GATEWAY LITURGICAL CONFERENCE
ADDRESS OF HIS EMINENCE CARDINAL FRANCIS ARINZE
St Louis, Missouri (U.S.A.)
Saturday, 11 November 2006
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7. On Translations into the Vernacular
The translation of liturgical texts from the Latin original to the various vernaculars is a very important consideration in the prayer life of the Church. It is a question, not of private prayer, but of the public prayer offered by holy Mother Church, with Christ as the Head. The Latin texts have been prepared with great care as to sound doctrine, exact wording "free from all ideological influence and otherwise endowed with those qualities by which the sacred mysteries of salvation and the indefectible faith of the Church are efficaciously transmitted by means of human language to prayer, and worthy worship is offered to God the Most High" (Liturgiam Authenticam, n. 3).
The words used in the sacred liturgy manifest the faith of the Church and are guided by it. The Church, therefore, needs great care in directing, preparing and approving translations, so that not even one unsuitable word will be smuggled into the liturgy by an individual who may have a personal agenda, or who may simply not be aware of the seriousness of the rites.
Translations should, therefore, be faithful to the original Latin text. They should not be free compositions. As Liturgiam Authenticam, the major Holy See Document that gives directives on translations, insists: "The translation of the liturgical texts of the Roman Liturgy is not so much a work of creative innovation as it is of rendering the original texts faithfully and accurately into the vernacular language" (n. 20).
The genius of the Latin Rite should be respected. The triple repetition is one of its characteristics. Examples are "mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa"; "Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison"; "Agnus Dei qui tollis...", three times. A close study of the "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" also shows "triplets". Translations should neither kill nor flatten out such a characteristic.
The Latin liturgy expresses not only facts but also our feelings, our sentiments, for example, in front of God's transcendence, majesty, mercy and boundless love (cf. Liturgiam Authenticam, n. 25). Expressions like "Te igitur, clementissime Pater", "Supplices te rogamus", "Propitius esto", "veneremur cernui", "Omnipotens et misericors Dominus", "nos servi tui", should not be deflated and democratized by some translating iconoclast.
Some of these Latin expressions are difficult to translate. The best experts in liturgy, classics, patrology, theology, spirituality, music and literature are needed so that translations beautiful on the lips of holy Mother Church can be worked out. Translations should reflect that reverence, gratitude and adoration before God's transcendent majesty and man's hunger for God which are very clear in the Latin texts.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his Message to the meeting of the "Vox Clara" English Committee on 9 November 2005, speaks of translations which "will succeed in transmitting the treasures of the faith and the liturgical tradition in the specific context of a devout and reverent Eucharistic celebration" (in Notitiae, 471-472, Nov.-Dec. 2005, p. 557).
Many liturgical texts are steeped in biblical expressions, signs and symbols. They resonate with prayer patterns that date back to the Psalms. The translator cannot afford to ignore this.
A language spoken by millions of people today will undoubtedly have many shades and variations. There is a difference between English used in the Constitution of a country, that spoken by the President of a Republic, the conversational language of dock workers or students and the conversation between parents and children. The manner of expression cannot be expected to be the same in all these situations, although all are using English.
What form should liturgical translations adopt? No doubt liturgical vernacular should be intelligible and easy to proclaim and to understand. At the same time, it should be dignified, sober, stable and not subject to frequent change. It should not hesitate to use some words not generally in use in everyday conversation, or words that are associated with Catholic faith and worship. Therefore, it should say chalice and not just cup, paten and not plate, ciborium and not vessel, priest and not presider, sacred host and not consecrated bread, vestments and not dress.
Therefore, Liturgiam Authenticam says: "While the translation must transmit the perennial treasury of orations by means of language understandable in the cultural context for which it is intended,... it should cause no surprise that such language differs somewhat from ordinary speech" (n. 47).
Intelligibility should not be pushed to mean that every word must be understood by everybody at once. Just look carefully at the Credo. It is a "symbol", a solemn summary statement, on our faith. The Church has had to call some General Councils for an exact articulation of some articles of our faith.
Not every Catholic at Mass will immediately understand in full such normal Catholic liturgical formulae as Incarnation, Creation, Passion, Resurrection, Consubstantial with the Father, Proceeding from the Father and the Son, Transubstantiation, Real Presence, Transcendent and omnipotent God. This is not a question of English, or French, or Italian, or Hindi or Kiswahili. Translators should not become iconoclasts who destroy and damage as they go along. Everything cannot be explained during the liturgy.
The liturgy does not exhaust the entire life activity of the Church (cf. SC, n. 9). There is also need for theology, catechetics and preaching. And even when a good catechesis has been delivered, a mystery of our faith remains a mystery.
Indeed, we can say that the most important thing in divine worship is not that we understand every word or concept. No. The most important consideration is that we stand in reverence and awe before God, that we adore, praise and thank him. The sacred, the things of God, are best approached with sandals off.
In prayer, language is primarily for contact with God. No doubt, language is also for intelligible communication between us humans. But contact with God has priority. In the mystic, such contact with God approaches and sometimes reaches the ineffable, the mystical silence where language ceases.
There is therefore no surprise if liturgical language differs somewhat from our everyday language. Liturgical language strives to express Christian prayer where the mysteries of Christ are celebrated.
As if putting together these various elements needed in order to produce good liturgical translations, let us quote from the Address of Pope John Paul II to American Bishops from California, Nevada and Hawaii during their 1993 ad limina visit to Rome. He was asking them in translations to guard the full doctrinal integrity and beauty of the original texts:
"One of your responsibilities in this regard is to make available exact and appropriate translations of the official liturgical books so that, following the required review and confirmation by the Holy See, they may be an instrument and guarantee of a genuine sharing in the mystery of Christ and the Church: lex orandi, lex credendi. The arduous task of translation must guard the full doctrinal integrity and, according to the genius of each language, the beauty of the original texts. When so many people are thirsting for the Living God - whose majesty and mercy are at the heart of liturgical prayer -, the Church must respond with a language of praise and worship which fosters respect and gratitude for God's greatness, compassion and power. When the faithful gather to celebrate the work of our Redemption, the language of their prayer - free from doctrinal ambiguity and ideological influence - should foster the dignity and beauty of the celebration itself, while faithfully expressing the Church's faith and unity" (in Insegnamenti of John Paul II, XVI, 2, 1993, p. 1399-1400).
From the above considerations, it follows that the Church needs to exercise careful authority over liturgical translations. The responsibility for the translation of texts rests on the Bishops' Conference, which submits them to the Holy See for the necessary recognitio (cf, SC, n. 36; C.I.C., can. 838; Lit. Authenticam, n. 80).
It follows that no individual, even a priest or deacon, has authority to change the approved wording in the sacred liturgy. This is also common sense. But sometimes we notice that common sense is not very common.
So, Redemptionis Sacramentum had to say expressly: "The reprobated practice by which priests, deacons or the faithful here and there alter or vary at will the texts of the Sacred Liturgy that they are charged to pronounce, must cease. For in doing thus, they render the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy unstable, and not infrequently distort the authentic meaning of the Liturgy" (n. 59; cf. also General Instruction on Roman Missal, n. 24).
8. What is expected of us?
As we seek to conclude these reflections, we can ask ourselves what is expected of us.
We should do our best to appreciate the language which the Church uses in her liturgy and to join our hearts and voices to them, according as each liturgical rite may indicate. All of us cannot be Latin speakers, but the lay faithful can at least learn the simpler responses in Latin. Priests should give more attention to Latin so that they celebrate Mass in Latin occasionally.
In big churches where there are many Masses celebrated on a Sunday or Feast day, why can one of those Masses not be in Latin? In rural parishes a Latin Mass should be possible, say once a month. In international assemblies, Latin becomes even more urgent. It follows that seminaries should discharge carefully their role of preparing and forming priests also in the use of Latin (cf. October 2005 Synod of Bishops, Prop. 36).
All those responsible for vernacular translations should strive to provide the very best, following the guidance of relevant Church Documents, especially Liturgiam Authenticam. Experience shows that it is not superfluous to remark that priests, deacons and all others who proclaim liturgical texts, should read them out with clarity and due reverence.
Language is not everything. But it is one of most important elements that need attention for good and faith-filled liturgical celebrations.
It is an honour for us to be allowed to become part of the voice of the Church in her public prayer. May the Most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Word made flesh whose mysteries we celebrate in the sacred liturgy, obtain for all of us the grace to do our part to join in singing the praises of the Lord both in Latin and in the vernacular.