Here’s a fun translation challenge for you. You’re translating a German story in which a lady sneezes. Then this line: “Gesundheit!” sagt Herr Schmidt. What does Mr. Schmidt say to her in your English version??

“Health!” Mr. Schmidt said. This is the most literal translation – “Gesundheit” means “health” in English. But that doesn’t sound quite right; we wouldn’t say that in English.

“To your health!” Mr. Schmidt said. This retains the literal meaning of the German word, but puts it in idiomatic English. It’s a bit like the French toast, “à votre santé.” But it requires adding two words not in the German, strictly speaking. And it’s still not what we say in English when somebody sneezes.

“God bless you!” Mr. Schmidt said. This seems best to capture what took place in the original social setting. It is a matter of ritual conventions here, one might hold, not exact content, and hence the use of the normal response for English-language social settings.

“Gesundheit!” Mr. Schmidt said. This treats the German word as we treat Hosanna and Alleluia in liturgical English – leave it in the original and it becomes a part of the vocabulary of the receptor language. It’s what we said in my childhood home, though none of us knew German except my mother who grew up with it. No doubt it was the influence of people like my mother which brought the German word into Midwest English. The problem is that this translation will sound more right to some readers of English than others, depending in part upon where they grew up.

So, which of the above four translations is accurate? All four are, but each in a different way. Each can be defended. It depends on your theory of translation.

Which of the above four translation approaches will we get in our new missal? All four, each in various places in the missal. Judgments had to be made, and there is no single right answer.

If we’ve learned nothing else from this very long process, I hope we’ve learned this: there are no easy answers when it comes to translation.

I hope we’re also learning this: Each of us has only a piece of the truth. All of us need to listen to each other. Our Christian faith calls us to respect everyone’s viewpoint and treat everyone charitably.

Now, there are some great lessons for all of us to learn, and to keep on re-learning! If the whole missal mess helps us do that, I’ll take it as a sign that God is still powerfully at work in his Church.



    1. Haha!

      This is exactly what I thought as I read that one… that using the word “God” would not be ecumenical enough in a pluralistic society…


  1. Father Anthony,
    Thanks for your comment:
    I hope we’re also learning this: Each of us has only a piece of the truth. All of us need to listen to each other. Our Christian faith calls us to respect everyone’s viewpoint and treat everyone charitably.

    After a very long week, I needed these words today.
    Praying intensely for our bishops.

    1. Treat everyone charitably, yes, but I’m not so sure that we are called upon to respect everyone’s viewpoint. Do I have to respect the viewpoint of the adulterer or abortionist?

      1. John, may I tell you that I find you tiresome? Do you seriously think that anyone here is soft on adultery? Do you seriously think that your nagging approach draws anyone to your positions? Lighten up, for heaven’s sake.

  2. One could even expand on the exercise by reading a few lines later in our invented text: “Schoenheit” sagt Klaudl Schmidt. “Klaudl, sei doch nett!” antwortet ihr Vater.

    In this case, we have a standard German play on words, in which other -heits are wished to the sneezer. In this case, beauty. The German hearer would understand that this was a childish joke intended to be funny that ended up being rude, requiring a paternal rebuke.

    For the life of me, I can’t figure out how one could translate that into English without an explanatory footnote.

    It seems that Liturgical Latin also likes plays on words, or at least references to words at other places in the liturgy. Its probably that these are more translatable in the context of Liturgy, where English vocabulary has become formed to theological use since we started having English translations of the Bible. But I’m still not sure what the best way to go about it is.

  3. I am really sceptical about even the existence of a ‘theory of translation’, or at least one that tells us clearly which of these four we go for. All we can do is to make the best decision we can, with an eye on the use to which the translation is being put. We might ask for consistency of decision regarding such answers across a whole text–but even then, particular circumstances in particular sentences might justify a departure from normal procedure.

    1. I agree. There does need to be some kind of consistency, but not rigidly so. There will always be exceptions and special cases. Translation is an art, not an exact science.

  4. Thank you – needs to be incorporated in any opening discussion. Given this great insight, why did we blame and ignore the fantastic and long years of efforts to get us the 1996-1998 ICEL translation that was approved by every english speaking conferences of bishops?

    Not sure your example is understood in certain “departments” for lack of a better term?

  5. “If we’ve learned nothing else from this very long process, I hope we’ve learned this: there are no easy answers when it comes to translation.”

    I think we knew that already, before the whole thing began. The problem is that no one informed the drafters of Liturgiam Authenticam about it.

  6. 1973: “God bless you!”
    2008: “Health!”
    2010: “God, with abundant health, bless you!”

    As was pointed out on PrayTell some time ago, the new missal texts were at least going to give us the opportunity to compare philosophies for translation. Guess that ship has sailed.

  7. Let’s not forget that new liturgical supply-item, the large bottle of antiseptic handwash with a pump on top. If anyone sneezes in our sanctuaries nowadays, we’re more than ready!

  8. I think the German must first be translated into a Latin ablative absolute before being properly translated into liturgical English. I mean, isn’t that the implied rule here?

  9. Now that hand sanitizers have recently been shown ineffective in preventing cold and flu viruses, it looks like using Purell in our sanctuaries is now only theatre, another ritual without meaning. Perhaps it will evolve into the laity’s Lavabo…

  10. There are any number of relatively recent good books on the nature of translation. Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat: Translation as Negotiation springs to mind. And, if I am not mistaken, Msgr. Ronald Knox also wrote on the question (and did brilliant translations as well, of course). And we are all are of nearly untranslatable conundrums like Gen 1:1. Or take the well-known German sentence “Er sitzt weil er gestanden hat,” which means either “He is sitting because he stood,” which is literally quite accurate although nonsensical or “He’s in jail because he confessed.” The latter is, of course, more accurate in conveying the meaning although less accurate in some clumsily literal sense because it depends on a slang use of the verb “sitzen,” to sit, which might not be known to a translator who lacks real familiarity with the source language.

  11. +JMJ+

    By the way, this thread reminds me of a pun-chline to a joke I heard back in high school. (My family is big on word-play.)

    “How can you determine how tall a sneeze is?”
    “By its gesundheit.”

  12. I know this may be a sidestep, but doesn’t it rather depend on why you are translating the word “Gesundheit” in the first place? Is it so that the non-German can understand what is meant by the German idiom for purposes of studying the language, etymology, etc? Is it to find an idomatic equivalent in another language for practical use (such as you would find in a “phrase book” when traveling)? I think that one of the key differences between comme le prevoit and Liturgiam Authenticam is the answer to that question: Why are we translating the actual Latin text? CLP seemed to answer “to tell us what the text means” whereas LA aims to “tell us what the text says“. A subtle but very significant difference. If we remain hung up on a translation readily providing themeaning, we’ll get more frustrated since that isn’t the primary objective of a translation which uses LA as a guide.

    It’s much like people who ask me, when we say the Our Father or Hail Mary in Latin during liturgies, “How do we know what it MEANS though”? My answer is generally “Don’t you already have a pretty good idea of what the Our Father and Hail Mary mean?”

    1. +JMJ+

      By translating for meaning, you risk losing other meanings which might be just as valuable to retain.

      I’m not saying this happens all the time, nor that translating for “what it says” always retains all possible meanings. Just offering a perspective.

  13. My favorite example of the need to make decisions about translation fidelity that respect the current lived reality of the users is the Hebrew word translated in the psalms often as “heart.” It means “liver”.

    So what does it mean to be faithful to the Hebrew? Consider this one:

    I keep the LORD always before me; with the Lord at my right, I shall never be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure, for you will not abandon me to Sheol, nor let your faithful servant see the pit. Ps 16:8-10

    I somehow can’t imagine any amount of catechesis making “my liver is glad” work liturgically in English!

  14. “Faithfulness” to Latin gets us into the same pickle. Not in the verses cited, but in other parts of the Psalter and indeed in another verse of this very psalm, verse 7, the Nova Vulgata has “insuper et in noctibus erudierunt me renes mei” – “and even in the nights [plural in Latin] my livers [plural in Latin] will instruct me.” In our English versions it is usually something like “who [i.e., the Lord] even at night instructs my heart.” So much for faithfulness!


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