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June 17, 2008
The Language of the Liturgy: The Value of the New Translations
By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *

In Act III, Scene II of The Tragedy of Hamlet, the young prince gives this advice: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Ever since the publication of the third edition of the Missale Romanum in 2000, translators have been grappling with the challenge of suiting the word to the liturgy.  Translators working to provide a fresh translation of the liturgical texts face a number of challenges.

Words, like people’s dress, change from one generation to the next and from one group to another in the same society. What one individual calls a “swamp,” another more ecologically conscious individual calls “wetlands.” A politician waxes eloquently about “public participation.”  His audience understands him to say “self-denial.” The corporate world routinely uses the noun “impact” as a transitive verb. People follow happily along.

Today, politically correct as well as linguistically conscious individuals carefully circumvent the word “man” not to offend women. Past generations pronounced the word with never the slightest intention of excluding women. But times have changed.  We speak now about humankind.  Certainly, we have gained inclusivity.  Yet, we have sacrificed language that is not so abstract.

English always has been an open language, ready to welcome neologisms. The Internet has enriched our speech with new phrases and words.  Text messaging is altering our spelling and our syntax. Language is a human expression.  As people change, so does the way they speak.

In his popular  rhetorical guide, De duplici copia verborum ac rerum, Erasmus, the 16th century Dutch humanist and theologian, showed students 150 different styles they could use when phrasing the Latin sentence, Tuae literae me magnopere delectarunt (Your letter has delighted me very much). Clearly, no single translation of any sentence or work will ever completely satisfy everyone. Even the best of all possible translations of the new Missal will have its critics.

But there is something more at stake than pleasing individual tastes and preferences in the new liturgical translations. The new translations aim at a “language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves … dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 25). The new translations now being prepared are a marked improvement over the translations with which we have become familiar. They are densely theological.  They respect the rich vocabulary of the Roman Rite.  They carefully avoid the overuse of certain phrases and words.

The new translations also have a great respect for the style of the Roman Rite.  Certainly, some sentences could be more easily translated to mimic our common speech. But they are not.  And with reason.  Latin orations, especially Post-Communions, tend to conclude strongly with a teleological or eschatological point. The new translations in English follow the sequence of these Latin prayers in order to end on a strong note. Many of our current translations of these prayers end weakly. Why should we strip the English translation of the distinctive theological emphases of the Latin text? A slightly non-colloquial word order can lead the listener to a greater attention to the point of the prayer.

Our present liturgical texts are framed in simple syntax.  The new translations use more subordinate clauses. This, in and of itself, does not render them unproclaimable. By the very fact that, in some instances, the new translations require thoughtful and careful attention to pauses when speaking helps to foster and create a less rushed and more reverent way of praying. Not a small gain for a proper ars celebrandi.

The new translation at times may use uncommon words like “ineffable.” The word is not unspeakable! For sure, this word does not come from the street language of the contemporary individual. But, then, why cannot the liturgy use words that elevate the language from the street to the altar?  People may not use certain words in their active vocabulary. This does not mean they will be baffled by their use in the liturgy.

“If indeed, in the liturgical texts, words or expressions are sometimes employed which differ somewhat from usual and everyday speech, it is often enough by virtue of this very fact that the texts become truly memorable and capable of expressing heavenly realities” (Liturgiam Authenticam, 27).
Liturgical language should border on the poetic.  Prose bumps along the ground. Poetry soars to the heavens. And our Liturgy is already a sharing of the Liturgy in heaven.

The liturgical texts that we are now using are not perfect, but they are familiar. This familiarity makes celebrants at ease with the present texts. The new texts are better.  When the new texts are implemented, they will require more attention on the part of the celebrant.  But any initial uneasiness will yield to familiarity and to a language that is well suited to the Liturgy.

A language suited for the Liturgy: this is the one of great advantages of the work being done on the new translations.  There is more to the Liturgy than the human language of any age or any one country. In the new translations of the Roman Missal, a conscious effort is being made to suit the human word to the divine action that the Liturgy truly is. As Pope Benedict XVI has said, the “central actio of the Mass is fundamentally neither that of the priest as such nor of the laity as such, but of Christ the High Priest: This action of God, which takes place through human speech, is the real "action" for which all creation is in expectation… This is what is new and distinctive about the Christian liturgy: God himself acts and does what is essential” (The Spirit of the Liturgy p. 173).

In his early work Enchiridion militis christiani, Erasmus states the obvious about human speech and the divine. He argues that words always fall short of their task of miming the Logos. Reaching back to Exodus 16, he argues that the smallness of the manna rained down on the Israelites "signifies the lowliness of speech that conceals immense mysteries in almost crude language.”  Until the end of history, we must be content with imperfect language that will never fully unveil the divine mystery we celebrate.  But the new translations, imperfect as they are — as all human speech will be —are good translations that have passed through the hands of many scholars and bishops. The language of the new texts, while not dummied down to the most common denominator, remains readily accessible to anyone. Most assuredly, these new translations of liturgical texts will help us better approach God with greater reverence and awe. We gladly await their final approval from the Holy See and their use in the Liturgy!


Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.
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