Fr. Alan Griffiths’s measured letter about the Vatican’s wholesale revision of the 2008 Missal translation was welcome and revelatory. But perhaps it needs to be made clear that Fr. Griffiths is not repeating the points that I and many others have made regarding previous stages of the process, and might well not endorse them. Rather he is recounting a new phase of the story altogether. We have now had two sets of translation ground rules, generating two English versions of the Missal produced painstakingly by competent experts, only for the Vatican effectively to be producing a third version, with reportedly some 10,000 changes. Moreover, from the leaks currently available (and leaks are all that we have), there appears to be no stated, or even discernible, rationale for these changes. The apparent upshot is that central authority is finally uniting local specialist opinion, but unfortunately against itself. This human reality is no basis for introducing a new translation that, whatever the judgment on its merits, will be disruptive for Catholic devotional life throughout the English-speaking world.
The central issues here are not about translation as such, but rather about mutual trust. When authors give their texts to editors or translators they are making an act of faith. I have no idea whether or not the published Japanese version of an article of mine is accurate or not; I simply have to trust Japanese speakers to make the difficult judgments necessary. The ‘perfect’ rendition does not exist: some things can only be said in English, and some of the artistry or poetry in the original, having been lost in translation, will ideally be replaced by something different. The whole sorry history of the revised Missal translation suggests that the Vatican is uneasy with this reality. Moreover, the unease regarding technical issues of translation seems symbolic of wider tensions regarding the ecclesial renewal inaugurated by Vatican II: do we seek to take all our leads from the center, or should we be striving for a communio of trust, reciprocity, and harmonious diversity, centered on Rome, yes, but not dominated by Rome?
It is hard to see any good way out of the present impasse. Perhaps the least unsatisfactory option would be to call a halt, to stay with the 1973 version for the time being (which, for all its faults, is not provoking widespread discontent on the ground), and to set up a transparent, genuinely collegial process of further revision, based on proper experimentation. If this draws on the best wisdom of both the 1998 and 2008 texts, some consensus might emerge on a new version towards the end of the decade.
(To appear in tomorrow’s Tablet, preprinted with author’s permission.)