The Holy See holds its ground in the translation wars.

On December 22, 1944, during World War II, German forces encircled the city of Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge and issued a demand for surrender. American General Anthony McAuliffe’s one-word written reply became the stuff of legend: “Nuts.” His response summed up the stiff resolve of the Americans to defeat the Nazis despite, at the time, overwhelming odds. We know the end of the story. The winter storm clouds cleared the next day and the American bombers as well as General Patton’s Third Army saved the day, and the allies won the war in a matter of months.

To observers of the Church’s “translation wars” spanning decades, a June 23, 2008 letter from the Holy See reveals the same stiff resolve to defeat inaccurate, theologically defi cient and politicallycorrect translations of the Mass. In the letter, Cardinal Francis Arinze’s version of “Nuts” may not be as succinct, but has the same effect: “The attached text is to be considered binding.”

Cardinal Arinze, the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDW), is referring to the newly translated text of “significant parts of the Ordo Missae.” The new translation from the Latin “typical edition” into English is not only accurate, it recovers the sacred vocabulary lost in translation since the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council.

The process of liturgical translation from the original Latin texts (“typical edition” texts) of the Roman Missal to the approved English texts is laborious. The Roman Missal is carved up into portions and translated by “mixed commissions” such as the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). ICEL releases the translated segments to the various English-speaking conferences of bishops for review, revision, and approval.

Since the Holy See requires consensus in the translations, any recommended adjustments are sent back to ICEL and the cycle continues. When the text segments receive the final approval of the various conferences of bishops, they are sent to the Vatican for official recognitio. The Vatican, of course, is free to alter the texts but, in the past, has done so only to a limited extent, if at all. Upon consolidation and recognitio by the Holy See, the texts return to the conferences for publication and use by priests and faithful.

The recent Vatican recognitio of the “significant parts of the Ordo Missae” is surprising because it breaks the usual review and approval pattern. Usually the Vatican’s CDW issues its recognitio only when the entire bundle (in this case, the entire Roman Missal) has received approval by the various conferences of bishops. Although the text will not be available for use for several years, the Vatican’s “recognitio” of these signifi cant parts of the Mass is exceedingly significant.

It comes on the heels of the American bishops’ unexpected rejection of a small batch of liturgical texts in June that, left unanswered, would arguably put at risk the Vatican’s efforts in the entire translation project. This past June, the American bishops rejected a proposed translation of the new Roman Missal, the Proper of Seasons, prayers for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and ordinary time. Following considerable debate at their spring meeting in Orlando, Florida, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops narrowly rejected the texts, after receiving the final ballots by mail.

By nailing down a significant portion of the English translation, possibly in response to the American bishops’ rejection of a portion of sister texts, the Holy See seems to be sending a clear message: continue to approve accurate translations of the liturgical texts to harmonize with the texts now officially recognized, and do not return to the failed translation practices of past decades.

In the 1990s, ICEL produced a revision of the 1973 Missal (“Sacramentary”) and submitted the texts in a series of “segments” for approval by the American bishops (as well as other English-speaking conferences of bishops). But at that time ICEL used an outdated 1969 post-conciliar document, Comme le prévoit, as a guide for the translations. Comme le prévoit set the groundwork for the theories of language and the translation principles (e.g., “dynamic equivalence”) that ICEL employed in those days.

Proponents of “dynamic equivalence” stressed translating concepts into contemporary language, at the sacrifi ce of the literal meaning. According to this view, words like “saint,” “merit,” “blessed,” and “soul” were often omitted. Also, in order to accommodate so-called “inclusive language” (gender-neutral language), sentences needed to be recast to avoid the generic use of “man” and male pronouns. Critics suggested these translation methods were being used to advance a feminist ideological agenda and to desacralize much of the liturgical texts. The controversy raged for years and became widely known in Catholic circles as the “translation wars.”

Those promoting accurate translations of the liturgy, however, were usually “on the outside looking in,” having little or no infl uence on the avalanche of politically-correct translations. ICEL, using the “dynamic equivalence” method of translation and a wide application of so-called “inclusive language,” crafted massive changes to the texts of the Mass in English.

According to an article in the New Zealand Catholic in the 1990s, Dr. Ken Larsen, an ex-priest from Auckland, New Zealand and one of the two principal translators of the revised ICEL Sacramentary, said, “We seldom refer to God as ‘him’ or ‘Father,’ and in general we avoid personal pronouns.” According to the New Zealand Catholic, Dr. Larsen and an American Jesuit, Father James Devereaux, spent more than 10 years working on the ICEL Sacramentary. Dr. Larsen added, “There are odd occasions where the word Pater occurs in Latin and sometimes you can’t get around using the word Father. But in general we have been very meticulous in keeping to the principle of inclusive language.”

Help was on the way, although it may have seemed to be “too little, too late” at the time. By 1996, after several major segments of the flawed ICEL translation had been approved by the American and other English-speaking bishops (sometimes by only narrow margins with significant minorities of bishops opposing the texts), Archbishop Geraldo Majella Agnelo, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, suggested that Comme le prévoit was outdated.

In addition, Pope John Paul II, keenly aware of the translation controversies, named Chilean Archbishop Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez as pro-prefect for the CDW. Soon after his appointment, Archbishop Medina signaled that major changes in the translation enterprise could be expected. In an interview, he said, “there is reason to lament the fact that some translations [of the liturgy] are not faithful but are quite fanciful [fantasiosi]…” Later, in the September 1997 letter rejecting the ICEL Ordination Rite, Medina wrote, “It may be helpful to recommend that there be a complete change of translators on this project and that a new, independent, and definitive English version be made afresh from the Latin texts.”

Despite warnings like this for those who had the ears to hear, American bishops continued to approve the defi cient texts into the late 1990s, though by narrow margins over the two-thirds required. The texts were ultimately rejected by the Holy See in 2002. By then the new version of the Missal (“third typical edition”) had appeared, but, as Medina’s letter of rejection noted, another major change had occurred that would affect all liturgical texts.

On March 28, 2001, the Holy See released the definitive instruction Liturgiam authenticam (“On the Use of Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy”). The document sent shock waves throughout the liturgical establishment because it represented a complete about-face in the guiding principles of liturgical translations. The document requires “the greatest prudence and attention” in the translation of liturgical texts, ensuring that the liturgical books are “marked by sound doctrine” and are “exact in 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.”

In addition, the revised principles of translation issued by the CDW were mandated by Pope John Paul II himself and were specific enough to address detailed translation practices (e.g., the document directs that the familiar Et cum spiritu tuo is to be translated “And with your spirit,” not merely “And also with you,” and identifies specific words carrying theological importance). After 32 years of defi cient liturgical translations, Liturgiam authenticam at long last replaced the time-worn Comme le prévoit. To press the World War II analogy, the document was the Normandy landing in the Translation War. Success could not yet be claimed, but after slugging things out for a period of time, victory was in sight for the cause of accurate translations.

Meanwhile, ICEL, the “mixed commission” responsible for the translation of the Mass into English, underwent an overhaul in its bylaws and personnel as a result of repeated Vatican interventions as well as the force of Liturgiam authenticam. Hence, in the twilight years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, ICEL became an unexpected Vatican ally in the translation wars. Recent translations of the Roman Missal, particularly the “signifi cant parts of the Ordo Missae,” have substantially complied with every article of the new Vatican decree.

A brief review of the recent ICEL texts submitted to the American bishops in the 1990s for approval and the (reformed) ICEL texts finally recognized by the Holy See reveals a sea change in approach. The mistakes of the old ICEL have been programmatically corrected as a result of the recent reform of the ICEL organization (with the recent cooperation of the American Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy).

The threefold “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” expression of sorrow is restored to the Confiteor. The Nicene Creed is accurately translated, including “I believe.” The Nicene Creed is also free from feminist ideological influence: it reads, “for us men and our salvation…” and “…became man.”

The Roman Canon is beautifully translated, recovering the sacral vocabulary and referring to the Church as “her” rather than “it.” The words of consecration are more sacred and accurate, using “chalice” instead of “cup” and restoring the much discussed “for many” (pro multis). The repetition of “this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim” has also been restored, after having been rejected in the 1990s by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy as “ponderous in the English.” The Our Father remains in its traditional form after the attempts to “update” the translation in the 1990s. The accurate prayer before Communion has been restored as well: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

Significant work remains on the new translation of the Mass, and it is far from clear how many years may pass before the entire English translation of the Roman Missal is released for use in English-speaking countries like the United States. In the 1990s, ICEL and the American liturgical establishment expected the usual quick episcopal approval and Vatican confi rmation of their arguably deeply fl awed liturgical translations.

When the texts met with resistance by many bishops—as well as the Vatican— the strategy seemed to be to kick the translations years into the future in anticipation of a more “friendly” pontificate. The elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy must have come as a deep disappointment to many in the liturgical establishment. Memories of Cardinal Ratzinger’s refusal to approve a similarly defi cient translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church into English were sufficient to predict his views, as pope, on the necessity of accurate liturgical translations.

But the American bishops’ June rejection of ICEL’s translation of the Proper of Seasons might have threatened to derail the progress already made in accurate translations. Without a quick Vatican response that threat could have lingered and emboldened an aging but still dangerous liturgical establishment wedded to the outdated liturgical translation practices of the 1960s.

Many suspect the slow-as-molasses approval process is a ploy to continue to kick the translations down the line, in anticipation of a new pontificate more friendly to the views of the old liturgical establishment. But the Vatican confirmation of the main parts of the Mass, a recognitio that Cardinal Arinze called “binding,” will have a chilling effect on those expectations.

According to an episode of PBS’ American Experience, one of the officers witnessing General McAuliffe’s response to the German ultimatum said that the general had his secretary type out the “Nuts” response. His emissary, Colonel Harper, took it back to his headquarters and gave it to the German Armistice party. The Germans were allowed to take off their blindfolds and read the message. They were puzzled, it was reported, and they said, “Nuets, Nuets, Nuts…Vas is das?” But Colonel Harper said, “If you don’t understand it, it means go to hell!”

Colonel Harper’s explanation, by way of analogy, would probably put too fine a point on the Holy See’s intentions. But Cardinal Arinze’s “binding” requirement makes it clear that the Vatican plans to hold the line on the new and improved requirements of translation.

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About Father Jerry J. Pokorsky 43 Articles
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.. He holds a Master of Divinity degree as well as a master’s degree in moral theology.