Let Him Who Has Ears to Hear, Hear

Answering objections to the new translation of the Novus Ordo.

Is the new translation approved by Rome and (at long last) by the American bishops a perfect one? No, it is not. No translation can be. I have some quibbles with it. A few sentences are clunky. But that’s a good exchange, seeing that almost all of the old pseudo-translation was fl at, banal, and desacralized. Much of it was awkward, to boot.

But here is not the place for quibbles, for I am grateful to the translators. For the fi rst time in my life I have heard some strains, though subtle and unadorned, of the poetry and oratory of the Novus Ordo. Entire lessons in theology, deep and careful readings of the Scriptures, and eloquent gestures of humility and devotion have suddenly appeared to my eye.

“Blessed are they who are called to the supper of the Lamb,” we will now say, exactly as the words say in Latin, uniting Passover and the wedding feast of Revelation. “The mystery of faith,” the priest will say, with stark simplicity, exactly as in the Latin, and referring to what has just transpired, the consecration of the bread and wine, and not to whatever the people will say in response.

Jesus will now not simply take some glass or mug from the table—for the cup can no longer be merely a cup for us. He will take the chalice into “his holy and venerable hands,” exactly as in the Latin. Yes, we have been calling his hands “sacred,” but “venerable” means something not quite the same: we are not only to acknowledge the holiness of his hands, but to honor them as well. The words read not like an offi ce memorandum, but like the poetry of love.

At last we will again say, in the Creed, “I believe,” repeating the promises of our baptism. We will again emphatically place the mystery of Christ’s becoming man where it belongs, not at his birth, but at his enfleshing, when Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” at which moment our Lord “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” We will not only “look for” the resurrection of the dead, but “look forward” to it, in longing and expectation.

We will not presume to speak about our feelings and our virtues when we are about to pray the Lord’s Prayer, but about the audacity of what we are allowed by Christ to do. “At the Savior’s command,” the priest will proclaim, “and formed by divine teaching, we dare to say: Our Father.” At last the lovely spatio-temporal image of the sun, and its allusion to the prophet Malachi, returns to Eucharistic Prayer III, when the priest prays “that from the rising of the sun to its setting” a pure sacrifi ce may be offered to the name of God. The centurion’s prayer returns. The image of grace as dewfall returns. The Trinitarian formulas return. The gauze is cast aside, the wax dug out of the ears, the dusty pages wiped clean.

The translation has met with some objections. With some variations, they are these. The sentences are too long. The language is too poetic. Certain renderings are, though literally accurate, theologically questionable. The first objection reveals a misunderstanding of what oratory requires. The second objection is a flagrant exaggeration, though I fail to see how poetry qualifies as a fault. The third objection is not an objection to the translation at all but to the Latin of the Novus Ordo, and is thus irrelevant. Allow me to address these in turn.

Are the sentences too long? They are longer than the unmemorable series of mid-length sentences we hear at Mass now. Thanks be to God for that, for at last the Eucharistic prayers may contain sentences that are sufficiently wellcrafted to remember. If anything, the sentences are not long enough; but some concession must be made to the jittery attention spans of people like us, who watch television and read newspapers.

Let me explain. Every pre-literate culture has its poetry and song, one feature of which astounds us, as our experience of poetry is almost wholly visual. The old poems tend to be woven out of sentences that are delightfully long. This is true of Homeric poetry, sung by the rhapsodes centuries before the scholars at Alexandria ever wrote down a word of it. It is true of the Psalms and the prophets and the Book of Job. It is true of Anglo-Saxon elegy; true of the Gilgamesh; true of oratory from Demosthenes to William Jennings Bryan. The reason is not hard to find. The ancient poets did not use long sentences because their audiences were accustomed to them. A glance at the colloquial Latin of Plautus—terse, abrupt, elliptical—shows otherwise. They used them because they were the readiest devices for catching and holding the audience’s ear. Nor is there any surer way to lose an audience than to pile up a quick series of full stops.

Why so? The ear cannot turn the page back to catch a missed phrase. Connections have to be made for the ear, by the structure of a sentence. These audible structures may be quite simple, yet they can organize a long passage. Listen to the resounding speeches of Martin Luther King, or hear in your mind’s ear the cadences of the Gettysburg Address. The ear relishes parallelism, because it hears that the speech is going, grammatically, where it has gone before.

The ear relies on vocal stress, and that means that, in oratory, much leeway must be granted for the unusual and the emphatic, both in the choice of words and in their order. The ear delights in resumptive words, words that allow the ear to take a slight rest, to “hear” a summation of or reference to something that has come before. Some of these are old-fashioned connectors like “therefore” and “that same.” Others are crucial repetitions. We are instructed to remember, and in this translation we straightaway affirm that remember we do.

It’s a series of short sentences that poses the real danger. Alone, the short sentence is perfect for stunning emphasis: “Mysterium fidei.” The danger of a series of them is that the listener cannot make the connections required. Each individual sentence is clear, but the heard “paragraph” falls apart. For if you shorten the sentences, you increase their number, and thus multiply the opportunities for shifts in subject, shifts in topic, shifts in emphasis, and, with them, missed connections.

Dr. Seuss does not make that mistake, and he writes for children! As long as unifying devices are in place (rhyme and meter for poetry, and a host of other weapons besides for oratory or prayer), the sentences will make sense, and will be more memorable together than if you had a greater number of them. I have sat at Mass every week all my life long, and I am a keen listener with a prodigious memory, but I have never been able to hear the coherence of the Eucharistic Prayers, much less remember more than a phrase or two from them. That, I trust, will now change.

Is the translation too poetic? For my taste, it is not poetic enough. This may be another concession to the drabness of our times. Our frail nerves will not endure too much beauty. Witness how we dress for Mass, how we pray, and what we sing. People of old composed prayers like the Memorare: “Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help, or sought your intercession, was left unaided.” Now we pray in dull sociological patois: “Nurture our relationships,” we beg in the Renew Prayer.

If only the “objection” had merit! But in no instance have the translators altered the text to crank up the poetic diction. They had plenty of opportunities to use figurative language to unlock the half-hidden metaphors in such words as Latin supplices (literally, “praying on bended knee”), cultoribus (“tillers of the field”), and suscipe (“take up”). On the rare occasions when they did so, the results are very fine: because Latin claritate suggests both radiance and renown, the translators give us the expressive phrase “the glory of your light.” But generally they declined, and I concede that they were probably wise to do so. Instead they let the Latin, rendered as plainly and straightforwardly as possible, speak for itself. Consider the nice rhetorical balance of the post- Communion prayer, concluding in a quiet line of English pentameter:

What has passed our lips as food, O Lord, may we possess in purity of heart, that what has been given to us in time may be our healing for eternity.

Or compare the resumption of the most commonly used Eucharistic Prayer (III) in its old form with the subtly elevated prayer of the new:

Father, calling to mind the death your Son endured for our salvation, his glorious resurrection and ascension into heaven, and ready to greet him when he comes again, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.

“Hey there, it’s Jesus!” we shout at the train station, ready to take his luggage. We’re there, of course, because we “called to mind” his sacrificial death— oh yes, there was that event on Calvary. Enough to interrupt a day of business, but then, nothing’s too important for our Jesus, who really did endure a lot on our account. Now behold:

Therefore, O Lord, as we celebrate the memorial of the saving Passion of your Son, his wondrous Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, and as we look forward to his second coming, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.

Wonder is the keynote here. We “look forward” to his second coming, and do not presume to declare ourselves ready for it. We do not “call to mind” the death of Christ, but celebrate here and now its holy memorial. It is not simply something we think, but something we do.

Sometimes all the translators did was to release the poetry from bondage. Here is the middle of the Gloria, in the grudging and truncated version we have come to know:

Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father, we worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory. Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us; you are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer.

Here it is now in translation:

We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory, Lord God, heavenly King, O God, almighty Father. Lord Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son, Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us; you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer; you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.

In every instance in the truncators’ version, omissions and alterations seem chosen to dampen our sense both of the transcendent glory and holiness of God, and of our individual sins that render us unworthy to approach him. And that brings us to the final objection.

Is the translation theologically tendentious? This we must answer by affirming that the task of a translator is a humble one. Certainly, he cannot translate literally, if by that we mean a childish substitution of words without regard to emphasis, figures of speech, syntax, semantics, or context. Languages do not cross over from one to the other in that fashion. But he can set himself the task of translating with as much semantic and syntactical precision as the languages will allow, especially when he does not have all the thorny considerations that poetry in meter and rhyme must bring. That task will involve interpretating the text, and if the text is the order of the Mass, the interpretation will be theological. But the theology must serve him in “hearing” the precise meaning intended by the authors, and not in altering that meaning to make it more contemporary, or more to his liking. Like John the Baptist pointing the way to Another, he must decrease.

So most of the arguments about the theology of the new translation are beside the point. The translators render Credo as “I believe,” because that is what the Latin word means, and there is plenty of theological warrant for it. The translators render “pro multis” as “for many,” because that is what the words mean, and there is theological warrant for that, too. If the drafters of the Novus Ordo had wanted to write “pro omnibus,” “for all,” they could have done so. The translators render “incarnatus est” as “was incarnate,” because that is what it means—and it means everything, theologically, that “was conceived” and “was born” together mean, and then some. It is theologically unobjectionable, and has the considerable merit of precision. It is not their fault that the Creed reads “incarnatus est.” Blame those squabblers at Nicea.

Indeed, it is not clear from the translation that any particular theology has intruded itself at all, unless it is the theology implicit in the Latin text. The people who intruded their theology, rather, were the truncators—those who, decades ago, feared that we might consider God to be too holy, and ourselves to be too greatly in need of his grace. Alas, that is a reverence all too rare in the human heart. But they sought to guard us from that reverence all the same. So when in the Penitential Rite the priest begins the sentence, “Miserere nostri, Domine,” “Have mercy on us, O Lord,” the people, in Latin, once completed the prayer with this humble admission, “qui peccavimus tibi,” “we who have sinned against you.”

But not since the truncators went to work. They simply reversed the order of the sentence, assigning the priest’s words to the people and vice versa. And when the priest invites us to the penitential act, he begs us in these words, “Agnoscamus peccata nostra,” “Let us acknowledge our sins.” But not since the mufflers went to work. For years we have done something less than acknowledge those sins, confess that in fact they really are sins, regardless of our excuses. No, we have merely called our sins to mind. Those sins we call to mind, of course, tend to be the ones that least disturb us. “I should have given more to the bazaar,” says the self-satisfied woman who cannot spare an hour for her children.

The translator is a traitor, says an old Italian proverb. But some traitors do not bother to translate. The text has been set free. The gag is off, and the words will speak. Let him who has ears to hear, hear.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Anthony Esolen 20 Articles
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture. He also translated Dante's Divine Comedy for Modern Library Classics. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.