Another approach to translation

While we’re all on the subject of translation, I thought I’d offer a perspective from some of our Eastern Catholic brothers and sisters. There is no moral to this story; the situation of the Latin church in English-speaking countries is so profoundly different from the situation of these Malayalam- and English-speaking Indian Eastern-rite Catholics living in Chicago that I myself see no parallels that can be drawn between the two. Rather, all I think this does is broaden the perspective we have about what translation (especially liturgical translation) is for.

The community is the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese of Chicago’s cathedral parish. Their ancestral liturgy is that of the ancient patriarchate of the Assyrian Church of the East, often called East Syrian or East Syriac. The ancestral liturgical language, as this implies, is Syriac (close relative to Aramaic), and the liturgy was practiced in South India (modern-day Kerala) in this language from at least the 3rd century through the 16th.

European colonials put pressure on the Thomas Christians (as they called themselves, after the apostle who is credited with their evangelization) to celebrate in Latin, among other novelties. In an attempt to placate the Portuguese, the liturgy of Addai and Mari was partly Latinized (conformed to the Roman rite) and translated into Latin.

Slowly some parts of the Roman church pushed back against this unprecedented Portuguese innovation in an Eastern rite. Eventually the liturgy was celebrated in both Latin and Syriac in different places and times. (Unfortunately I can’t find any hard data on this, or on the current distribution of celebrations in India.)

The Syro-Malabar church enthusiastically embraced permission to celebrate in the vernacular when it was offered. To them, it was a reversal of colonialism, a re-localization of their liturgy and recognition of their dignity and autonomy as an ancient and local church. (The autonomous status of this church was restored with their hierarchy in 1923. For more, see the Wikipedia article.) The Syro-Malabar usage of the East Syriac rite is currently celebrated in Malayalam, Syriac, and Latin (according to published sources at least 10 years old; from interviews with recent immigrants I believe that Malayalam is the dominant language – most of my interviewees had never been to a Latin or Syriac celebration).

In the Chicago cathedral parish of Mar Thoma (Syriac for St Thomas; there are many Syriac loan-words related to the liturgy in Malayalam), many of the youth, both first- and second-generation immigrants, found themselves unable to pray the Malayalam liturgy (from interviews – this includes speakers who rank their Malayalam as very good, surprisingly). The community was concerned about losing youth to the English-speaking Latin-rite parishes nearby. A local group at the parish, consulting with other practitioners both in India and the U.S., translated the Malayalam(!) text of the mass into English for the youth.

The translation was fairly literal, I’m told. There is no controversy or even conversation about the principles of translation that I heard while attending the church. The English mass is predominantly a youth mass – almost all attendees are college-age or below. The assumption seemed to be that one will learn the mass as a young person and pray it in English, and then move to the Malayalam mass as an adult. The experience with the literal translation would help the youth understand the Malayalam mass as they reach adulthood.

In my observations, however, this isn’t happening. Some of the “youth” are now reaching late twenties. They are almost all professionally educated, and in keeping with general trends among American professionals, they are delaying marriage. It remains to be seen whether they will move to the Malayalam mass when they are married and entering family life. But at the moment, those who have been celebrating the English mass since it was established are often doing liturgical ministry and working with the younger youth to help them make the Syro-Malabar tradition their own.

What will happen in the future with this translation? What are its goals, and how do they relate to the goals of Latin-rite translations into English or other languages?


  1. A cogent analysis. I agree that a look at what the Eastern Catholic rites are doing or have recently done with their own translations of liturgical books is helpful both for comparative reasons but also for an indication of reception.
    The Maronites recently re-issued their Qurbono (Mass) in 1992 and they seem to have produced a translation that would meet the high standard that we see in our own LA instruction. The Maronites may be a better comparison for us than the Syro-Malabar because of their closer affinity to the Latin Church, their longer presence in large numbers in the USA (indicating their full assimilation into general US culture), their frequent inter-marriage with Latins, and the comparatively large number of Latins who belong to Maronite parishes. It may also be interesting to perceive the actual process used by their patriarchate in producing their new edition.

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