“Loosely translated. . .”

Though I have, clearly to the consternation of some, declared a truce with the current translation of the Roman Missal, I have not lost an interest in translation issues. Someday, who knows when, another new translation will be produced. And I hope that it will not simply to correct glaring errors by which the current translation fails to live up to Liturgiam Authenticam (e.g. the ambiguity in the Advent post-communion prayer as to what it is that teaches us to love the things of heaven, or the material heresy regarding Our Lady’s preservation from original sin in the collect for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), but will be one that also addresses what I consider the flaws in Liturgiam Authenticam itself — flaws that have been well documented by Peter Jeffrey in his book Translating Tradition.

One problem I see with the current translation is what appears to be an almost unthinking preference for using the nearest English cognate for Latin words. This is a problem not only with out-and-out “false friends” (which for the most part the new translation avoids) but also with the use of English terms that might be accurate in term of their denotation — i.e. their dictionary definition — but can have misleading connotations.

This was brought to my mind this morning as I was grading a student’s final exam in which he began a discussion of the first of Thomas’s Aquinas’s “Five Ways” by noting, “In Aquinas’ first argument, he states that God can be proven through the argument of motus, loosely translated as change or motion.”

When I read this I thought, “Well, ‘change’ might be a loose translation of motus, but ‘motion’ is quite literal.” But as I thought further about the student’s statement, and what I  had tried to convey to them about Aquinas’s argument, it occurred to me that both “motion” and “change” could be described either as “loose” or as “literal.”

As those who have studied Aquinas know, his term motus includes, but has a wider meaning than, the movement of a body through space from point A to point B. It also includes things like wood burning, clay being formed into pottery, minds learning new facts, food being digested, children growing, muscles cramping, people falling in love, etc. In other words, as Aquinas actually uses the term it includes things that we, in English, would not normally describe as “motion” but rather would describe as “change.” In fact, if we were to restrict Aquinas’s argument for God’s existence to motion in the sense of movement through space, certain problems arise with it, so if one is using a translation of Aquinas that translates motus as “motion” . . . well, one has some explaining to do.

The translation of Aquinas’s Summa done (anonymously) by Laurence Shapcote in the 1920s, which is widely available on the internet, translates Aquinas’s certum est enim et sensu constat aliqua moveri in hoc mundo as “It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion.” The “Blackfriars” translation done by Timothy McDermott in the 1960s translates the same sentence as, “Some things in the world are certainly in process of change: this we plainly see.” Which of these is more “literal” and which is more “loose”?

In one sense, McDermott’s translation pays little attention to the Latin word order, to which Shapcote hews more closely, and in that sense might be described as loose. But in terms of the translation of motus, it seems to me that it is Shapcote who is being loose in translating it with the cognate “motion” and McDermott who is being literal in translating it as “change.” For while, as we use these term in contemporary English, all motion involves change, not all change involves motion, and Thomas Aquinas clearly intends something that we would call “change” rather than “motion.” So while the denotation of “motion” might be included in motus, the connotation of such a word choice can be misleading.

Which leads my wandering mind to think that all chalices are cups, but not all cups are chalices, and that all people are clearly many, but many people are not so clearly all.

So my student’s identification of both “motion” and “change” as loose translations of motus seems to me about right. All translations are to some extent loose — even, and perhaps especially, those that at first glance seem “literal.” The idea that the English word that looks the most like the Latin word is clearly the right choice seems clearly mistaken.


  1. “Though I have, clearly to the consternation of some, declared a true with the current translation of the Roman Missal,”

    Ah yes, those Freudian slips. Precisely what some people think you have done.

    You have my sympathy.

    My capacity to find my clerical errors is that of the average ninth grade person. I always see what I meant to write, never what I wrote.

    1. Three things seem clear:

      1.There is no consensus that any of the translations (1973, 1998, 2010) are good, better or best translations.
      2. There is no consensus about translation principles.
      3. What translation gets used is more about politics than principles.

      The underlying problem is that neither pastors nor the people have much of voice in all this. So we really don’t know from them whether any of the existing translations are good, or better, or how any new translation might be made better, at least by the criteria of being better accepted by priests and/or people.

      The beginning of a solution seems obvious: allow the use of all three translations at the discretion of priests, and pastors just as now is the case with the EF, and see which translations are preferred and by whom. Maybe one is clearly superior and provides the path to the future? Maybe it is a mixed bag for different people and different situations? Maybe it does not matter and we are putting a lot of time, effort and money into something that does not make a difference?

      While the ideal might be for Rome and/or the Bishops to authorize this usage and comparison, that is unlikely to happen. So the best way forward is for individual priests and bishops who feel confident in their positions to simply use all three translations. Perhaps if defacto widespread use begins to occur, then it will be regularized and we can begin the comparison of the translations at the level of parish practice. Then we will have a solid foundation for new rules and new translations.

  2. I don’t think it will be years before the new version is at least tweaked to remove glaring errors of mistranslation. I have just been told that the publication date for ordinary Parish Sunday Missals in the UK, by two different publishers, has now been delayed until February. Surely this can only be for hurried revisions to be made before it is foisted on the unsuspecting public.

    1. Considering the CTS and Redemptiorist missals are out already, I doubt that very much.

      I know that Collins aren’t releasing their Sunday missal until 2 Feb 2012, but that’s probably a decision made based on the fact that neither the CTS nor the Redemptorists had printed enough missals to be able to fulfil all pre-orders.

      I stand by what I have said in previous threads – those who hope for revisions or replacements will be disappointed. We’ll have the new translation as it currently reads for a good while yet!

  3. It seems that “loose” translations always worked best in poetry and prose when I was in high school. “Loose” always captured the beauty of the imagery better. Using the English word that looks most like the Latin word
    only serves a good purpose when gleaning the meaning of an English word with a Latin root. Doing that in reverse constricts the possibilities of what
    may actually have been meant.

  4. I’m not sure I would juxtapose “loose” and “literal”. Both formal and dynamic equivalent translations can be “loose”; sometimes, they can’t be anything but, particularly when it comes to complex ideas within texts. In certain circumstances, a “loose” translation is probably the best you’re going to be able to accomplish.

    The example of motus is a good one, but Pauline concepts such as sarx and pneuma would do equally well as examples. I would describe “flesh” as a “loose” but formal translation of sarx, because the idea involves a lot more than, say, physical flesh – but at the same time, I would be reluctant to translate it any other way. “Old nature” could be one, more dynamic, way of rendering sarx, but I don’t think it’s really any clearer as a translation (what do we mean by “nature? is it “old” if we still struggle with it? etc.).

    My own personal preference is for more formal equivalent translations. Hence, out of 1973, 1998 and 2010, it is the latter that I am most fond of, by some margin. (The situation is complicated a little if we include 2008 as a separate version!) The reason I prefer formal over dynamic is mainly to do with the whole question of catechesis and education.

    Dynamic equivalent translations run a high risk of lulling people into a false sense of security. Since readability in the target language is given priority, this can mean that people think they know what the text means because it is easy to read and comprehend on a surface level. And since everyone “knows” what the text means, little attention is given to digging into it, or to teaching and preaching on it. I can count on one hand the number of homilies I have heard that even reference the propers of the Mass of the day.

    More formal translations are still subject to this problem, but far less so. And if slightly more difficult vocabulary and grammar mean preachers and teachers have to do a bit more delving into the texts and their source language, that can only be a good thing!

    1. But after they have done that “bit more delving into the texts”, they have only reached what the dynamic equivalent hit immediately. And since the catechesis is removed from the prayer, it is even harder to grapple with the meaning.

      I base my comments on some years helping to initiate people into our faith. I get no sense of mystagogy from your comments, as if your goal is only comprehension and not encountering the mystery.

      1. “But after they have done that “bit more delving into the texts”, they have only reached what the dynamic equivalent hit immediately.”

        That’s debatable, particularly when it comes to the 1973 translation. A lot of the now defunct texts are some distance away, in my opinion, from what even a cursory study of the relevant Latin passages would uncover.

        “I get no sense of mystagogy from your comments, as if your goal is only comprehension and not encountering the mystery.”

        I can’t cover everything in the character limit of the combox! I will say, though, that I think separating comprehension from the mystagogic is not the best way to look at things. St. Cyril did not just let his catechumens experience the mystery, he also explained it to them and taught them, to aid their comprehension. Both/and, not either/or.

      2. While dynamic equivalence was the goal of 1973, there are times when it fell far short of that target. The prayer to St Lucy that we looked at the other day was an example of how far short. the point of the prayer was that we should see heavenly things as St Lucy saw them despite her blindness, but 1973 had no reference to light or seeing. So I would count that as a failure to achieve dynamic equivalence..

        Mystagogy is directed toward comprehension in a deeper way, while your remarks stopped short at grammar and vocabulary. At least with dynamic translation, we know meaning is the ultimate goal; with formal translation, meaning takes a back seat to the words used. And once we puzzle out the bare meaning and grammar, the unseen heavenly things have faded.

      3. “[T]here are times when it [i.e. 1973] fell far short of that target.”

        Far too many times! 🙂

        “At least with dynamic translation, we know meaning is the ultimate goal; with formal translation, meaning takes a back seat to the words used.”

        Again, that’s debatable. Isn’t it true to say that formal translation methods are just as concerned with meaning as dynamic translation methods? Isn’t the whole point of translation, in whatever form it happens to take, the communication and preservation of meaning from one language to another?

        You can’t divorce meaning from the words used, because that’s how meaning is communicated in texts in the first instance. Rather, I see readability and comprehension in the target language as the goals of dynamic translation, not meaning as such. Now, whether that thought-for-thought approach communicates the meaning of a text better than a more formal, word-for-word one… ay, there’s the rub!

        “And once we puzzle out the bare meaning and grammar, the unseen heavenly things have faded.”

        That doesn’t have to be true (though too often, sadly, it is). Detailed study of the text of the liturgy (or the scriptures, for that matter) and the meaning behind it in no way automatically implies the loss of the Christian mystery. Or even the fading of it.

      4. Isn’t it true to say that formal translation methods are just as concerned with meaning as dynamic translation methods? Isn’t the whole point of translation, in whatever form it happens to take, the communication and preservation of meaning from one language to another?

        We have had examples where translation of words is more important than conveying meaning, eg “for many”. More general arguments have also been made, where fidelity to the Latin text is more important then praying as the Romans prayed. The whole sacral language debate is an example of something taking precedence over meaning. It is really odd, because this clearly is an accretion and not an inherent part of the Latin.

        “Now, whether that thought-for-thought approach communicates the meaning of a text better than a more formal, word-for-word one… ay, there’s the rub!”

        Why? I do not even see this as debatable. There is a role for formal analysis of texts, but not in a performative setting like liturgy. The goal is joint expression of faith and hope, and that depends on readability and comprehension.

      1. Yes. I have a B.A. in Biblical Theology, and an M.A. in Biblical Studies (Research). I studied both Greek and Hebrew as part of these.

        Why do you ask?

      2. That’s not the same as having done translation. Have you translated articles or books? Have you come to grips with making proper sense of the original in the receptor language?

      3. I could ask you and others here the same thing, Paul.

        I have translated the gospels of Mark and John, and parts of Matthew, 1 John, Acts, Hebrews and Revelation. I have had to read scholarly articles in German and translate them for use in essays and argumentation in English. My Hebrew translation experience is less extensive: a few of the Psalms, Jonah, parts of Genesis and Isaiah.

        I am a young man, so there is plenty of translation for me left to do and to study. However, I know about translation and translation theory – of course not everything, or even many things, but certainly some important things.

  5. Deacon Fritz – excellent points and great analysis. May I add an example to your “loose” and “literal”….

    chalice or cup….would suggest that the literal translation for some is “chalice” but following the lectionaries and biblical experts, the “loose” meaning is probably best summed up as “cup”.

    1. I have to go with Joe on this one. I think this is one of those cases where “chalice” seems like the more literal, but is really no looser than “cup,” and, in terms of its connotation, possibly misleading. I think these sorts of examples are an indication that at least part of the problem is with LA itself — not because it calls for a more “literal” translation, but because it has seriously underthought the ambiguities that attend the notions of “loose” and “literal.”

    2. More properly, a stemmed drinking-cup, to distinguish it from one that does not have a stem. (Origin: the calix or cup of a flower, on the end of its stem.) In other words, a goblet.

      1. But was the cup named after the flower, or the flower after the cup? I would have thought that the botanical nomenclature came much later than the domestic.

      2. oops, the stem can be short, but not fused with the base — the stem made the cup handy when reclining at a syposium or drinking-party.

      3. But I thought the Greek word kylix for which the Latin calix is cognate is seldom used in the New Testament. The Latin calix in the account of the Last Supper is a translation of poterion, isn’t it? And poterion does not carry this association, so the point would be irrelevant.

      4. There are two Greek words, easily confused:

        κάλυξ (“case of a bud, husk”)


        κύλιξ (“cup”)

        I do not know whether they are structurally related.

        As far as I know, it is the latter (κύλιξ) that is cognate with Latin calix. The institution narratives use ποτήριον (“cup”), as Rita notes. This is the very same cup that Jesus asks might pass from him, and that he exhorts us to give to the little ones in Matt 10.42.

  6. I looked up the following on dictionary.com and this seems to
    fully support you, Fritz.

    a cup for the wine of the Eucharist or Mass

    Such a vicious circle!   

  7. Mary Burke :
    Delusional would be my choice.

    Mr. Hazell has his opinion as you have yours, I have mine and anyone else here has theirs. Calling the gentleman “delusional” is not only offensive to his person but to others who read through the posts. Rule # 3 of engagement, Respect. Perhaps you could lay down the bat with which you strike for the Holiday Season. Blessings to all.

  8. I sense that those who prefer dynamic equivalence are making the claim that it is concerned with meaning, while formal equivalence is not. It seems that the first of these methods is sui generis ‘meaning’ oriented and that the latter is ipso facto ‘word’ oriented (as if these words did not carry meaning). I am not competent to argue these matters in any depth, but it is my observation that there are more than quite a few examples of dynamic equivalence that do not at all convey the meaning of the text which was puportedly translated. Often we are given crude paraphrases, or a text invented out of whole cloth… all under the fancy guise of dynamic equivalence.
    Often also, many here carry on as if the meaning which is evident in our new formal translation were indeciferable, garbled, plagued with too many commas, and in general unintelligable due to the formal translation method. Well: in some places there are too many commas, there are amateurish constructions, etc. Yet, I have not the slightest difficulty grasping the meaning that has been translated together with its very Latinness in a far more gracious text than the one we have just left behind. Those who crow that it is unintelligible are surely being facetious – they would have to be. If there is a point that I am making with all this, it is two-fold: namely that dynamic equivalence as a method does not sui generis yield a translation with more meaning and grace than a formalistic method. Meaning is at the heart of either, and each, in the hands of poetic geniuses will yield a masterpiece. We just said good bye to a dynamic that was a very dull non-masterpiece. We have just been given much fuller meaning carried on a nobly concieved style that was to some extent rather amateurishly executed. Of the two, neither of which is what we deserve, I prefer the latter for accomplishing all that authors of the former declined to communicate.

    (Ran out of letters — see below –

  9. Also, I will suggest again that part and parcel of any sensitive and thorough translation will be the communication of the Latinness, the Frenchness, etc., of the original language. It will convey the thought patterns in all their complexity so that we have translated not just the German text into our idioms and meanings, but have captured vibrantly the Germanness. This was but one of the utter failings of the 1973 and the 1998. Our new translation quite nobly tried to rectify this. Any faults are due not to its authors’ methods, designs and goals, but to their lack of competence.

    Surely a magisterially Cranmerian ethos could be cast into a fine modern English translation of the Roman mass arrayed in all its rich Latinity.

    1. Simply, no.

      That suggestion is unpersuasive. For example, it makes no sense to render what in Spanish would be idiomatic – {article}[noun}{adjective} – in the same word order in English. I had 9 years of Spanish in grade school, so that I would dream in Spanish as English, and the idiomatic nature of Spanish and English remained in their proper spheres.

      It might be interesting to have a scholarly supplement that adhered to your suggestion, but it would be a failure as a translation for the purposes of liturgy, just like reading from a similarly-constructed interlinear Bible would be for reading the lections during Liturgy. I don’t even St Jerome would have approved of that for the Vulgate!

  10. MJO, what I am about to say may seem bizarre to you, but I hope that others who have some familiarity with Latin will agree with me.

    The Latin of the Novus Ordo (which I hear at Mass 50 each week) has a ‘noble simplicity’ to it, a terseness and directness. Yes, there are multiply nested clauses and pleonasms and the like, but that is how Latin works. By comparison to a great deal of classical Latin – for example, Cicero in his full gassiness – it is spare and clean. In this regard the redactors followed the guidelines of Sacrosanctum Concilium effectively. This is one reason that the new Mass (in Latin) aroused the ire of Lefebvre and other traditionalists. Even the Latin of the old Mass has a lovely directness to it, especially in some of the most hallowed parts.

    A cod-Frenchman of the old cinema, wearing a beret and cooing “ooh, la la” hardly illumines “Frenchness”. Similarly, the “Latinness” (Latinity?) of the new translation is obscured not illuminated by its word-for-word rendering and ‘slavish’ adherence to phrase structures.

    Especially for well-loved texts like the Roman Canon, the 1973 does a far better job than the new translation.

    1. A cod-Frenchman of the old cinema, wearing a beret and cooing “ooh, la la” hardly illumines “Frenchness”. Similarly, the “Latinness” (Latinity?) of the new translation is obscured not illuminated by its word-for-word rendering and ‘slavish’ adherence to phrase structures.

      This is part of what I was trying to get at with my remarks about “denotation” and “connotation” above. One could convey the “Frenchness” of an original byt translating questions as statements to which one appends “is it not?” but this would, I think, convey a very false sense of how the original would strike the Frenchman. Denotatively n’est-ce pas does mean “is it not,” but such a “literal” translation connotes falsely.

  11. I think that I would naturally agree with your various observations about exact word order and literalness. This, I hope you would have realised, is not what I was advocating. Still, though, I believe that I have been denied something substantial in a translation that does not, somehow, convey the Dutchness of the original, but merely gives me substitute idioms. A translation should convey the flavourful essence of the original. Failure to do this is as great an error as interlinearity.

    1. Still, no. Your suggestion assumes the receptor language is a blank slate. But it’s not. For example, phrasing that connotes gravitas in Latin will often, when rendered in English the Liturgicam Authenticam-influenced way, convey orotundity, which has the very opposite effect of gravitas in English – instead of Lincoln at Gettysburg, we get Edward Everett at Gettysburg.

  12. Well, Cranmer gave us Latin’s gravitas; and I don’t think that, generally, he gave us 1973-style equivalency. His work is the standard against which all subsequent heiratic English should be judged. And, no, I don’t mean that all subsequent language should be imitation Tudor English. It should, though, give us XXI. cent. English which is equivalent in poetic mastery and gravitas… something we have yet to see and probably never will.

    1. The problem is that Liturgicam Authenticam cares not much more than a whit about poetic euphony and beauty. It can’t give us a latter-day Cranmer because of its crabbed approach to translation. We await another. LA is part of the problem.

  13. Interesting notes from the “original” about this related issue (since we have no notes, explanations, etc. from VC/later ICEL):

    Lines 1-4: Te igit.
    Because of the importance of unifying this prayer with the sanctus and especially with the preface, a prayer of praise and thanksgiving,
    the expression ‘in this spirit of thanksgiving’ is used to
    convey the weight of igitur and to sum up the theme of the preface
    (cf. Botte-Mohrmann, L’Ordinaire de la Messe, Paris-Louvain, 1953, p. 75).
    Supplices rogamus ac petimus. Tn many instances Latin words such as supplices and pairs of words such as rogamus ac petimus are employed for reasons of Latin rhythm and style or rhetoric;
    they do not represent thought content which need be or should be explicitly translated in another language. Other examples are placatus (line 37), digneris (lines 7, 44, 79 etc.), cognita-nota (lines 16-17), donis ac datis (line 74). In this case, the force of the Latin rhetoric is carried by the expression ‘we come to you … we ask
    you, since the word ‘come’ is here intended to embrace the sense of suppliance and petition and to set the mood for what follows.
    Clementissimc. The English spoken style does not have anything corresponding to the Latin multiplication of adjectives; in fact the effect in English is to weaken rather than to strengthen the sense. In this particular instance to translate clementissime directly would violate English usage, which rarely attaches an
    adjective to a vocative; the meaning of clementissime is carried into the English by the tone of the first two lines. Other adjectives which have been similarly treated in this translation are aetemo …
    vivo et vero (line 20), liostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam (line 76), etc.
    Line 5: Haec dona, haec munera, haec sancta sacrificia illibata.

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