While having a few days off in France earlier this year, I am ashamed to admit that I found myself reflecting on Liturgiam Authenticam. As is well known, this document insists on a literalist translation of liturgical texts and the use of Latin cognates and syntax whenever possible. It claims that the “dynamic equivalence” theory of translation is now dead and discredited and that “formal equivalence” is the way to go, despite the fact that professional translators know that exactly the opposite is true. (“If we didn’t use dynamic equivalence, we’d very soon be out of a job.”) It earned Dr Peter Jeffery’s description of it as “the most ignorant statement on liturgy ever issued by a modern Vatican congregation”. (Dr Jeffrey’s demolition job on the document was recorded in 2010 here).
I found myself wondering what would happen if we applied the provisions of LA to other aspects of our everyday lives, in this case touring abroad. My reflection was prompted by a notice in a French hotel lavatory: sacs pour garnitures périodiques. How would LA have us translate this into English? “Sacks for periodical garnish” or “Sacks for periodic accessories”? What on earth could either of those mean to anyone? “Sanitary disposal bags” is the accepted phrase.
Or how about the French road signs Allumez vos feux, literally “Light your fires”, or Avancez jusqu’au feu, “Advance as far as the fire”? “Turn on your headlights” and “Drive right up to the traffic lights” are what we would say.
Perhaps a more liturgical slant is to be found in Attachez vos ceintures: décollage immédiat, literally “Attach your cinctures: immediate ungluing” rather than “Fasten your seat belts: take-off is imminent”. Still with liturgical vesture, there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding with aube, which normally means “dawn” or “a beginning”, occasionally “twilight”, but can also mean “alb”. Thus the phrase aube nouvelle means “A new day is dawning” or “A new beginning”, and not “new alb”.
Without multiplying examples, I think the point is clear: formal equivalence would simply not work in real life. So why do we try to make it work when we come together to worship? Even if you accept the argument for a sacral language, it needs to be a genuine language and an accurate one.
More urgently, when will we realize that Liturgiam Authenticam is a laughing-stock and needs to be replaced (not repealed, for it is not the Vatican way ever actually to repeal anything), and acknowledge that the 1969 document it supplanted, Comme le prévoit, was actually full of wisdom grounded in common sense?