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Sacrosanctum concilium and the translation of liturgical texts What good news for the modern man

2014-02-21 L’Osservatore Romano

The provisions of the Liturgy Constitution on the use of vernacular liturgical translations produced excitement and high expectations. What did this decision really mean? Where would it lead? Who would do the translations? What would they be like? The Consilium set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Liturgy Constitution soon began to tackle some of these points. Although the energies of the Holy See were largely occupied in reformulating the Latin books, a circular letter of Cardinal Lercaro, President of the Consilium, in October 1964 already spelled out the Council’s hint (Sacrosanctum concilium, n. 36, 3) that at least in each major language, there should be a single translation of the Liturgy.

A month or so before the Council’s closure, a convention for translators was held in Rome in 1965, at which papers were read by bishops and experts. Pope Paul VI, a regular scrutiniser of the signs of the times, addressed the participants with a speech pointing to the responsibility of liturgical translators and saying famously that translations were becoming “the voice of the Church”. He also urged that while the language should be readily comprehensible, it should also “be worthy of the heavenly realities it signifies, different from the habits of everyday speech used in the streets and public places, such that it touches the mind and inflames hearts with the love of God.”

With an eye to continuity, we see in these apparently simple remarks of Pope Paul an echo of Pius XI’s defining the Liturgy as "the most important organ of the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church", but also of the Patriarch Theodore Balsamon’s insisting on “exact versions of the customary prayers”, and the Holy Office’s requirement about translations not into “vulgar but the erudite” language.

Various other points concerning translations were eventually fixed by the Consilium, but looking back to those years it is evident that as the liturgical changes gradually eventuated, so the question of proper translations came to the fore. Provisional norms for translation of the Roman Canon were sent out to the Bishops in 1967, and a few months later for the Graduale Simplex. But there were others, and it soon became evident that a set of more coordinated norms would be necessary.

A group appointed to draft these norms began work in April 1967 and the Ninth General Assembly of the Consilium in October 1968 approved a draft set of such liturgical norms, which were then sent to Pope Paul for his consideration. They were intended as a working document, without the force of law and they were drawn up in French, which in those times was generally regarded as the second language of cultured Italians and also as the second language of the Roman Curia. It is said that the Pope, who spoke elegant French, received a somewhat mediocre Italian translation to examine. In any case, he replied just before New Year 1969 to the effect that in general the norms were approved, but that he found them a bit long. By the end of the month they were published in French, with the title “Instruction” (apparently at Pope Paul’s wish). However, despite the title, the status accorded them continued to be somewhat low, and Comme le prévoit, as it was called, remained only as a document of the Consilium. In fact, the document never appeared in Latin nor was it published in the pages of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official gazette of the Holy See.

The document first sets out general principles (nos. 5-29), then treats particular cases (nos. 30-37) and concludes by discussing procedures for organization of the work (nos. 38-42). It is perspicacious in distinguishing the various genres of text, and requiring a specific translation approach for each (no. 26). It is strict in insisting on a translation of the essential sacramental formulas that is integral and faithful, without variation, omission or additions (no. 33). It maintains the principle of a single translation in each language (no. 41).

We find also in Comme le prévoitwise reminders about some of the pitfalls of translation work, such as the fact that the meaning of a single term evolves over the centuries, and the trap of ignoring how cognates in different languages have changed significance (the so-called faux-amis). It also warns of the difference between recognition by the eye of printed words on the page and spoken words captured by the ear (quite a big issue in English and French, for example).

Much of the content is entirely commendable, since in fact the document did succeed in gathering together much of the common experience of liturgical translators to that date. It aimed in large part at avoiding the imposition of a style of translation that would be more like that of the old hand-Missals of the faithful, and it made a plea for a dignified style and for traditional religious language, pointing also to the dangers of relying on schoolboy Latin and emphasising the importance of letting biblical ideas emerge.

The Instruction’s weaknesses echo in some degree the lapidary character of the provisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium. In a document like the Constitution this pithiness is deliberate. The art is to say enough, but not too much, leaving room for prudent application in ways not foreseeable at the point of departure. When these norms are put into practice, these issues are still present, but the balance is now different. This said, Comme le prévoit was a little naive, striving perhaps to be all things to all men. More fatally, it spoke if briefly of “adaptations” to be effected by translations (no. 34).

What of the aftermath? I am not sufficiently conversant with what happened in the other major European language groups to comment, but I can note features of the international English-language context into which Comme le prévoitentered and for which we can hardly impute responsibility to its redactors. It is clear to me, however, that it provided enough footholds for those who had been attracted and impressed by the very concrete example of Good News for Modern Man.

What was Good News for Modern Man, I hear you ask. Some of you may remember it. It was a translation of the New Testament that came out in 1966. I am told that in about five years, it sold some 30 million copies. They later finished the Old Testament and renamed the full Bible the Good News Bible: The Bible in Today’s English Version, and then later still the Good News Translation. It is still published. This was a sincere attempt to get across the saving message of Our Lord to people, in a Protestant perspective; leaving aside what the translators considered “formal” language. It is not the only translation of its kind, even in English. The idea in part was to provide Christians from Asia and Africa with a Bible text in English that was easier for them to understand, and it incidentally seemed to fit the bill for young people in the West whose contact with traditional Christian communities was declining. A simple text that hits home by the freshness of the message of Jesus. That was the ambition and the millions of sales attest to its influence.

The underlying philosophy, as I have stated it, clearly owes a lot to a Protestant viewpoint, and the idea that you can get rid of the middleman, especially the Church, the priesthood, and put a Christian believer in direct touch with God. A Catholic viewpoint would obviously see the Church as having an important role in transmitting not just the Bible text, but the Word of God understood as embracing also Tradition, and mediating grace in Christ by means of the sacraments. After all, the Lord himself left us no writings. The New Testament writings were produced under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, by Christian disciples, from within the Christian communities. Later on, in a long process, it was the Church who established the canon of Scriptures that defined and so limited the corpus of inspired books rejecting a large number of apocryphal gospels, epistles, acts.

We need also to bear in mind that English is a language that has itself been shaped in many particulars precisely by the contents of the Bible and that any attempt to jettison these very same elements is deeply misguided.

While this Bible translation -- or extended paraphrase -- had no formal links with the Catholic Church, it provided a popular cultural context for the interpretation of Comme le prévoit. Moreover, in English the translation of Comme le prévoit which circulated was virtually a rewrite and the result was an even looser set of guidelines than the French original. In practice, it was seen as boiling down to a simple rule, “dynamic equivalence” where unfortunately the translation was not always equivalent and even less frequently dynamic. This was a sort of shorthand for a translation approach propagated by the American Protestant academic and pastor Eugene Nida, a major figure in the world of the American Bible Societies. This school of thought used the expression “dynamic equivalence” (sometimes called “functional equivalence” or more recently “thought-for-thought”) to describe a certain kind of freer rendering of the original. The opposite approach came to be dubbed “formal equivalence” and is sometimes called simplistically “word-for-word”.

So, there we have it, Comme le prévoit. A document of somewhat uncertain status, of a provisional character, a pioneer in the way it pointed to some of the tasks and pitfalls, but based on limited experience and in the end incomplete, somewhat misleading and unsatisfactory in its results. And yet, the goal was a lofty one. In the same parting conversation with the clergy of Rome last year, Pope Benedict, describing the great gains of the Council, has this to say (and I quote): “Then there were the principles: intelligibility, instead of being locked up in an unknown language that is no longer spoken, and also active participation. Unfortunately, these principles have also been misunderstood. Intelligibility does not mean banality, because the great texts of the liturgy – even when, thanks be to God, they are spoken in our mother tongue – are not easily intelligible, they demand ongoing formation on the part of the Christian if he is to grow and enter ever more deeply into the mystery and so arrive at understanding.”

by George Pell