Cardinal Pell on Liturgical Translation

This will interest Pray Tell readers who remember the whole Roman Missal Crisis:  Cardinal George Pell, chairman of Vox Clara, talked on translation at a Vatican II 50th anniversary conference in Rome recently.

It’s a lengthy talk. The first part is an interesting and very informative review of the history of vernacular in the liturgy. Then it gets dicier in the second part, with Pell’s version of the history of the Roman translation documents Comme le prévoit (1969) and Liturgicam authenticam (2001).

Alas, Pell apparently thinks it useful to distinguish between “dynamic equivalence” ( = bad, 1960s, inaccurate, from Eugene Nida and he’s Protestant) and “formal equivalence” (= good, up-to-date, accurate, where scholarship has now moved). Pray Tell once ask leading translation expert Anthony Pym (“Academic Justification for Liturgiam Authenticam?”) about all this. He said this:

Does this mean that we are all reacting against Eugene Nida and his concept of dynamic equivalence, supposedly embodied in the prior doctrine of Comme le prevoit in 1969? Not at all. I think it is quite plausible to read Nida in terms of a spectrum of possible translation solutions, ranging from “dynamic equivalence” at one end (“Lamb of God” becomes “Seal of God” for Inuits) to “formal correspondence” at the other (it becomes Agnus Dei, teaching us Latin). Nida recognized that there is a time and place of everything along that range, and his great historical virtue was to open up that plurality.

Pell drags out the old Good News Bible (also known as Today’s English Version) as Exhibit A for dynamic equivalence in action. This sleight of hand reminds me of a talk Msgr. Bruce Harbert (former executive director of ICEL) gave at Mundelein, later published in Antiphon, “The Roman Rite and the English Language.” Surprise, surprise: the primitivistic Good News Bible falls short in every way, so Liturgiam Authenticam comes to rescue us from that, and from Comme le prévoit.

But putting out the Good News Bible as the exemplification of Comme le prévoit and dynamic equivalence is rather like arguing against Classical music (rationalistic, thin) and for Romantic music (rich, complex) by comparing Salieri and Clementi negatively with Beethoven and Mahler. Anyone heard of Mozart and Haydn? Anyone heard of a certain missal translation worked on for some 17 years and approved by all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences by 1998? Dealing with the fine 1998 translation, which doesn’t fit neatly into the supposedly opposed categories of “dynamic equivalence” and “formal equivalence,” would be highly instructive.

And then Pell says this: “I have been surprised to find that there is so little academic examination of Liturgiam authenticam.” Good grief. What about Peter Jeffery’s Translating Tradition: A Chant Historian Reads Liturgicam Authenticam,” the 168-page LitPress book based on four articles previously published in Worship magazine? 209 footnotes in English, Latin, French, German, Italian, and Polish; references to history and experience in numerous Western European lands, South India, China, two Mayan groups, Chiapis, Fiji, and to rites Coptic, Ethopian, Chaldean, Armenian, Byzantine, hagiopolite, Egyptian, and West Syrian, and throw in the Rastafarians and a Caughnawaga manuscript besides. Sure looks like “academic examination” to me.

The devastating conclusion of Jeffery’s “academic examination” might interest Pell. Jeffery says this:

But the most worrisome thing about LA is that what it lacks in factuality it makes up with naked aggression. It speaks words of power and control rather than cooperation and consultation, much less charity… It is particularly embarrassing that all this muscular Christianity comes to us vested and mitred in the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation. But in a millennium when a Pope can apologize to the Jews, it is not too much to hope that the Dicastery, too, will find the courage to lead by example, and practice what it preaches on the matter of accepting correction. … Liturgiam authenticam should be summarily withdrawn, on the grounds that it was released prematurely, before proper consultation with a sufficient number of experts had been completed. Then only the hard part will remain: what to do about the issues and tensions that produced it.

This reminds me of Msgr. James Moroney’s claim (see “No, Msgr. Moroney, I Don’t Think So”) that Liturgiam Authenticam came about in response to calls for something like it in the academy. But when 600 scholars at a liturgy conference in Rome heard the speaker extemporaneously critique Liturgiam Authenticam, as Robert Taft reports, they broke into applause that thundered on for about three minutes.

Pell is aware that the new English missal was not exactly greeted by all the clergy. Responding to an informal Tablet survey which registered discontent, Pell conceded,

Neither is there a unanimous enthusiasm, especially among the clergy as they adapt to more sophisticated patterns of thought and language. It is also of interest that those who were apprehensive before the texts appeared generally felt their fears were justified.

(This is the same survey discussion in which Abbot Cuthbert Johnson of Vox Clara admitted that “there is a desire for an improvement that will ensure that the English flows more smoothly, and that the vocabulary, while being more dignified is not, as sometimes appears, a little abstruse and pretentious.”

Oh well, so it goes. Meanwhile, Pray Tell is expecting any day now the results of the CARA study we commissioned on the reactions of clergy and lay church staff to the new translation. And with that, I will offer a few thoughts, constructive thoughts I hope, on the missal situation and some helpful paths forward.



  1. The question is, who wrote Pell’s lecture? He sure as heck didn’t write it himself. Answers on a postcard…

  2. I was wondering that too! Someone really has a bee in their bonnet over methods of translation. The author of that piece, whoever it is, seems to have a very different view of Catholicism to me, but given the vast gulf between people like that and people like me I can see why so much effort has been expended on tidying God away into a little box decorated in the finery of unintelligible language.

    I wish someone high up would have the humility to go and ask people in the pews to read excerpts from the three translations we now have access to and ask them which one best resonates with their faith (and why). Surely the measured endpoint/outcome of any translation process has to be that rather than an obsession on process.

    In terms of an academic examination of Liturgiam Authenticam, I read it with several hats on, one of a physicist, one of a medic and one of a simple human being. It spoke to me of power games and I thought it was terrible.

  3. Anthony, thank you for the efforts to keep alive the history of what I consider the translation debacle. I look forward to the Cara results.

  4. I am glad that Cardinal Pell has been shifted from Sydney, and possibly Vox Clara to tackle the Vatican bank. His Australian detractors have lauded that move, and I think Pope Francis has found the perfect role for the man. There are few things sadder than to see a bishop drastically out of his element. And it must be a triumph to steer him into a role where he can do much good. I’m really looking forward to him going Bruce Lee in the dicastery for the Most Holy Economy. Ad multos annos, eminence.

  5. I find it discouraging that the pope seems to hold him in such esteem. It’s not just the missal translation … his views on the primacy of conscience and his handling of the sex abuse problem in Australia were other cases for concern.

  6. Talk about *revisionist history*. LIke earlier comments, noted:
    – agree – who really wrote this?
    – he cites a JPII motu proprio that supposedly is in continuity with Pius XI (thus, ignoring Pius XII’s liturgical decisions and VII and what followed)
    – also noted that he completely skips over 1998 and the 20 years that led upto it
    – appears to try to show that *latin* (translated his way) is the *source and summit* of our Christian lives
    – he states that he is not conversant in other languages but then says that they all experienced the same impoverishment (really???)
    – and these quotes:
    “……received a somewhat mediocre Italian translation (CLP) to examine. In any case, he replied just before New Year 1969 to the effect that in general the norms were approved, but that he found them a bit long. By the end of the month they were published in French, with the title “Instruction” (apparently at Pope Paul’s wish). However, despite the title, the status accorded them continued to be somewhat low, and Comme le prévoit, as it was called, remained only as a document of the Consilium. In fact, the document never appeared in Latin nor was it published in the pages of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official gazette of the Holy See.” (if it doesn’t appear in latin, then it doesn’t count??? and didn’t CLP have more authority than Liturgicam Authenticam has even now? Funny how one can just skip over that!)
    – “Comme le prévoit was a little naive, striving perhaps to be all things to all men. More fatally, it spoke if briefly of “adaptations” to be effected by translations (no. 34).”
    – after quoting Bishop Seratelli and then leaping to the wrong context and conclusion, he says: “Comme le prévoit. A document of somewhat uncertain status, of a provisional character, a pioneer in the way it pointed to some of the tasks and pitfalls, but based on limited experience and in the end incomplete, somewhat misleading and unsatisfactory in its results.”
    – “it has been a great pastoral success and is already part of the church landscape. As to criticisms, I make my own a remark I heard some while ago from a fellow Bishop, namely that if ever in the history of the Church there was a collegial decision affecting a single major language group, this is it. The text was prepared and then improved by virtually all the Bishops sharing our common English-language, and combed through line by line, word by word, in two high-level international committees of Bishops and experts meeting assiduously over the best part of a decade. It was endorsed by every bishops’ conference using the English language in secret votes requiring a two thirds majority.” (yep, and if you buy this, then the US Civil War was really the *War of Northern Aggression*)

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #8:
      Great observations! I’m not surprised in the least by Pell’s narrative (and that of other supporters of Liturgiam Authenticam and its consequences). Seems like those of higher rank in any institutional structure (including the church) are more concerned with institutional preservation, and of course, maintaining their positions rather than LISTENING to the whole body and DISCERNING the signs of the times. Hopefully the “Pope Francis effect” is beginning to change the overly centralized and restorationist climate in our church.

  7. As a native of Savannah, Georgia, and currently assigned in Macon, Georgia, and hoping to live and die in Georgia, what was that you said about The Late Great Unpleasantness?

  8. Nice touch, Padre Ignatus. Can still remember my first visit to Natchez, MS to a local catholic high school (I was in college in the early 1970s). It was the first time I heard the phrase *war of northern aggression* in a history class discussion and realized that these folks, including some teachers, really believed this.

    Actually, the Late Great Unpleasantness seems to fit your fellow pastor in Macon.

  9. Topically irrelevant tangent offered solely to remind folks of the capacity of Americans to hold grudges for many generations, despite our well-earned reputation for historical amnesia (well, maybe it’s not “despite” but “because of”): Over 30 years ago, I was in college in Virginia, and my roommate’s friend was from the Sea Islands of Georgia – this fellow’s father was a longtime county sheriff, and they still had tenant farmers and the like. Anyway, this fellow was contemplating proposing marriage to his girlfriend from Pennsylvania. But, before he did so, he had her family lineage checked out to make sure none of her people fought his people in The War. As it turns out, her people were observant Quakers at the time, and did not take up arms directly, so family honor issues were finessed. I remember thinking this was quite the tall tale, until I discovered the fellow was in dead ernest. Quite the moment to remember from the early 1980s.

  10. I am looking forward to the CARA report.

    I suspect it will be a cause of great embarrassment to the bishops who approved the work of ICEL-Lite and their bosses at Vox Clara.

    Meanwhile my recipe for correcting the gravely defective 2010 product on the fly is working rather well.

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