Faithful Translation: More on Francis’s motu proprio on translation

Today is the fifty-fifth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and it is the day in the liturgical calendar when the Church honors Pope Saint John XXIII. A blessed feast and anniversary to all!

In the matter of the ongoing renewal of the liturgy according to the hopes of the Council, Pope Francis has played an increasingly important role in our time. His motu proprio on translation, Magnum principium, was released in September and came into effect on October 1, but we are still figuring out what it all means.

Today Commonweal published an article I wrote, discussing the contents of Francis’s motu proprio. In it I argue that the portions of the motu proprio concerning translation itself, and not only those concerning the question of the oversight of the bishops, merit close attention.

Pope Francis, I believe, has provided us with a recalibrated vision of what it means to speak of a “faithful” translation. He “touches on many of the neuralgic issues of the ‘translation wars’ and reframes our understanding of them. He did not merely move around the players. He has spoken helpfully about the task.”

A significant part of his motu proprio draws upon the 1969 instruction on translation of liturgical texts approved by Blessed Paul VI, which is commonly known as Comme le prévoit. A study of the two texts (Magnum principium and Comme le prévoit) yields some surprising convergences.

I am happy to share the link to this article with our readers at Pray Tell, and to invite your comments and discussion. The German bishops recently announced that they would be studying the motu proprio before taking any steps to move future translations forward. One can only hope that our English-speaking bishops will do the same.


  1. I am not holding my breath, as it seems there’s a significant body of American bishops who are just trying to wait this papacy out.

  2. The secretary for the Congregation for Divine Worship, Archbishop Arthur Roche, in an official comment released with the text, wrote that the new wording of Canon 838.3 (the canon concerning the role of bishops’ conferences) “clarifies that the translations must be completed fideliter according to the original texts, thus acknowledging the principal preoccupation of the Instruction Liturgiam authenticam.” But this gives Liturgiam authenticam too much credit; it never uses the word “faithfully” (fideliter), not even once, in all its one hundred and thirty-three paragraphs. It is from Comme le prévoit.

    This quote from your Commonweal article is flat out wrong, as the most basic Ctrl+F text search of the Latin text of LA would have shown you, had you bothered to do one:

    Ut tantum patrimonium tantaeque divitiae serventur et per saecula transmittantur, ad principium in primis attendatur versionem textuum liturgicorum Liturgiae romanae opus esse non tam artificii quam potius textus primigenios in linguam popularem fideliter et accurate reddendi. (LA 20; see also 21, 31b, 42, 73, 80)

    (English: “In order that such a rich patrimony may be preserved and passed on through the centuries, it is to be kept in mind from the beginning that the translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman Liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language.”)

    1. Dear Matthew,

      Good eye! Thanks for catching this. I will leave it to Rita Ferrone to reply further to you and to deal with emending the article or not.

      It’s important to get the details right. In this case, however, I think this error in detail does not affect Rita’s larger argument – that Comme le prevoit is substantially the inspiration for key parts of the recent motu proprio. I suppose it does clarify, though, how the pope is also picking up a concern from Liturgiam authenticam.


  3. Matthew, I can’t really mistake your tone here: “flat out wrong” shows you are pretty angry. Sorry it strikes you that way. I really am. Because LA was written in English and then translated into Latin, no, it didn’t occur to me that what did not appear in English would occur in the Latin, so I did not do a search for the Latin text. Thanks for pointing this out. That reference may indeed be what Archbishop Roche was thinking about. Still, I think he gives LA too much credit. LA’s preoccupation is with exactitude and accuracy. CLP’s is with fidelity in the broader sense that Francis uses.

    1. Rita: But “faithfully” appears in both the Latin and English of LA, as I quoted above! (The English translation is straight from the Vatican website.)

      I’m not particularly angry, just disappointed that it didn’t occur to you (or any of the editorial team at Commonweal for that matter) to check whether the claim that underpins half of your article’s argument was in any way accurate. Even more so because in this instance such a check would have been so easy to do! One could perhaps infer from all this that a particular faction’s animus towards LA, and insistence on reading the Pope’s recent motu proprio through the lens of this animus, has gotten the better of everyone concerned.

      1. Thanks so much for your help, Matthew. I do appreciate it. I’ve updated the line in the original article, so as not to sow further confusion or distract from the point I was trying to make.

        What Christopher says is quite correct: the question of what constitutes a “faithful” translation is precisely the preoccupation of CLP. LA is far more concerned with producing an exact rendering of Latin into English. That’s the point.

        By making the claims of CLP his own, and raising them, as Jim noted, to a higher level, Francis has enlarged beyond LA how we must understand what “fidelity” means: it is more than word for word accuracy. It must take into account pastoral values, and protect the integrity of the receptor language.

    2. So “fideliter” occurs in LA 4 times (I just checked); griping about Rita’s missing this is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. It doesn’t diminish the point of her perceptive article, which is that MP turns the heart of CP (a document of unclear canonical status) into a pontifical act in its understanding of “fideliter” as referring to “the whole communicative act”, whereas LA understands it as requiring a word-for-word crib. As well, it amused me to notice that when MP 7 quotes CLP 6, it omits the “faithfully” of its source, which doesn’t of course mean that it isn’t concerned with “faithful” translations!

  4. I believe Comme le prevoit was a guideline issued by the post -Vatican II Consilium. As a matter of legal “weight”, I would think that, by incorporating these principles from CLP into this exercise of papal teaching authority, Francis has actually elevated those CLP’s principles and enshrined them as part of magisterial teaching. So I would expect that, from a legal point of view, if those with teaching authority determine to supersede these principles sometime in the future, the bar has been set higher.

  5. I suspect we will have a more definitive answer when the probable replacement of Liturgiam authenticam appears. Most likely it will be somewhere between LA and Comme le prevoit on the translation spectrum and perhaps will emphasis the role of the Bishop’s conference in choosing how to prioritize translation principles for their terrorities.

    Pope Francis would probably have no issue approving a translation done either in the style of LA, CLP or somewhere else on the spectrum. So the real question is what do the Bishops want. How many are extremely devoted to LA and how many are in the line of a Wilton Gregory? Or how many have their own unique philosophy. I would love to be a fly on the wall in the upcoming November meeting. I suspect like Liam that it will either be continue with the current translation philospy or minor course corrections.

    1. Re: fly on the wall: the bishops have live-streamed portions of their conferences, so you might be able to tune in. I’ve never blocked off time to watch the proceedings, but I recall reading a transcript of a previous debate in which they considered liturgical translation; it reminded me of the wisdom of the advice not to watch how the sausage is made. If this meeting is true to form, the translation will be just one of several/many topics to be considered and discussed over the course of a few days, and the level of interest (and competence) in translation varies pretty widely among the bishops.

      1. Hahah, I am sorry. I meant the private discussions among bishops, especially those trying to convert one of the more undecided or conflicted prelates.

    2. Devin, I think you are exactly right, and there will be a changed position — with a new space staked out somewhere between the two instructions, combining the best of both.

      At least that’s what I hope will happen!

      1. I don’t know how you could find a middle ground between “dynamic” and “literal” equivalence; if you can do that you can solve the whole problem of fundamentalism which seems to be contaminating many aspects of society. It seems like too much of a binary issue; I don’t know if compromise is possible not only due to human factors, but also due to the philological and philosophical issues involved.

      2. Allen, thanks for your comment. You raise a good question. Is there a middle ground? I think there is in translation theory always the option to use more than one approach within long texts such as these. The question is political: whether the literalist party will accept any deviation from word-for-word. The 1998 translation attempted to find middle ground, as the bishops had asked for a translation that would capture more of the richness of the Latin original without loss of idiomatic English fluency. The compromise that was reached was quite decent. Less “free translation;” more “phrase by phrase” than “word by word;” a salutary emphasis on fidelity as meaning-transmission, yet still respecting unique vocabulary. It earned canonical approval of all the English speaking conferences. As we all know, it was not approved by Rome because a few conservative prelates went to Rome to complain. Politics derailed it, not the incompatibility of theory.

  6. My very minor quibble with Rita’s splendid article is that it seems to give Liturgiam Authenticam credit for “accuracy”. Applying the principles of LA gives neither smooth, effective vernacular translations nor accurate renderings.

    I have used a similar example before: if I translate the French sentence:

    J’ai accepté à assister à un spectacle de théâtre avec quelques convives sympathiques; nous avons passé une bonne soirée.


    I have accepted to assist at a spectacle of the theatre with several sympathetic guests; we have passed a good soiree.

    … it seems to me that this complies with the letter and spirit of a number of paragraphs of LA, e.g. §§ 20 and 27.

    But it is neither faithful nor “accurate”.

    1. Ha! Thank you, Jonathan. I accept the correction. I find it hard to find a neutral word for what LA does.

    2. If one were to assume that the authors of LA intended it to be implemented with greatest incompetence by translators who would intentionally pass over good, basic dictionary options in favor of obviously inapt ones, then I suppose your version would be faithful and accurate on its terms. But since, e.g., assister à qqch means, literally translated, “to attend/watch something,” do you honestly believe that LA means for that dictionary entry to be ignored in favor of the less apt “assist”? I find your characterization similarly unfair to claiming that CLP would expect this result from the French: “Caught a show with some chill peeps; night was mega.”

      If we are to assume good faith on the part of all, then the translation debate is not about one group deciding that fidelity should be jettisoned in favor of equivalence. The debate is, instead, about what degree of dynamism or equivalence most readily yields a faithful vernacular version. I think Rita has done good work in highlighting the incorporation of CLP into MP, but I also don’t think proponents of LA would understand her citations, particularly of MP 7/CLP 6, as opposing their school in any way. After all, LA was considered by them to be necessary precisely because they didn’t believe previous translation had conveyed “all that the Church intended to communicate” or respected that the “context of the whole communicative act” was a liturgical one.

      Too many operate under the assumption that CLP and LA *must* stake out space at opposite *extremes* of a translation spectrum. A new document drawing on both could resolve much tension, but without that new document it should still be possible to support either existing document in a centrist way that invites other voices into the translation conversation rather than lampooning them.

      1. Aaron, I respect your call for moderation and the assumption of good faith. Unfortunately, important parts of the current translation do read like the school French parody from my comment. Some of the prefaces are especially horrible. Phrases like “as with one voice we acclaim”, or “confess your resurrection” immediately come to mind; or “…you will that our self-denial should give you thanks”. A scan through back pages of Pray Tell will yield many examples of translation howlers.

        And on “assist”, why do so many traditionalists — I’m not saying you fall into this group — continue to speak of “assisting at Mass”, as though that mistranslation is somehow more pious or “more traditonal”? Thomas Merton, on entering monastic life in 1941, wrote that “… it is one of the tiresome minor details of all religious life today that one must receive a large proportion of spiritual nourishment dished up in the unseasoned jargon of transliterated French.”

        Yet that seems to be where some wish to remain.

        Presumably the translators interpreted LA as calling for the English syntax to match the Latin wherever possible — an elementary schoolchild mistake — or for the Latinate terms to be rendered in transliterated English, perhaps because doing so sounds more “sacral”.

        Or you could conclude that the translators were simply incompetent.

    1. Hi Ryan –
      I wish Cardinal Sarah would read Rita Ferrone’s post! I wonder if he realizes that Magnum Principium draws heavily on Comme Le Prvoit, rather than Liturgiam Authenticam.
      I hope to post soon on the widening gap between Sarah and Pope Francis.

      1. I find Crd Sarah’s “not so fast” reaction to MP and that LA is still in fact in effect and will be “imposed” on any translations interesting! Did he think the pope wrote MP just for the fun of it? And if Rome is going to impose LA on any transalation a conference would do why would they bother if Rome is going to change it anyway?

      2. MP can draw heavily from any source it wants to. Unless it changes the governing principles of translation, though, wishing it did so does not make it so. All it did was give the confirmatio to the Bishops’ Conference. Full stop.

        In the future, I would not be at all surprised if the left wing which produced MP also replaced or altered LA. But that didn’t happen here and we should not pretend it did.

      3. Ryan,

        I see your point. I hope it’s not one boomerang effect after another, with translation jerking back and forth in successive papacies.

        I’m hopeful it won’t be that. I think we all have to start thinking about the high ground that might unite us all, with texts that are broadly “accurate,” beautiful, worthy, inspiring, and good English whether original texts or based on Latin. I’m hopeful that we’ll never go back to 1974-type English texts, and that we’ll not lose all the good we gained with the 1998, 2008, and 2011 attempts at translation.

        After all this rigamarole, the Christian must hope that something good awaits us all.


    2. Hi Ryan,

      The confirmatio is what the Holy See gives, not the conferences.

      The “left wing which produced MP”? Oh, you mean Pope Francis.

  7. Of course, it’s at least debatable that the translation we have now, seasoned so liberally with unilaterally imposed retranslations of what was produced and submitted by ICEL and the English-speaking bishops, is more than distantly related to the principles of translation put forth by LA. Rita’s article is helpful in teasing out that the motu proprio accomplished at least two separate good things: decreeing *how* the texts should be translated, and *who* should be doing the translating. Vox Clara seemingly isn’t the answer to either of those questions.

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