Liturgical Translation: Some Are More Equal than Others?

A Pray Tell reader who closely follows translation issues sent in the follow post.

In theory the procedures for obtaining official recognition for vernacular translations from the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome (hereafter CDW) are the same for everyone. In practice it seems that some nations and groups are more equal than others.

English is now one of the most important languages in the world, and it seems as if the CDW has decided to scrutinize English translations more than those of other languages. This could be because of a natural distrust of English in the Vatican with some seeing it, in the words of Cardinal Pell, as “the language of the enemy.”

Another factor for the extra scrutiny is that some liturgical translations for other languages are based on the English translation and not on the Latin original, so, understandably, the CDW is particularly concerned that the English translation be done correctly.

Additionally, English is in a unique linguistic position. Most modern languages have almost nothing whatsoever to do with Latin, while the Romance languages clearly derive from Latin and maintain much of Latin’s vocabulary and structure. But English is heavily influenced by Latin, but is in fact a very different language, with many of the words that ultimately derive from Latin being more obscure or having secondary meaning or connotations. So while it is easy enough to translate into Spanish and Italian, and other languages like Japanese or Hungarian have nothing to do with Latin, English is a special case. There is a natural tendency for some Italian speakers to over-emphasize its Latin origins to the detriment of contemporary correct usage (in this case the Italian speakers being those working in the CDW).

However, besides all of these considerations, when it comes to receiving actual official recognition (recognitio) for English translations, there seems not to be a level playing field. Some regions and groups seem to be more equal than others, and these are granted permission to do certain things that are absolutely forbidden for other nations.

The Revised New American Bible

For example, the Revised New American Bible met with a lot of problems in being approved for use in the United States lectionary for Mass. A new lectionary using the New American Bible was approved by the USCCB and submitted to the Congregation for Divine Worship for approval. (Admittedly, the dates and combination of the parts of the New American Bible are quite confusing, and a number of different editions of the Bible exist in print at the present moment. This particular combination used the 1986 New Testament, 1970 Old Testament, and 1991 Psalter). The Lectionary was approved by the CDW in May 1992.

Then the approval was rescinded in June 1994. There was some back and forth between the USCCB and the Congregation, but nothing happened until a special commission was set up in early 1997 to try to solve the impasse. This commission was composed of some American bishops and various experts employed by the CDW. Eventually a compromise was reached, the 1991 Psalter was replaced with an older version from the 1950’s, and hundreds of changes were introduced directly into the Biblical passages in the Lectionary. Of the eleven members of the joint commission only one could actually read Hebrew, and another did not speak fluent English. None of the original translators of the biblical texts were part of the process.

Due to the many changes that were introduced into the text, the resultant lectionary, which is still in use in the United States, contains Biblical readings that cannot be found in any published Bible, so in the U.S. the Catholic faithful are unable to consult a Bible that uses the same wording as they hear at Mass.

Whatever the merits of the New American Bible, either it is suitable for liturgical use or not. It would seem from the problems given to the United States bishops and scholars that Rome considers the “raw” bible unsuitable for liturgical use, and therefore it mandated that it be heavily modified before it could be used at Mass. This is a clear position from Rome. Rome received a request to approve a lectionary, saw that the biblical translation was deficient, and therefore helped the USCCB to make the hundreds of changes necessary in order to produce the lectionary.

If the story finished here, everyone could understand what happened, whether or not one agreed with the CDW’s opinion of the translation. But the story didn’t finish here. A few years later, as Cardinal Arinze was preparing for retirement and as a personal project for his legacy, he oversaw the preparation of a new translation of the Liturgy of the Hours for use in Africa. It was adopted by the Kenyan Bishop’s Conference and published by the Daughters of St. Paul in Nairobi, and was presented to Pope Benedict XVI as part of the celebrations for the Year of the Priest in 2009 . The translation was granted official approval by the CDW in February 2009, two months after Cardinal Arinze’s retirement.

However, the Bible translation used for this version of the Liturgy of the Hours is precisely the New American Bible (1986 New Testament, 1970 Old Testament and 1991 Psalter) that had been forbidden in the United States. This was probably a very understandable decision on the part of the translators, as this particular edition of the Bible is very popular among English speaking Catholics in Africa, where it is reprinted under the title The African Bible. Given that this is the same text that was so problematic when the USCCB wanted to use it, it would seem that what is forbidden for the United States can be approved for use in a pet project of the Prefect of the CDW for use in his native Africa.

The Revised Grail Psalter

Additionally, the African edition of the Liturgy of the Hours used the Revised Grail Psalter instead of the Psalter of the New American Bible (although the front of the book acknowledges that it uses the 1991 NAB psalter in places). This is a new version of the psalms produced by Conception Abbey in Missouri. It is a revision of the very popular Grail Psalter that is used in both the American and British versions of the Liturgy of the Hours. This translation was prepared with heavy consultation with the CDW and all texts were informally approved by the CDW before being submitted to the USCCB for approval. So it is no surprise that the decision was made to use this version in the new Kenyan edition.

However, the Kenyans were allowed to use the original version of the Psalter as submitted to the CDW by the USCCB. So it should be quite surprising that the U.S. Church was not allowed to use this translation of the Psalms as they were, given that it was produced in full cooperation with the CDW. Instead, when the approval eventually came from Rome, the Psalter had had over 300 changes inserted, including many inconsistencies and some outright mistakes. But given that the CDW would not answer the U.S. bishops request that at least they be allowed to correct the obvious errors, they eventually had to publish the deformed version of the Psalter.

Kenya also uses the Ignatius Press lectionary that uses the RSV 2nd edition. I thought the use of more than one biblical translation in the same episcopal conference was disallowed, which is why the RSV and JB [Jerusalem Bible] lectionaries were withdrawn in the U.S. when the new lectionary was published. If this prohibition is true, then Kenya has been allowed to have a new RSV lectionary and a new NAB liturgy of the hours at the same time! See more here and here.

The New Revised Standard Version

Another example of a translation forbidden for some people being accepted for others is found in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Initially this version (which many biblical scholars consider to be the best contemporary Bible translation) was approved by the CDW, and the English speaking bishops’ conferences had started work on preparing a much-needed revised lectionary based on it. But then, at the prompting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, permission to use the NRSV in the liturgy was revoked by the CDW due to alleged doctrinal difficulties. The reason for the prohibition of the NRSV for liturgical use is probably its use of inclusive language. The official letter rescinding of permission for the NRSV’s use in the liturgy has not been made public. [Ronald D. Witherup, A Liturgist’s Guide to Inclusive Language ‪(Collegeville, MN: ‪Liturgical Press, 1996), 56-58. For the U.S. material on this see Bishop’ Committee on the Liturgy, Thirty-Five Years of the BCL Newsletter (Washington D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004), 1297, 1373-74, 1508 and 1513.]

An exception was eventually given to the Canadian bishops to use an edited version of the NRSV in their lectionary. However, when Cardinal Arinze visited Newark Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Newark, NJ, in 2005, he personally wrote an introduction to the monks’ newly published edition of Compline that uses the unedited version of the NRSV for the scripture readings. [The introduction is dated January 4, 2005 and is on the official letterhead of the Congregatio de Cultu Divino et Disciplina Sacramentorum (Prot. N. 2/05/A), it can be found in The Office of Compline: Newark Abbey (Newark, NJ: Benedictine Monks of Newark Abbey, 2005), iii.] The cardinal praised the publication of the book as being “a happy thing” and said that the abbey “deserves commendation” for having published the work.

The issue here is not whether the NRSV is suitable for liturgical use or not. But if the English-speaking conferences have been forbidden to use a translation due to doctrinal difficulties, then it is unusual that the Cardinal Prefect of the CDW personally writes an introduction to a liturgical book using this translation and can commend its publication by an institution which coincidently gives him hospitality when he is on his speaking tours of the United States and ministers to Nigerian immigrants in the New Jersey area.

The Ordinariates

Another example of this inconsistency is to be found in the new liturgies of the Ordinariates made up of former Anglicans and Episcopalians who have corporately entered into full communion with the Holy See. These have been given some special allowances, including the possibility of using either the regular books of the Roman Rite or a new book that is a blend of material from the family of versions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and new material. One of the characteristics of this new liturgy usage (officially called The Order of Mass For Use by the Ordinariates Established under the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus) is that it often employs Tudor English in imitation of the language of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. For example, on weekdays there is an option to use a new Tudorized translation of Eucharistic Prayer II of the current Roman Missal. Here is the preface and epiclesis of the Ordinariate version, with the official version for comparison:

Download (PDF, 294KB)

Many would argue that Christianity has always allowed for a lot of variety in the practice of the faith. One of the main theological principles of ecumenism holds true also here, “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” This new usage is an example of Christian charity for Christians from the Anglican tradition who desire union with the Catholic Church, as the permission to use the Extraordinary Form is for those who desire the pre-conciliar form of the Roman Rite. So we have a group of Catholics who desire to worship God in Tudor English. While many would find this form of English unusual, these former Anglicans find it traditional, reverential and spiritually nourishing. The CDW has decided to allow them to retranslate some prayers into Tudor English, even though these prayers already exist in an approved translation. Here is an example of pastoral solicitude on the part of the CDW and this is to be commended.

However, it would be hoped that in a similar manner, those Catholics who feel more at home in contemporary English and consider that they would derive spiritual benefit by participating in liturgical celebrations where the prayers were translated into a standard English form would be accommodated by the CDW. While it might be unwise to use multiple versions of the assembly’s parts of the Mass, there could easily be a possibility of rehabilitating the 1998 Sacramentary which, although approved by all of the English-speaking bishops’ conferences, has been languishing in the semi-legal-file-sharing-twilight of the World Wide Web since it was unceremoniously rejected by Cardinal Medina, the Prefect of the CDW, in 2002.

The 1998 Sacramentary

The 1998 Sacramentary is not perfect. The issue of the newly composed texts, including particularly the optional three-year opening prayer selection, is for another debate. What 1998 does provide is an alternative translation of virtually the whole Missal, apart from a very small percentage of material new to the third Latin edition of the Roman Missal. This translation also has the advantage of having been approved by all the English speaking bishops of the world. It could easily be published in a new edition, maintaining the newer people’s parts, as has already been done with the missal volume of the Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Eucharistic Prayers for Masses with Children. Here is an example of the same Preface and Epiclesis of Eucharistic Prayer 2:

Download (PDF, 197KB)

The Way Forward

This post has pointed out these inconsistencies, not to encourage the CDW to crack down on the good monks of Newark Abbey or people using the Kenyan edition of the Liturgy of the Hours, but to suggest that more freedom be given to others in translation matters. If the 2012 Missal is so superior to the 1998 Sacramentary, then there is no danger in allowing the optional use of the 1998 version for perhaps a five-year experimental period. If at the end of that time nobody were using the 1998 translation, then it would be withdrawn. If, however, the 1998 version were to overtake the 2012 version rapidly, then it would point to the fact that many English-speaking Catholics are unhappy with the 2012 version, and that a major reworking is needed to help English-speaking Catholics find spiritual nourishment by better understanding the sacred mysteries they celebrate.


  1. There is a natural tendency for some Italian speakers to over-emphasize its Latin origins to the detriment of contemporary correct usage (in this case the Italian speakers being those working in the CDW).

    Alas, I fear that this tendency is found among some native English speakers as well (though I doubt it is natural).

  2. Thank you for a lovely post that looks upon the Ordinariate Liturgy and the Extraordinary Form as positive contributions to the life of the contemporary church!

  3. Is there a resource where the full canon and ordinary for the ordariates can be found online? Finding more than bits and pieces here and there has proven difficult, and it seems to me unwise to judge it (or the 1998 sacramentary, for that matter) by excerpts alone.

  4. @3
    According to the official website of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham the texts are still in “process of being updated”.

    However (a Canadian site) seems to publish the complete Mass texts for a given Sunday: … e.g. click on “Bulletin: Lent II”.

    Back to this thread … Thank you for a very interesting article. I would only question the concept of “maintaining the newer people’s parts”. Personally I would change every single word of the people’s parts back to the previous version. Methinks the laity (and I am one) will be able to cope!
    This is my first post on this site by the way.

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