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About-face on liturgical language

NCR Staff

In the late 1960s, Pope Paul VI personally edited a document setting out principles for translating Latin texts for the church’s public worship into the various modern languages. The pope saw translation as a key element of the liturgical reform launched at Vatican II. In a 1965 address, he said that the vernacular languages would become “the voice of the church” in prayer.

In recent months and without great fanfare, the Vatican has pursued what appears to be virtually a point-for-point reversal of the principles laid out in that document. To some observers, this shift is among the clearest examples of one of the hallmarks of John Paul’s papacy -- redefining the legacy of Vatican II by reorienting some of its core initiatives.

The document, officially issued in January 1969, is titled Comme le prévoit. Its history -- especially the English-language version -- is disputed, but most observers agree that it expresses a consensus shared by Vatican officials, bishops and professional liturgists in the period immediately after the council.

The contrast between its contents and the instructions now emanating from Rome suggests the sea change underway:

  • Where Comme le prévoit envisioned that bishops’ conferences sharing a common language would be responsible for international translation commissions, today the Vatican claims a supervisory role over these commissions;
  • Where Comme le prévoit said whole passages rather than individual words are the “units of meaning” translators should consider -- and that sometimes a paraphrase may be most faithful to the original meaning -- the Vatican now insists upon a meticulous word-for-word approach;
  • Where Comme le prévoit said that making prayers come alive in oral proclamation can be a higher aim than verbal fidelity, the Vatican now rejects translations precisely because they are insufficiently tethered to the Latin original;
  • Where Comme le prévoit held that each member of the assembly should be able to find himself or herself in its prayer -- a passage interpreted to support “inclusive language” or gender-neutral terms where consistent with the meaning of the text -- the Vatican now harbors deep doubts about inclusive language;
  • Where Comme le prévoit envisioned that the work of translation commissions would be published ahead of official approval in order to permit experimentation, the Vatican now insists that nothing be published without its permission;
  • Where Comme le prévoit said that translation from Latin would need to be supplemented by the creation of new texts in the modern languages, the Vatican now wants translation commissions barred from developing original texts.

The Vatican’s new positions have not yet been presented in a formal statement of translation principles, though work on such a document is said to be underway. But the principles can be gleaned from several recent texts: a December 1997 letter and set of observations rejecting a new translation of the rite for ordination; an extensive set of changes, issued at the same time, to a translation of the introduction of the lectionary, a collection of scripture readings for the Mass; and most recently, an Oct. 26, 1999, letter demanding structural changes in the commission that has been responsible for translation of liturgical texts into English since Vatican II (NCR, Dec. 24, 1999).

These disciplinary measures built on earlier hints from Rome that the principles embodied in Comme le prévoit were no longer in force. John Paul II issued an apostolic letter on the liturgy in 1988, calling for reflection on how translations have been accomplished. In 1996, the secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship said Comme le prévoit stemmed from the first period of liturgical reform and there was a need for “clarifications.”

Point-by-point contradiction

In some cases, the Vatican is now taking positions that contradict the terms of Comme le prévoit in almost word-for-word fashion. The English edition of the 1969 document, for example, cautioned against “the routine addition of sanctus or beatus to a saint’s name.” Yet in its observations on the ordination rite, the Vatican cites these very omissions as part of the basis for rejection.

“When the Latin speaks of … ‘Saint Peter’ or ‘Blessed Peter’ ... and so on, these expressions should be translated exactly into English. ... The effect of such omissions is a secularization of the tone of the liturgical book and it constitutes a departure from tradition,” the observations said.

While Comme le prévoit advised against routine repetition of sacral adjectives, the 1997 Vatican response to the lectionary introduction insisted that the Latin sacra scriptura must always be translated as “sacred scripture,” never just as “scripture.”

Similarly, Comme le prévoit suggests that phrases of approach to God adopted from the monarchical courts of Byzantium and Rome may not be useful in contemporary English. “Understatement in English is sometimes the more effective means of emphasis,” it said. Among such terms specifically mentioned is quaesumus, Latin for “we implore.”

Yet in the comments on the ordination rite, Vatican officials criticized precisely the absence of this term. “A particularly serious case is the omission of terms of imploration or beseeching, such as suppliciter and quaesumus, or of concession, granting, such as the parts of dignor,” the observations said. “This alters the expression given in the liturgical texts of the relative positions of God and his people.”

Comme le prévoit also instructs translators to avoid technical terms in the liturgy. The goal should rather be “infusing a Christian meaning into common words,” the document said.

Yet in the more than 400 changes the Vatican made to the introduction to the lectionary, or collection of scripture readings in the Mass, were several instances of restoring technical language. For example, translators had used the word lectern rather than ambo to describe the place from which scripture is proclaimed, a decision rejected by Vatican evaluators.

Where the commission had used the word teaching, the Vatican insisted upon doctrine.

In other cases, reversals occur on the level of philosophy. Comme le prévoit, for example, anticipated that translation would lead to original texts. “Texts translated from another language are clearly not sufficient for the celebration of a fully renewed liturgy,” the document said.

“Translation of texts transmitted through the tradition of the church is the best school and discipline for the creation of new texts.”

Nevertheless, the Oct. 26 letter from Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, asserts that creating new texts is outside the authority of translation bodies.

“For some years now, this dicastery has expressed its misgivings about the use of resources for activities not concerned with translation, including the composition of original texts, which in fact are not [the commission’s] province,” Medina said.

Reversal of philosophy

Taken cumulatively, the new Vatican approach amounts to a “clear reversal” of the vision of Comme le prévoit, according to Msgr. Fred McManus, former chief of staff for the U.S. bishops’ committee on liturgy and a long-time adviser to the International Commission on English in the Liturgy -- a translation body over which Rome is now demanding more control.

“It is a reversal both in terms of the level of scrutiny Rome now seems to envisage and in terms of the philosophy of translation,” McManus said.

McManus, a peritus or theological expert on liturgy at Vatican II, was present when the commission was created.

This new level of scrutiny was especially clear in Rome’s response to the lectionary introduction, where many of the 400-plus changes it requested were seemingly minor matters of sequence or word choice. Where the commission had rendered totius vero scripturae as “of all the scripture,” for example, the Vatican instead wanted “of the whole of scripture.” Where recollectionem impediat was translated as “hinders reflectiveness,” the Vatican wanted “hinders recollection.”

Fr. Gilbert Ostdiek, a professor of liturgy at the Chicago Theological Union and a frequent adviser to the commission, said another element of Comme le prévoit now seemingly downplayed by the Vatican is its emphasis on the unique requirements of spoken English.

“When people come with more narrow concerns for literal fidelity and theological precision, little attention is paid to the quality of public proclamation,” Ostdiek said. Comme le prévoit was produced by the Consilium, a body created by Paul VI to guide the liturgical reform called for by Vatican II. One of the cornerstones of that reform was the transition from celebrating the Mass and other sacraments in Latin to the vernacular languages.

In 1965, during the final session of the council, the Consilium organized a conference at the Vatican to discuss translation. Participants in the conference agreed on the need for a statement of principles to guide the work of translators, and the Consilium formed a task force to produce such a statement.

The result was Comme le prévoit (like other church documents, the title is taken from the first few words, “as it anticipated”). Because the French version of the document was the one published by the Consilium in its official notices, the document is often referred to by its French title.

The document was familiar only to a handful of liturgists and curial officials until the mid-1990s, when American critics of the International Commission on English in Liturgy began to organize in earnest. In its defense, the commission included a copy of Comme le prévoit in materials sent to the U.S. bishops in preparation for their November 1993 meeting. That act, in tandem with a general climate of heightened scrutiny over translation issues, prompted a number of critics to revisit the document.

Among them was Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, who published a critique in the November 1993 issue of Catholic World Report. Fessio argued that the English version of the French text of Comme le prévoit was either mistranslated or deliberately altered at key points, rendering it far more favorable to paraphrase and creativity on the part of translators than was intended.

Noting that personnel from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy were asked to help prepare the English translation of Comme le prévoit, Fessio suggested that “competent scholars who do not have a vested interest” should carry out a new analysis of the French version.

Ostdiek says such criticism misreads the document’s history. “The French version is not the original,” Ostdiek said. “The document was simultaneously approved in the various modern languages, all with the same protocol number,” Ostdiek said. “The English is just as official as the French.”

McManus said that translators in the various languages were asked by the Consilium to supply examples of the document’s general principles, so that in certain passages the versions differ. “But it was Rome that sent the document to the bishops [in 1969], not the commission,” McManus said. “There was never any doubt that the English version was authentic.”

The mind of the Holy See

McManus noted that because Comme le prévoit was not promulgated in a canonical sense, it was never intended to have the force of law. What it reflected, he said, was the mind of the Holy See along with the various bishops and translators working to implement the council’s liturgical vision.

Other critics point out that Comme le prévoit was published without a notice that frequently accompanies curial documents stating that the pope has approved the text. McManus, however, said that Paul VI studied Comme le prévoit closely, even editing it himself at key points (he worked from the Italian version).

“He noticed that in the first few paragraphs the document says there will be a need to revise translations in the vernacular as time goes on, so when he saw that statement again in the last paragraph, he cut it out,” McManus said. Ironically, that left Comme le prévoit ending with a paragraph calling for the production of original texts.

“One Roman official said that Paul VI studied no document more closely than this one,” McManus said.

Overall, supporters say that Comme le prévoit gave the commission a mandate to adjust texts to make them come alive in English-language settings -- to paraphrase where necessary in order to get the meaning right, as opposed to the exact sentence structure or wording.

Taking this sort of liberty with the Latin now seems to be at the heart of the Vatican’s complaint.

“Increasingly, the commission’s texts paraphrase or redraft the [Latin originals], while revising the rubrics so extensively as to impede effective recourse to the Latin text for the sake of clarification. In fact, the texts and the rubrics have sometimes been altered in substance without prior authorization from the Holy See,” said the Oct. 26 letter.

Sources told NCR that a new instruction on translation principles is being prepared by the Vatican. This document is likely to reflect norms concerning scriptural translation issued in the mid-1990s, which rejected some uses of inclusive language and called for greater verbal fidelity (NCR, July 4, 1997).

The U.S. bishops are also discussing translation principles (they adopted a policy on inclusive language in scripture translations for the liturgy in 1990). A forum on translation was held in November 1998, but there are no plans for a new document.

Click here for the full text of Comme le prévoit is available on the NCR Website under Documents.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000