Do Translators Wear Prada?

In early 2012, thanks to a Brazilian ESL exchange student living in my house, I became—unexpectedly—very familiar with the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.” She had the film nearly memorized in Portuguese (being a somewhat fashion-obsessed young woman), so watching the DVD in English time and time again was an enjoyable language skills-building exercise for her. I was her coach for specific idiomatic English expressions that didn’t carry over particularly well from Portuguese.

If you’re not familiar with the film, it is set in the world of a New York fashion magazine, overseen by the draconian Meryl Streep, who has just hired a fashion-senseless assistant, played by Anne Hathaway. In one scene, as a team is trying to get a cover photo shoot together, another assistant holds up two nearly-identical belts and says, “It’s hard to choose. They’re so different.” This elicits a chortle from Anne Hathaway, who then says she doesn’t know much about “this stuff.” She is icily informed by Meryl Streep exactly how, years ago, similar people in a photo shoot meeting actually chose the popular color of the nevertheless-distasteful sweater she’s wearing that day; chose it from a pile of “stuff.”

Like all good parables, in our different life situations we can identify with different characters. In the matter of belts and all things fashion, I am essentially Anne Hathaway’s character. Since we were, in 2012, still in the immediate aftermath of the implementation of the 2010/2011 English translation of the Mass, I found myself wondering if people in our parish pews didn’t feel like Anne about some of the changes/choices in all the “stuff” of the translation: “God of hosts” vs. “God of power and might.”

One person’s belt choices are another person’s word choices.

I’m sure that everyone who reads PrayTell can leap to the comment boxes to explain to me why/how that particular change in word choice was made and its value, or lack thereof. That’s a good thing but—gentle PrayTell readers—we inhabit something of a liturgical hothouse, and shouldn’t think that the communities and congregants we serve occupy that same climate.

For example, I recall that, around the same time, there were dire predictions from parish and diocesan liturgy/music people that the new translation was going to drive people from the pews. My own view was that those same people in the pews had recently gone through years of hearing the horrors of clergy abuse and episcopal cover-up. I didn’t believe that those who were still returning to the pews on Sunday were going to be driven away by “consubstantial.”

I raise this topic because of all the hubbub* and scuttlebutt* surrounding the review or possible retraction of Liturgiam Authenticam and consequent hopes that the 1998 ICEL Missal might have another chance. I think that a re-visiting of the 1998 translation in light of the 2010 translation would be a good thing—1998 ICEL, for example, still inexplicably left out benedicimus te (we bless you) from the Gloria. I also prefer 2010’s “supper of the Lamb” to 1998’s “banquet of the Lamb” for the Latin cenam Agni, but am also willing to leave that one up to the belt-choosers. Likewise, Advent I’s opening prayer (2010) “run to meet him” vs. 1998’s “go forth to meet him.” I am aware that there are also numerous examples where a reverse comparison would show 2010’s weaknesses.

One overarching hope I have is that any re-visiting of the translation would pay greater attention to its sonics. It’s likely that, over the course of the years, I’ve irritated any number of workshop presenters who worked on both the 1998 and 2010 translations when I relentlessly asked if the texts (especially collect texts) had been proclaimed or—better yet—chanted aloud as part of the translation process; proclaimed/chanted for a group of people who did not have the texts in front of them. It is through their ears, not their eyes, that most members of the assembly encounter the texts of the Mass Sunday by Sunday. As best as I could determine, from my admittedly small and random sampling, much of the work on both translations was primarily visual.

While every analogy or metaphor limps, and will fall down if pushed too hard, I actually do believe that translators—metaphorically speaking—should wear Prada. As should the theologians, writers, poets, and singing musicians who work with them. It’s a good thing to have knowledgeable people working on the liturgy’s linguistic attire. We must be aware that there are long-range consequences to the choices made, styles selected, and so on. We make a mistake, however, when we think that everyone who is a receiver of the translation ought to care in the same manner and to the same degree as those knowledgeable people. Also a mistake to think that everyone ought to be instructed until they reach the level of the cognoscenti (a trajectory that the movie followed, nearly to the end).

Unfortunately, the aspect of that movie scene which perhaps translated best into the recent realms of liturgical translation was the glacial air of scorn and the behaviors and language of belittling dismissiveness in that room. I both encountered and exhibited those kinds of words and actions frequently, from the 1998 translators to the 2010 translators, to the for/against Vox Clara individuals—we all transgressed. “In all things, charity” seemed to have left the room. There is never a way that discipleship in Christ can translate into those sorts of attitudes and actions, particularly when dealing with, speaking of, or writing about other members of the Body.

With Lent on the near horizon, and matters of liturgical translation (perhaps) on a bit more distant one, we can heed the advice of the fashion consultant St. Paul, and choose the outfit he recommended for the Colossians, clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

*Proclaim—or chant—this sentence aloud. These two words have some of the most delightful sonics in the English language.


  1. *Read—or chant—this sentence aloud. These two words have some of the most delightful sonics in the English language.

    Thank you

    May I make one suggestion – *Proclaim or Chant……….*

  2. Somehow I still think, as a copmoser, that ‘consubstantial’ belongs in the sqaure note tradition, whereas ‘one in being with the Father’ trips off the tongue with a dleightful familiarity. Francis’ seeming commitment to ‘decentralization’ is an affirmation of a teaching of the General Cuncil of the Church which, at least for dogmatists, carries the weight of infalibilty. But this again, especially in the mindset of Hans Kung, may be a tired concept which has outlived its usefulness. My chosen belt would be the one into which I could hitch up my robes so as to serve the People of God in the way in which the Liturgy is intended. I thnink 2010 is too self-serving to do this.

    1. @Tony Barr:
      ‘”consubstantial” belongs in the square note tradition, whereas ‘one in being with the Father’ trips off the tongue with a delightful familiarity.’

      I hear what you are saying, but I offer (partly tongue-in-cheek) that so-called “square notes” (and the other shapes in the tradition of “neumatic” notation), might be seen by some to convey a more flexible and nuanced choreography for tripping the light fantastic off the tongue.

  3. “As best as I could determine, from my admittedly small and random sampling, much of the work on both translations was primarily visual.”

    An excellent, excellent point, Alan. When Episcopalians went through major revision of the Book of Common Prayer in the 60s and 70s, there were long periods of trial use which a great number of parishes opted to do. Many will remember well the “Green Book” and the more-interestingly nicknamed “Zebra Book.” The Psalter is part of our Prayer Book, so there was trial use of that and a significant number of changes made through the reaction of people who prayed and sang the psalms for an extended period of time.

    This process allowed refinement based on actual use by congregations of not-always-enthusiastic people. The process was transparent; the names of the revisers involved were known, and they were often on the road promoting, praying, and listening. Each step was ratified by a vote of the General Convention, our elected clergy and lay governing body.

    I’m not about to claim that the book was greeted with universal paeans of praise, but among those who wanted an updated book, there was a high level of acceptance. Others–many others–left, but it is hard to determine whether unhappiness over the book, unhappiness about women in the diaconate and priesthood, or unhappiness about accepting homosexuals as equal siblings in Christ was the principal cause.

  4. Regarding visual versus aural, and referencing another recent thread, the Bishops of England and Wales in the mid 1980s approved ICEL’s White Book texts of Eucharistic Prayer A and Eucharistic Prayer of St Basil for use ad experimentum. However, CDW told them they could not do this. “But,” said the bishops, “how on earth can we evaluate these texts if we don’t actually try them out? You can’t tell how they will work in a celebration context from merely reading them at your desk.” But Rome would have none of it. Fortunately, the people responsible for that attitude have now departed. Let us hope that a more enlightened view is now in place.

  5. Eucharistic Prayer of St Basil? Would that be the Anaphora of St Basil the Great from the Byzantine Liturgy that he compiled and is named for him? Why on earth would anyone import a prayer out of context from another rite into the Roman rite? Just to have another option to keep things interesting or exotic? The Eastern Churches are in the process of throwing off “latinizations” imported, self-imposed/mandated and/or overlayed on their traditions. The Roman rite should not take on “byzantinizations.” Beside the fact that it’s disrespectful to the Churches that use that Liturgy.

    1. @John Kohanski:

      Would that be the Anaphora of St Basil the Great from the Byzantine Liturgy that he compiled and is named for him?

      Yes, it would, but in a very cut-down version, not nearly as long as the original.

      I think the point of this, and EP A, was to provide alternative EPs (we did not yet have the “Various Needs and Occasions” Prayer at that time). One was a totally new composition constructed on classical principles, the other an abbreviated version of a venerable Orthodox text.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        The Anaphora of St Basil is not that long, and it’s rich in it’s imagery, which I’m sure ended up on the cutting room floor. The Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great (of which this Anaphora is part) is used on the 5 Sundays of the Great Fast, St. Basil’s feastday (Jan 1), and on Christmas Eve and Holy Saturday combined with Vespers. That’s 8 times a year, on special days. Yanking “a venerable Orthodox text” out of the context of it’s Liturgy, cutting it down to make it palatable for suburban Roman congregations, and plopping it in the Missal as one of many options for anytime use is insulting. I don’t get it, I really and truly don’t.

      2. @John Kohanski:

        To be fair to Paul, his mention of that text is in the context of the process of consultation, not the merits/demerits of the text as such.

        That said, another layer of consultation comes to mind: how informed would congregations be of the nature of adaptations of this sort? Would they have experiential exposure of the full source text (translated and minimally adapted for the requirements of Roman sacramental/ritual theology if necessary) and not just its adaptation?

        In other words, how transparent is the intermediation of the adapters and proposers? In my world of fiduciary duties, transparency is a component of full and fair disclosure to enable informed consent. If we are moving away from centralization to de-centralization, simply creating a myriad local popes and curias is not necessarily an improvement over one. When faced with a choice of the former vs the latter, human history indicates people may often prefer one distant tyrant over many closer ones…

        It’s extremely easy to litanize the defects of our current process. It’s much harder for us to litanize the possible defects (especially from our own first principles and assumptions) of what we think would be an improvement on it. I believe that (ongoing) exercise would be a fundamental part of any genuine improvement.

      3. @Karl Liam Saur:
        It doesn’t matter if it was consultative or ready for use, taking this prayer out of the (Eastern) Liturgy of which it is a part, doing selective and extensive editing of it (while still calling it the prayer of St. Basil), and putting it in a trial use Missal, thereby doing the exact opposite to the Roman rite that Vatican has been instructing the Eastern Churches to do by throwing off latinizations from their rites, is deplorable. And what of ecumenical relations? There’s just so much wrong here, I can’t even.

      4. @John Kohanski:

        I may well agree with all of your objections to what historical (1985) example Paul gave. But that’s not what Paul’s comment was about. It was about consultation. And the example he gave raises questions about what we envision for consultation.

  6. One overarching hope I have is that any re-visiting of the translation would pay greater attention to its sonics.

    No need for the neologism – there’s a word denoting the sound characteristics of speech, namely phonetics.

    1. @Martin Barry:
      I understand why you think that “sonics” (in this context) is a neologism, but I use it intentionally to take it in the direction of the sounds for their own sake that goes a bit more in the direction of the ultimate connection/relation of the sonics of the texts with the sonic event of music. Of course, phonetics is a vital component of this. For example, when I was reviewing prayers in the 1998 translation, I encountered one line that had three “or” words in close proximity to each other. As a singing musician, I know how clumsy that sonic chain is to produce.

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