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Rita Ferrone on the translation philosophy of the New Roman Missal

November 14, 2011

Starting November 27, the English Roman (Catholic) Missal will change everywhere in the English speaking world. The English Missal is translated from the Latin Novus Ordo missal; the new missal is the fruit of an extended translation that followed a complex 2001 instruction from the Vatican called Liturgiam Authenticam which requires “the exact rendering of each word and expression of the Latin, the use of sacral vocabulary remote from ordinary speech, and reproduction of the syntax of the Latin original whenever possible.”  Rita Ferrone in Commonweal has some critical comments on the new translation – here are some brief excerpts:

We come to you, Father,
with praise and thanksgiving,
through Jesus Christ your Son.
Through him we ask you to accept and bless +
these gifts we offer you in sacrifice.
We offer them for your holy catholic Church….

So begins the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Roman Missal as it has been prayed by English-speaking Catholics since 1973. When the new Missal goes into effect in November, Catholics throughout the English-speaking world will hear these words instead:

To you, therefore, most merciful Father,
we make humble prayer and petition
through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord:
That you accept
and bless + these gifts, these offerings,
these holy and unblemished sacrifices
which we offer you firstly
for your holy Catholic Church.

The current translation is simple and direct. It follows the speech patterns and rhythms of contemporary spoken English. It flows easily off the tongue. Its meaning is clear. The new translation, on the other hand, is mannered and complex. We arrive at the subject of the sentence only after we have heard the dative “to you”; the conjunction “therefore”; a superlative adjective “most merciful”; and a noun in apposition, “Father.” The new translation is wordy. In place of “these gifts,” we offer “these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices.”

Having offered these gifts, offerings, holy and unblemished sacrifices firstly for the church, you might be thinking there is a secondly coming along in a paragraph or two. If so, you would be wrong. There is no secondly. So what does firstly mean in this context? It’s not clear that it means anything at all….

There are many places in the new translation where the words simply don’t make sense in English. On the First Sunday of Advent, we pray that we may “run forth with righteous deeds.” What does that mean? Many expressions sound pompous: “profit our conversion,” “the sacrifice of conciliation,” “an oblation pleasing to your almighty power.”

Some prayer texts are simply bewildering, such as this one from Preface VIII for Sundays in Ordinary Time:

For when your children were scattered afar by sin,
through the Blood of your Son and the power of the Spirit,
you gathered them again to yourself,
that a people, formed as one by the unity of the Trinity,
made the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit,
might, to the praise of your manifold wisdom,
be manifest as the Church.

missal275

(An illustration from one of the editions of the New Roman Missal)

What is the main point? It is hard to tell. We are wandering in a dense forest of theological and biblical allusions here. There are traps for the unwary, too. If the speaker is not careful to separate the first line from the second and join the second with the third, separating them from the first, he ends up suggesting that the Blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit are instrumental in scattering God’s children. Even read well, this prayer will likely lose all but its best-educated and most highly attentive hearers.

The new translation includes sentence fragments, odd locutions, opaque expressions, and redundancies. There are also historical oddities preserved for no good reason. Here is an example from Eucharistic Prayer I:

For them and all who are dear to them
we offer you this sacrifice of praise
or they offer it for themselves
and all who are dear to them.…

Enrico Mazza, in his magisterial work The Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite, explains that this mid-eighth-century addition (“or they offer it for themselves…”) was originally a rubric, providing alternative wordings depending on whether those who requested the Mass were present or absent. The translators of the 1973 translation (and the 1998 version) spared us the useless puzzlement caused by such a text. The translators of the text we are about to receive did not. Why? Each word of the Latin had to be accounted for….

Overall, the length of the sentences in the new translation is staggering. The longest sentence of the Eucharistic Prayers has 82 words, the second longest, 72. All but one of the sentences in Eucharistic Prayer I are more than 40 words long….

Rita Ferrone’s full essay is well worth reading, for an insight into the dramatic effects that translation philosophy can have.

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