18 January 2015


The Tablet is still from time to time giving publicity to people fighting an old battle: to replace the Translation we currently use of the Roman Missal and to put in its place a version produced in the 1990s. I do think that we need to remind ourselves from time to time how we have ended up where we are. I will discuss, firstly, the old 1970s translation, then the draft 1990s version.

THE 1970s
What was wrong with the old 1970s ICEL translation, replaced more than three years ago, of the Roman Missal? I will centre my comments on words which we hear at every single Mass we attend: the opening words of the Preface. I append a by-the-word literal English crib.

Vere dignum et iustum est,
aequum et salutare,
nos tibi semper et ubique gratias agere,
Domine, Sancte Pater, Omnipotens Aeterne Deus.

Truly fitting and just it-is
fair and for-salvation,
us to-you ever and everywhere thanks to-give,
Lord, Holy Father, Almighty Eternal God.

The first thing you will notice here is that, in the old translation, the Latin line 4 was promoted to be the first line; Lord goes missing; and Father comes first, but loses its adjective holy. Let me tell you why. The translations which were published in the early 1970s followed the style recommended in a Roman document known as Comme le prevoit, which advocated "dynamic equivalence". According to this idea, you don't have to translate carefully every word of the Latin into your vernacular tongue; it is sufficient - indeed, better - to mix it all up, leave it on the oven to simmer for a minute or two, and then ladle out the Essence, the Ideas. So the old translators thought that

Father, all-powerful and ever-living God

gave the essence, although not the actual words, of line 4 in the Latin.

They were wrong for the following reasons. The word Lord does matter. It represents the name of the Hebrew God, which is given by the Hebrew letters YHWH. Because this Name, by the most ancient tradition, is not allowed to be uttered aloud, when Jewish readers got to those four letters in the text, what they actually said aloud was the word which means Lord. Greek and Latin Bible translators (and the Douai and King James Bibles) followed this custom, using Kyrie, Domine, and Lord in their respective languages. So Lord, in the Preface, takes us back to our forefathers in the Faith, back to Moses to whom it was revealed that his Saviour-God was YHWH, I am ... the LORD. Omitting it from the translation slices away our essential Jewish roots, cuts us off from the Old Testament; it is actually, I would go so far as to say, implicitly antijudaic or, as students of the early Christian heresies would remind us, Marcionite. Christianity with Abraham and Moses chopped out is a parody.

Missing out the Holy before Father is, if possible, even worse. "Holy Father" - see S John's Gospel chapter 17 - is how the Lord Jesus, the night before he died, addressed his heavenly Father. So this omission erases the reference to the Last Supper, and to the relationship between the Incarnate Word and the First Person of the Blessed Trinity.

I do not think that the perpetrators of these unintended sacrileges could have done a worse thing if they had set out to decry YHWH the LORD and to cut off the Eucharist from Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

It is interesting that the 1970s version transposes and omits words so as to put Father first in the Preface. This represents one of its commonest habits. In that decade, it was felt that "Father" was an intimate and cuddly way of addressing God. It had a friendly, folksy, feel to it. Evangelicals were accused - probably unjustly - of beginning their every prayer with the formula "Father, we just want to say ...". Similarly, in the translation which was abolished in 2011, prayer after prayer began "Father ...". Most of them in fact, in the Latin, began Deus, "God" or Domine, "Lord". But, according to the principles of "Dynamic Equivalence", the translators of the 1970s argued "Well, the Person of the Trinity who is [nearly always] meant by Deus is the Father. So we can translate it as 'Father'". There is a quite delicious historical irony here ... I'm sure you can see it coming. Within a decade of that old translation coming into use, "Father" had become politically incorrect; a victim to the rise of feminism. From being the Nice way of addressing God, "Father" became overnight pretty well a taboo, a Patriarchal outrage. The moral here is that Dynamic Equivalence runs the risk of betraying you into a usage which very soon becomes very dated. The Church which celebrates her nuptials with this Age quickly becomes a lonely widow in the next.

So, in the 1970s, fashionable translators used "Father" for Latin words which do not strictly mean Father; as I illustrate below, the fashion of the following decade was to eliminate the word "Father" even when that would have been a correct translation of the Latin ... because feminists, we are told, do not want to have Patriarchy thrust down their throats! Perhaps you begin to see the problems about this sort of approach to translation.


Anonymous said...

I must say, Father, that I am glad I never tried out the idea of "dynamic equivalence" on my teachers when producing my attempts at translations of Horace and Vergil, many years ago. I can just imagine how they would have reacted.

Is it only the English-language version of the Mass that ran into these difficulties?

Doodler said...

@Charlesdawson: I can imagine how I would have reacted if a pupil of mine had mis-spelled VIRGIL's name!

William said...

Doodler: While Publius Vergilius Maro has had his name most commonly englished as "Virgil", "Vergil" was certainly the preferred spelling when I read for Classics Mods. (There's an explanation here:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgil#Name_in_English )