude’s of a translation which, on the face of it, was made by men whose knowledge of Latin was deficient, who possessed no ear for the rhythm of language and whose general qualifications as translators would certainly not recommend them to any publisher on the lookout for a correct and musical rendering of, say, Goethe, or Racine.”
    ++ R.J Dwyer of Portland, OR.
    -13 April 1975 Nat. Catholic Register

    By the way, His Excellency’s opinion of ICEL translators of the late 1960’s sound similar to what some here are saying about contemporary translators in ICEL. It appears that the adaptation of texts in the 1960’s & 1970’s was somewhat difficult. Let’s see if there are any conference hold-outs this time like there was in 1974. I guess that means, non-reception on the part of England & Wales until 1975.

    1. Many, many progressives complained about the pedestrian nature of the original ICEL translations, and have long championed a more beautiful, poetic and idiomatic English for liturgical use.

  12. I know the advisory committee was international but the work of the translation was called “the American draft” for a reason.
    Paul, you seem insensitive to the concerns brought about by the grassroots Assoc. for English Worship. The direction that our holy mother Church has taken since LA seems to echo their concerns. At the least, they indicate a non-reception of ICEL’s earlier translation in Britain. You also seem to be unaware of the heated debate, thoughtful criticism, and outrage that accompanied the introduction of the existing ICEL translation. Eg,, the British bps rejected ICEL’s translation of the funeral rites altogether.
    Arcbishop Dwyer’s lament that the British, Scottish, and Irish bishops had capitulated to external pressure only to reluctantly adopt the ICEL texts suggests that controversy was systemic throughout the process in those days. When ICEL first produced their translation of the Roman canon the Irish bishops seemed to say ( in 1967) “not here”. Rome also rejected the initial ICEL submission of the 1st Eucharistic Prayer. ICEL Advisory Board member H. P. R. Finberg (1967) was highly critical of the published ICEL canon and Finberg went on to say that the early ICEL had been influenced by “critics who find much of the Roman Canon repugnant to the contemporary mind” (“The Canon in English”, The Tablet, November 18, 1967, pp. 1200-1201). Additionally, the Executive Secretary of ICEL through 1970 was highly controversial.

    1. More inaccurate reportage from Robert, I fear. Robert, where do you get all this stuff?

      The British Bishops did not reject ICEL’s translation of the funeral rites altogether. The current rite in use in England and Wales is the ICEL text, with some local adaptations. In fact it was a model of a way to go for those who did not appreciate the full-blown ICEL texts, but sadly has not been taken up by other hierarchies, as far as I am aware.

      I’ve already dealt with the AEW in another post, so will not rehearse that here again, except to reiterate that this tiny coterie, like many of today’s bloggists, assumed that it had much more influence than was actually the case. They, too, were incapable of dialogue most of the time. But, I repeat, their views were taken into account in the production of the ICEL 1998 Missal. If this is not an acknowledgement of their minor role in our story to date, I don’t know what is.

      And I have dealt with Professor Herbert Finberg in another thread. Anyone who did not want to use his pre-existing pre-conciliar translation was anathema to him.

      You need to provide chapter and verse for Rome’s rejection of ICEL’s EPI. To my knowledge, this never happened.

      As for Archbishop Dwyer of Portland, he should have talked to his namesake, Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham, England, instead of going off at a tangent. Dwyer of Birmingham was the chair of the England and Wales National Liturgy Commission in the early 1970s, in case you didn’t know.

      1. And finally, to answer Robert’s allegation that the work of ICEL was known as the American draft, this misconception was rapidly dispelled when it became known just how many Brits (including Finberg) had been involved in producing and managing the translation. They certainly outnumbered the Yanks!

        I also suspect, Robert, that you have not met, as I have, many literate Americans who are just as capable of high language and high thought as the Brits are. There is a tendency to tar all Americans with the “Gee, Elmer” brush. While I have met many of that sort of people too, all my good American friends are both very intelligent and extremely widely-read. They would put many Brits to shame.

  13. Fr. Stephen Somerville testifies that the ICEL funeral texts were rejected by the bishops of England and Wales (CCHA, Study Sessions, 44(1977), 97-109). I know the British use an ICEL version now but the initial one was rejected.
    Interesting that those who did not go along with the zeitgeist are continually described as being “incapable of dialogue”. It seems to me that they were prophetic but prophets are often not recognized by those closest to them.

    As for ICEL’s early 1967 Roman Canon (EP I) being rejected just check out the the 1/6/1968 Tablet. John Page’s history also admits that a different version of the 1967 canon was sent tot he bishops in 1968.

    1. Robert, once again this is twisting the historical facts. The E&W Bishops did not reject the 1970 ICEL translation of the funeral rites because they didn’t like the translation. They turned it down because they already had their own translation in place, and the publisher of that translation was creating waves. It’s the same kind of scenario that caused the delay with the euchological texts of the Missal. When Somerville in the aftermath of his breakdown turned against ICEL, he said all kinds of things that at the time were thought to be ill-judged. Later on (1990), the E&W Bishops produced their own adaptation of ICEL’s 1985 text.

      As for the 1967 Roman Canon translation, this was not as you previously implied a completed ICEL text that was ready for use. It was a draft text issued as part of a consultation. It was emended in the light of comments received by episcopal conferences. In 1968, a revised version was sent to the bishops, and a further small revision was carried out in the same year, all of this in response to comments received from bishops. Rome was not involved in the early stages.

      By the way, you can’t always believe everything you read in the Tablet on matters liturgical. Even today, they frequently seem to get the wrong end of the stick. I know that I have been phoned up by them and interviewed and then misquoted or quoted out of context on many occasions.

  14. Chris, I am fairly certain what you are referring to is not an incident with Monsignor Moroney as the editor of the diocesan paper but with a parish bulletin. I am also fairly certain Moroney never was edited of the paper, and we all know that secretaries, not pastors, are editors of parish bulletins.

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