The authority of spoken languages. An important Vatican decree on liturgical translations

by Andrea Grillo

The day before yesterday, October 22, a  decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was approved. It comes as a detailed clarification of the content of the Motu Proprio Magnum Principium of 2017. It is a matter of reestablishing a correct relationship between different levels of ecclesial life:

  • between Latin and spoken languages,
  • between the liturgical text and episcopal conferences,
  • between episcopal conferences and Roman congregations [i.e., Vatican offices].

This document cannot be understood if we do not recall what has happened in the last twenty years: the claim to settle the conflicts of interpretation regarding the translation of liturgical texts with a unilaterally deductive logic. Seeing spoken languages ​​as translations from Latin and the skills of the bishops as irrelevant to the Congregations had led to the inevitable outcome: new translations were either blocked or, if approved, created embarrassment. This depended on a double blind spot into which we had unthinkingly slipped: the idea that in the liturgy the spoken languages were a concession. And that the true competence in every language belonged only to the Roman See. This reading, wary of modern languages because it is nostalgic for a Catholic universality identified with the Latin language, was confident that it could be faithful to tradition only on two conditions: first, that Latin remained the language of experience, and second, that Rome could control the passage from Latin (on which it remains objectively strong) to any other language. By controlling the source, universality and peace seemed assured. But the design was egregiously naive and without much chance of success.

In reality, the Second Vatican Council had already understood, in an irreversible way, that things are less linear and much more complex. Let’s try to state it in a few points:

  1. The experience of faith is not lived and is no longer immediately expressed in Latin. This has been true for some centuries, but it became evident, even in Rome, from the moment when Latin is no longer anyone’s mother tongue. As a technical language, Latin has lost the symbolic and metaphorical layers that are proper to living languages. Since it is no longer spoken by children, mothers, comedians, and poets, it has departed from primary use. It can be used, but only as a technical language. But the liturgy is not a technique!
  2. This means that we experience faith first of all in languages ​​other than Latin. Which thus become the source of our expression, as well as of our experience. For this, the versions of Latin texts in modern languages ​​must not only recognize the strength of Latin as the source language, but also the strength of the languages ​​spoken as target languages.
  3. This also changes the ecclesial competences. The first competence of synthesis cannot be the Roman one, but the local one, where the synthesis between Latin and the spoken language is experienced “materno more” and “paterno sensu.” The claim to control the use of English from Rome in Australia or Kenya or New Zealand lost sight of the logic of languages ​​and of the experience of faith on the experiential and expressive level.
  4. For this reason the “authentic liturgy” can only be the faithful one. But fidelity must be carefully evaluated on three different levels, which intersect and must never allow one level to override the others. This is stated this in an exemplary way in four articles of the very recent decree (nos. 20-23). I give them here in full:

20. Can. 838, § 3 requires the Episcopal Conferences to “faithfully prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages”. The adverb faithfully implies a threefold fidelity: firstly to the original text, secondly to the particular language into which it is translated and finally to the comprehension of the text by the addressees who are introduced to the vocabulary of biblical revelation and liturgical tradition.

21. Faithfulness above all to the original text, i.e. in Latin, found in the typical liturgical books of the Roman Rite. Since this is a translation it is to be understood that the Latin text always serves as a reference point in case of doubt as to the correct meaning. Secondly, it cannot be ruled out that a version of the liturgical texts in a more widespread language already confirmed by the Apostolic See can also be used as an interpretative aid.

22. Faithfulness then to the language into which the translation is made, since each language has its own characteristics. The accuracy of the translation consists in combining respect for the character of each language while rendering “the meaning of the original Latin text … fully and faithfully”.[30]

23. Finally, fidelity to comprehension of the text on the part of the addressees and to their “spiritual needs”,[31] bearing in mind that “because the liturgical text is a ritual sign it is a means of oral communication”.[32] The work of translation also requires that attention be paid to different literary genres (presidential prayers, acclamations, hymns, monitions, etc.) as well as to the fact that there are texts intended for proclamation, for listening to, for choral recitation. It is evident that liturgical language – the terms, elements and signs – needs to be explained in catechesis in the light of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition.

This triple fidelity illustrates well the goal, which is the active participation of the people in the act of worship. In fact, the work of translation looks not only to the past, but also and above all to the future. This is emphasized very carefully in no. 13:

13. The preparation of the translation of liturgical books presupposes an evaluative framework that first of all takes into account the language,[20] its characteristics and its diffusion, with an eye to the near future of its use, beginning with its use by younger generations. The adoption of vernacular languages in the liturgy must, among other things, take into account that the fundamental criterion is the participation of the people in the liturgical celebrations and not other types of considerations, such as social issues or issues related to identity.

It is here that the role that the “magnum principium” [great principle] comes into play in guiding the work of translation. As formulated in the 2017 document, it is now stated clearly at no. 19:

  1. Indeed, “the goal of the translation of liturgical texts and of biblical texts for the Liturgy of the Word is to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord. For this purpose it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language. While fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre, nevertheless some particular terms must also be considered in the context of the entire Catholic faith because each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine”. [29]

The principle of dynamic translation indicates precisely the historical condition of the Latin language. It is a source, but it is situated. And the correlation between Latin and spoken languages ​​is not a simple operation, but a complex one, because it is not univocal, but bi-univocal. Latin allows us to understand English, but English allows us to understand Latin. To respect this complexity, an articulated regulation of different competences is needed. This is the fundamental intent of the Decree, which in a far-sighted way unlocks a situation that was paralyzed. Because the ideological reading of the last 20 years asked Latin to be what it has not been for centuries, and it asked the spoken languages not to be what they had become for centuries – places of experience and primary expression of the Paschal Mystery. That is, they have an authority that Latin must take into account. The new Decree offers in detail the administrative and structural form of this important recognition.

Andrea Grillo teaches liturgy at Sant’ Anselmo in Rome.
Reprinted in translation with permission from Munera.

 

 

14 comments

  1. “In reality, the Second Vatican Council had already understood, in an irreversible way, that things are less linear and much more complex.”

    Declaring something non-dogmatic to be “irreversible” is not an argument. It’s an ipse dixit declaration that doesn’t remotely hold up against historical criticism. Was Lateran IV “irreversible” in its prudential judgments? Is the Bologna School of Vatican II interpretation the only valid one, and are its conclusions about that council consequently “irreversible”?

    These questions don’t go away simply by gratis assertion to the contrary. And no number of repetitions of the adjective “irreversible” renders the growing herd of elephants in the hermeneutical chamber suddenly invisible.

    1. Oh, I think there is a sense in which it is irreversible – but it would require a whole post, or more likely, a whole book, to lay out what that does and doesn’t mean; what sorts of future changes, and in some cases perhaps small reversals, would fit within the irreversible larger forward momentum; in what unique sense Vatican II is “pastoral” unlike past Councils, above and beyond its non-dogmatic character, which gives it irreversible authority in a comprehensive way, and so forth.

      But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a future pope will reverse every liturgical change since 1900 (such as Pius X’s complete upending of the Office psalm distribution, and Pius XII’s massive reform of Holy Week, etc.) If so, then Jonathan Day’s post will have raised important questions for those who support reverting to 1900!

      awr

    2. I think it’s important we widen the discernment beyond just liturgy. Liturgy is a wonderful expression of faith, but foremost it is but one tool in the kit for a greater purpose (see Matthew 28:16-20). One can indeed speak the Gospel, the Good News in Latin or in any sacred ritual language of choice. But the desired end result must take into account the reality of the people who are listening and communicating in a vernacular language.

      We liturgists, and I certainly include myself, simply have to get out of these d***ed silos and come to grips that we serve as part of a team effort, a communion if you will, that must have a singular focus of preaching the Gospel to the churched and unchurched. For the former, continuing conversion. For the latter, however we can reach modern people. Even if it means sacrificing precious experiences of what worked well for us in the past.

      If we were ever to achieve a worldwide conversion to Christ, I could envision a future pattern of more stasis in worship. Though there are more Christians and Catholics today than at any time in human history, the reality is also that there are also many more non-Christians. We have to face the reality that the Tridentine reforms short-changed the missionary efforts of 1570-1962, letting colonialism run riot in place of inculturation of worship. They continue to hamper and hobble us today. The task before us is not some silly, peripheral reform of a reform. It is a continuing reform, much like the continuing conversion we are calling others and ourselves to engage.

      We are not likely ever to reverse to 1900. The Church didn’t get the diagnosis right then. And we aren’t better off today.

  2. what IS irreversible is Grillo’s analysis, and the conclusions that follow; for example,:

    “The experience of faith is not lived and is no longer immediately expressed in Latin. This has been true for some centuries, but it became evident, even in Rome, from the moment when Latin is no longer anyone’s mother tongue. As a technical language, Latin has lost the symbolic and metaphorical layers that are proper to living languages. Since it is no longer spoken by children, mothers, comedians, and poets, it has departed from primary use. It can be used, but only as a technical language. But the liturgy is not a technique!” Etc.

    All of this is settled. Moreover, the claim that Latin as a “universal” language and so appropriate to a universal Church is likewise not true: Latin is understood by a tiny minority of people worldwide. Everywhere–universally– it’s a specialist’s language limited to the few, and even for them, can’t carry the full lived richness of their own mother tongue. Language doesn’t just mediate our thoughts and experience and memories: it IS all of that, or anyway is always bound up with it.

    Latin is beautiful, and I love Latin chant. But for me, an entire Mass in Latin is like looking at the proceedings through the bars of a grill. It has the effect of turning me into a spectator. Exactly what Vatican 2 was attempting to remedy.

    1. Grillo may have no tolerance for the very concept of sacral languages, but neither Veterum Sapientia nor Sacrosanctum Concilium (not to mention several other ecclesiastical documents from recent decades) agree with him.

      It is interesting (though not surprising) to note though that barely three months after Traditionis Custodes (a clearly Grillian enterprise), the mask is off on the fond hope of any encouragement for the use of the Pauline books in Latin.

      1. I have always thought the concept of a sacral language came very close to a magical understanding of the liturgy.

      2. Yes, Michael, it can be that, and perhaps the old liturgy gave that magical impression – I don’t know.

        The question is, what is sacred? what is sacral? I’m told that the original meaning of sacred is “set apart for worship” and “suited to worship ritual.” It’s not an intrinsic, aesthetic category, although the temptation is always there to use it in that pre-Christian and extra-Christian manner. The liturgical reform makes clear that what is truly sacral is what draws a community into a ritual – what allows a community to be the Body of Christ, to act as the corporate liturgical agent, as the means of their sanctification.

        This understanding by no means excludes Latin. And in principle it leaves open whether the vernacular (English) should be more elevated or more accessible or more whatever. The ritual function of language, its psychological and social and spiritual effect upon real people, is a rich and complex question. I feel that we as a church are stilling learning on this issue.

        awr

      3. Where do you see Grillo expressing “no tolerance for the very concept of sacral languages”?

  3. My impression of the magical quality goes back to my younger years when the first mostly English Ritual came out. The rite would be moving along in the vernacular; but, when the crucial formula arrived, they were still in Latin–that could then be repeated in the vernacular. As you mentioned, the question is complex, but the concept of a “sacral language” suffers when it has been used to justify such a macaronic practice.

  4. English words mean what English-speaking people understand them to mean, not what Italian or Spanish-speaking prelates in Rome say they mean.

  5. Pauline books? I can only assume this means the reformed liturgy in its Latin text. Surely not the Apostle’s Greek!

  6. I love the fact that Grillo says Latin allows us to understand English, but English allows us to understand Latin.

    It reminds me of the GIRM debacle in 2000, chronicled at https://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2010/07/19/how-we-got-the-current-girm/, in which it was quite apparent that the Latin skills of those working for CDW at the time were sadly lacking. They couldn’t see the manifest errors in the Latin document until they had the English text in front of them.

    One prominent member of Vox Clara, sometimes known as “the immensity of his majesty”, even published an article in his diocesan newspaper welcoming his new bishop with the headline Habemus Episcopam….

    1. I was staying in Rome once at the English College. One morning at breakfast there came into the Refectory an English Bishop who had just arrived for a ‘Vox Clara’ meeting. Seeing me and knowing I knew something about liturgy, he asked me if I had any idea what ‘Vox Clara’ was. He confessed to having no inkling of why he in particular had been summoned to the meeting as he had no particular liturgical or linguistic competence.

      As for ‘Episcopam’ – I couldn’t possibly comment.

      I just love the phrase ‘the immensity of your majesty’ (Preface of Christ the King). For me it has such amusing resonances. As he was getting into his carriage, Cardinal Wiseman was greeted by an old Irish woman outside his London house with the words ‘Good day, your Immense.’ He was indeed very fat, but maybe the lady just slipped her tongue. Or I think of the Prince Regent, George IV, who was also obese: as someone once described him in a satirical cartoon, ‘A voluptuary suffering the horrors of indigestion.’

      The phrase from Gilbert and Sullivan ‘a source of innocent merriment’ for me aptly describes the current English Roman Missal.

      AG

  7. “The adverb faithfully implies a threefold fidelity: firstly to the original text, secondly to the particular language into which it is translated and finally to the comprehension of the text by the addressees who are introduced to the vocabulary of biblical revelation and liturgical tradition.”

    So sensible! Where was this thinking 20 years ago?!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *