Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Liturgical Translations

First of all here is some background. We are told that a new translation from Latin into English of the Mass is coming soon. Latin, of course is the official language of the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. This means that the official version of all documents and prayers is the Latin version. When it was decided that the Mass was to be celebrated in the language of the people committees were set up to translate the various parts of the Mass from Latin into English. In the early 1970’s the translation that we are now familiar with has been used while the translation committee (known as ICEL) worked on an improved version. While the committee was working the Vatican made a number of pronouncements mainly to the effect that the main mandate of the committee was to produce a translation that was more faithful to the official Latin text than the current version is. Just one example of this is found in the dialogue between the priest and the congregation that leads to the Preface. The initial greeting and response in Latin is: “Dominus Vobiscum” with the congregation responding, “Et cum Spiritu tuo.” Everyone accepts the greeting of the priest as “The Lord be with you.” The ICEL translation of the response however is: “And also with you.” This translation ignores the Spiritu (Spirit) part of the response in Latin. “And with your Spirit”, is a response that is faithful to the Latin text and is used in the French, Spanish, and Italian translations.
Now the on-line edition of the Tablet magazine for the week of Feb. 5, 2007 has an article by US Bishop Donald Trautman regarding this issue. In the article Trautman, a liturgist by training, laments the new direction that is being taken in producing this translation. Trautman recognizes that our God is both transcendent and immanent and that good liturgy should recognize both aspects of God. He contends, however, that in the new translation there is an excessive emphasis on the transcendent nature of God. He also spends some time on the “pro vobis et pro multis” translation controversy where he argues that the new translation of pro multis as “for many” instead of “for all” is simply bad theology. This is in spite of the reality that the literal translation of “pro multis” is simply “for many” or possibly “for the many.”
This controversy seems to have its origins, as Trautman points out, in two different points of emphasis regarding the Eucharist. Some people feel that the Eucharistic liturgy should emphasize the reality of the heavenly liturgy, the sense of participation in a sacred event, and the transcendent nature of God. Generally these people, if they are old enough, remember the nature of the Latin Mass in the 1960’s and wish for a liturgy with more Latin and more Gregorian Chant. They loudly criticize the current liturgy and argue that the “folksy” feel of the current liturgy has been the cause of the decrease in attendance at Mass over the past 30 years or so. On the other hand people who emphasize the Eucharist as having the nature of a community banquet would prefer the liturgy to use the common language of the people, use contemporary music, and generally be more “easy going” than formal. These people would prefer a guitar to a pipe organ for liturgical music and want to emphasize the immanence of God in their liturgy.
As with many questions in Catholicism the correct answer here is not either transcendence or immanence but rather a balance of both as Trautman does actually point out. For the “conservatives” here I would like to point out that going back to a Latin liturgy is not likely going to restore the “good old days” of the 1950’s Catholic church (if those days were indeed good). It is true that the changes to the liturgy that came after Vatican II came before the long decline in attendance at Sunday Mass but the first thing did not necessarily cause the other. Many other things changed in modern culture during the same time period and they also had an impact on people’s attitudes about religion.
At the same time I have hopes for the new translation. I think that a more elegant language in the liturgy will have a positive effect. I think that we have been missing the old sense of encountering something sacred in the liturgy of the Eucharist and I hope that we can find a “ritual” language that does not sound like the English of the old King James Bible. I hope that this can be accomplished with little confusion and that the changes will bring us a more prayerful atmosphere in our liturgies.

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