An Issue for Future Liturgical Translation (I): Correcting Already-Approved Mistranslations

Pope Francis’ recent letter, Magnum Principium, has revived the debate about the quality and direction of vernacular liturgical translations, as well as the role of territorial bishops’ conferences in approving such translations for their dioceses. Presumably, the prescriptions of this motu proprio letter apply for the future and do not immediately call into question vernacular translations of liturgical texts that have already been promulgated. I would like to raise an issue for future work in the area of liturgical translation: how does a territorial bishops’ conference identify and correct mistranslations that appear in texts that have already been approved for use by the conference and confirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments? I am not here speaking of differences of opinion about how the underlying Latin might be translated, but of clear mistakes in the construal of the meaning of the text.

For example, the post-Communion prayer for the First Sunday of Advent reads in Latin:

Prosint nobis, quaesumus Domine, frequentata mysteria, quibus nos, inter praetereuntia ambulantes, iam nunc instituis amare caelestia et inhaerere mansuris. Per Christum.

The presently approved English translation reads:

May these mysteries, O Lord, in which we have participated, profit us, we pray, for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures. Through Christ our Lord.

My slavishly literal translation would be:

May the mysteries we have attended be to our advantage, we pray, O Lord, by which [mysteries] now already you instruct us, walking amidst passing things, to love heavenly things and to cling to enduring things. Through Christ.

According to standard English usage, the antecedent of a pronoun is normally that word or phrase that is nearest in the unfolding of the sentence. Thus the approved English translation holds that God teaches us “to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures” by means of “passing things.” In fact, the Latin states that God teaches us “to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures” by means of the “mysteries…in which we have participated.”

Another example occurs in the Collect for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The Latin text reads:

Deus Pater, qui, Verbum veritatis et Spiritum sanctificationis mittens in mundum, admirabile mysterium tuum hominibus declarasti, da nobis, in confessione verae fidei, aeternae gloriam Trinitatis agnoscere et Unitatem adorare in potentia maiestatis. Per Christum.

The presently approved English translation reads:

God our Father, who by sending into the world / the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification / made known to the human race your wondrous mystery, / grant us, we pray, that in professing the true faith, / we may acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory / and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty.

I now quote Fr. Anscar Chupungco’s masterful treatment of this mistranslation in his The Prayers of the New Missal: A Homiletic and Catechetical Companion (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2013) 94-95:

“The following is a literal translation of the Latin Collect:

God the Father, who by sending into the world / the Word of truth and the Spirit of sanctification / revealed to the human race your wondrous mystery, / grant us, in the confession of the true faith, / to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and to adore the Unity in the power of majesty.

It should be pointed out that the Latin text does not say “acknowledge the Trinity of eternal glory” but “acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity.” The object of the verb agnoscere (to acknowledge) is the glory of the Trinity, [it is] the Trinity whom we adore, not merely acknowledge….

Somewhat more disturbing from a theological standpoint is the second petition “and adore your Unity, powerful in majesty.” How is the Latin text formulated? First of all it has no possessive pronoun (your). The insertion of “your” is what causes the problem in the English translation. The Latin text simply states, “adore the Unity in the power of majesty.”

It is useful to remember that the one addressed in this prayer is God the Father, not the holy Trinity…. As the English version stands, we are given the wrong impression that we adore the Unity of God the Father. This is certainly not an insignificant theological issue. The passage is inaccurate and should be rectified by deleting the possessive pronoun “your.”…

When we explain the Collect of the Holy Trinity, it might help to remember what these statements mean. We adore the Godhead in a Trinity of Persons; we adore the same Godhead in the Unity of the three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Fr. Chupungco’s helpful book lists and comments on a significant number of other mistranslations.

What process might be developed to correct these mistranslations when they are caught? At the very least we should acknowledge that there are mistranslations in the present English edition of the Roman Missal. Perhaps ICEL or Vox Clara could be asked to compile a list of such mistranslations with proposed corrections and a rationale. (Some might object that since the present mistranslations were created under ICEL’s and Vox Clara’s watch, they might not be in the best position to recognize and correct mistranslations.) Perhaps the Secretariat of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship might be directed to compile such a list; perhaps a Catholic university or monastery with a strong liturgical studies program (e.g., the Catholic University of America, Notre Dame, St. John’s, Collegeville, St. Meinrad, Conception Abbey, etc.) might convene a group of scholars to compile such a list. Our territorial bishop’s conference could then decide whether to simply insert the corrections they have approved into future printings of the Roman Missal in English (although there might be some concern about doing so without the participation of other English-speaking bishops’ conferences) or begin the process of a full-scale retranslation of the Roman Missal (perhaps re-visiting and updating the previously approved 1998 translation).

I hope to address another issue for future liturgical translation in the near future.


  1. Good questions and idea. Solid support from the pews, theologically and in the beautification of the clumsy…

  2. Some excellent ideas here, Michael.
    Ah, how we need Xavier Rindfleisch (may he rest in peace!).

    Seriously, a lot of his work is archived here at Pray Tell.

    Two of my particular gripes (other than Advent I’s well known Post Communion) are

    ‘ we acclaim’ in the conclusion of most of the prefaces to translate ‘clamantes’ – and ‘without end, we/they acclaim’ to translate ‘sine fine dicentes’.
    In English, one can only acclaim someone as something, but one can proclaim or exclaim words.

    ‘merit’ for ‘mereor’ in so many of the prayers. To my mind merit carries too many connotations of that which is achieved by our own efforts, of merit marks at school, etc., , and a better translation of ‘mereamur’ than ‘we may merit’ would be ‘we may be found worthy’

    1. probably ‘mereor’ needs to be translated differently according to context. It can mean ‘be worthy’ or it can mean to receive something as a reward or wage (stipendium mereri). Certainly the use of ‘merit’ as a verb sounds odd these days. This isn’t just me. It’s what I get from parishioners, some of whom at least do listen !

      Also, I’d second the call for the work of Xavier Rindfleisch to be revisited.


  3. Recently writing a series in Japanese for the local diocesan Liturgical Commission’s HP on the Collects for the Sundays and Feastdays throughout the year I struggled as I compared the Latin, the current English trans and the Japanese, so much seemed to get lost. Fr Joncas’ welcome post really only scratches the surface. His suggestions are to be welcomed and commended even though many involved with English translation work may be suffering from “translation fatigue”, and the battles that consistently ensue with the US or UK bishops, for example, and then with the Vatican. In Japan we are certainly at a peak of fatigue and Magnum Principium has been warmly welcomed.

  4. I should like to point out that, regardless of the mistranslation aspect, the meaning is entirely obscured by the sentence construction and verbosity. It is hard enough to follow when read but impossible when heard.

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