Empathy for the Translators of the Ordo Missae 1: The Dialogues of the Liturgy of the Word

Many postings at the Pray Tell blog have offered careful judgments about the quality of the translations into English of the MR2008, ranging from infelicities of expression to apparent mistakes in understanding. Other postings have expressed intense emotion, sometimes about the process by which the translations have come to us, sometimes about the pastoral difficulties that may be encountered in coming to pray the Roman Rite Eucharist using these texts.

I would like to take a slightly different tack and instead express my empathy for the translators. The more I work with these texts the more daunting seems the task of rendering venerable Latin prayer texts in intelligible and worthy English. My first example comes from the translation of the texts surrounding the proclamation of the scriptures in the Ordo Missae.

The rubric appearing after the proclamation of the First and Second Readings in the Liturgy of the Word in RM2008 is identical:

Ad finem lectionis significandam, lector acclamat: Verbum Domini. Omnes respondent: Deo gratias.

The proposed English translation taken from the USCCB website translates this:

“To indicate the end of the reading, the reader acclaims: The Word of the Lord.  All reply: Thanks be to God.”

The rubric appearing after the proclamation of the Gospel in the Liturgy of the Word in RM2008 is:

Expleto Evangelio, diaconus, vel sacerdos acclamat: Verbum Domini.  Omnes respondent: Laus tibi, Christe.

The proposed English translation taken from the USCCB website translates this:

“At the end of the Gospel, the Deacon, or the Priest acclaims: The Gospel of the Lord.  All reply: Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now one would expect that, following the prescriptions of Liturgiam Authenticam, the translators would have chosen to render the same Latin phrase (Verbum Domini) with the same English phrase, but we instead have “The Word of the Lord” in certain instances of its use, and “The Gospel of the Lord” in another. One suspects that the earlier translators, recognizing that the same “cue” called for two different congregational responses (depending on whether the scripture proclaimed was taken from a Gospel or from a scriptural text other than the Gospel), thought that they should depart from a literal translation of the Latin text for pastoral reasons, thus providing different cues in different ritual settings to assist the congregation in making its proper response.

Similarly, one would expect that, following the prescriptions of Liturgicam Authenticam, the translators would have rendered Laus tibi Christe as “Praise to you, Christ” (or possibly adding “O” before “Christ” to emphasize vocative address). In fact the translation adds “Lord Jesus” before “Christ,” words which are simply not in the Latin. Once again one suspects that the earlier translators sought to heighten the effect of the congregational acclamation after the Gospel. One has only to compare the two strong accents of “THANKS be to GOD” with the multiple accents of “PRAISE to YOU, LORD, JE-sus CHRIST” to experience that effect.

Apparently the present translators, the bishops who approved this translation, and the Congregation for Divine Worship itself by granting its recognitio, all agreed that, in these instances, the mandate of Liturgiam authenticam for literal translation of Latin texts should be set aside, perhaps because these ritual interchanges have become so well-established in the English-speaking world and because these texts do not raise any doctrinal issues (i.e., for “pastoral reasons”). The problem, of course, is in trying to determine why such a departure from Liturgiam authenticam’s directives applies here but not in similar situations elsewhere in the Roman Missal. One can only feel empathy for translators when the rules given for their work of translation always apply except when they don’t.


  1. I think one of two paths needs to be taken here. Either the Latin should be rendered into English with attention to how it will sound when proclaimed and with appropriate imagery/poetry/word order (which would be my personal preference but which would violate LA), or the translation should be rendered into the best English possible while being slavish to the Latin (which as I understand it, LA demands). What makes no sense to me is splitting the difference, which is the worst of both worlds. It’s not especially “proclaimable”, and the sentence structure sounds as if it were translated by a first-year Latin student, except where some liberty has been taken in what appears to be an arbitrary case. If we can make an exception in one case, why not the other 867 cases we might entertain?

    Given the technology available to us, I wonder what would happen if MR3 were posted in all its glory on a web site (and why this hasn’t been done) where translators of all stripes (yes, including any first year Latin students who want to have a go) offered their translations in a truly open and collegial atmosphere (think wiki) where we could discuss the finer points of ablatives absolute and gerundives to our collective hearts’ content. My guess is that something very accurate would arise very quickly which would be far superior to what we have seen to date. Its a case of improving a product by gathering experts to make it better. Very “un-Vatican”, I know, but I can dream,…

  2. And what about the choice of verbs? “The reader acclaims“? Two dictionary translations I’ve come across for acclamo are:

    shout (at), cry out against, protest; shout approval, applaud


    to raise a cry at, to shout at, to exclaim (in a friendly or hostile manner)….to shout at in a hostile sense, to disapprove or blame by shouting…(After the Aug. period) to cry at with approbation, to shout applause, to approve with loud cries, to applaud, huzza

    The second definition is from Lewis & Short.

    Back in English the Oxford dictionary says that acclaim as a verb means to praise enthusiastically and publicly. Origin: early 17th century (in the sense ‘express approval’) from Latin acclamare.

    The rubric in my 1974 (UK) Missal is:

    At the end of the gospel, the deacon (or priest) adds:

    “Slavish” translations aren’t always accurate.

  3. One thought we do not allow ourselves very often is to the effect that the Latin might be just bad. Maybe ‘acclamat’ is an instance of inaccurate overwriting. And maybe there are other examples of this in the Latin too.

    1. You mean like, “Offerte vobis pacem,” instead of, “Offerte inter vos pacem,” or, “Offerte invicem pacem.” Ooops!

  4. I just shrug. Does Rome not understand how foolish this whole process is? It is absolutely beyond any comprehension that millions of dollars and work hours will be spent on this ridiculous process. As one liturgist stated (privately) “This is not about an accurate translation, it is about POWER.”

  5. Thanks to Mr. Joncas. Agree completely with your example and it makes LA even more ridiculous because LA misses the whole point of liturgical translation; misses the principles of SC in VII; elevates latin to the same level of importance as having scripture readings in the eucharist.

    Read any explanations of the challenges faced by the original ICEL group led by John Page and Bishop Maurice Taylor and then think about the 1998 translation again.

    With Mr. Smith, I agree that this exercise is about power; not liturgy; not ecclesiology.

  6. Very early on, the members of Vox Clara agreed to something they eventually called the “Moroney Principle.” The principle maintains that wherever possible the current ICEL translations spoken by the people should be retained provided they are not too distant from what LA proposes. Yet, if the literal route was chosen it would have given parishes all the more reason to either sing the readings, or if they were unable to sing the readings perhaps they could sing the acclamations. When the Latin text is employed the way the different responses to Verbum Domini are registered most effectively in the mind depends upon how Verbum Domini is sung. The sung text cues the different response. Thus, not only could you have the literal translation, but in order for there to be a proper pastoral cue it would necessitate singing the acclamations. How they are sung of course would not have to be what the latin chants propose, but could be adapted for the English Language context. Fr. Joncas might at least agree with that goal. Maybe for the sake of singing they should be translated literally. I am sure that Fr. Joncas would agree that singing an acclamation heightens the effect of it.

    1. The ‘Moroney Principle’?

      When ICEL was working on what became the rejected 1998 Sacramentary, the principle of retaining unchanged where possible the existing people’s parts was already well established, long before Monsignor (then Father) Moroney came on the scene.

      In any event, as far as the translation currently stands, pretty much the only people’s parts that remain unchanged are ‘Amen’ ‘Thanks be to God’ and the ‘Lamb of God’ – so far: as indicated in earlier posts on this blog, the fat lady hasn’t sung yet!

      If there’s one thing the devolution of translation from 1998 to 2008 to 2010 has taught us, it’s that ‘Moroney’ and ‘principle’ shouldn’t be used in the same sentence.

    2. +JMJ+

      When the Latin text is employed the way the different responses to Verbum Domini are registered most effectively in the mind depends upon how Verbum Domini is sung. The sung text cues the different response. Thus, not only could you have the literal translation, but in order for there to be a proper pastoral cue it would necessitate singing the acclamations.

      I thought the very same thing when I looked at the 2008 Order of Mass translation and compared it with the Latin. I noticed that “Verbum Domini” was used all the readings, though translated differently, and then I remember having heard it chanted differently. I figured the change in translation was meant to capture the distinction found in the music, but not found in the words.

  7. It’s not quite the same thing, but this discussion reminds me of a situation many years ago when I sang in a performance of the Liszt “Via Crucis.” The tenors and basses in stations 3, 7, and 9 were given a very forceful proclamation, “Jesus cadit.” Unfortunately we sang it in English translation, and to keep the syllable count accurate, we belted out “Jesus fell down.” The first time we encountered it, a sotto voce comment was heard: “…and went ‘boom’…” Chaos ensued.

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