Thursday, May 5, 2011

A New Mass Translation

Next fall, Catholics will start using a new English translation of the Mass, replacing the version that has been in use for the past forty years. A bit of history is required to understand why this is happening and what it means.

Fifty years ago, Catholic bishops from around the world gathered in Rome to discuss various issues concerning the Church’s life. The first decisions to come out of this gathering, known as the Second Vatican Council, concerned the liturgy. The bishops wanted to renew the worship of the Church by returning to the first centuries of Christianity. Rituals were simplified, prayers were revised, and the radical decision was taken to allow the liturgy to be celebrated in the language of the people. Before then, and going back to the fifth century, the Roman Catholic liturgy had been celebrated only in Latin.

Guidelines were produced for the work of translation. The basic principal adopted was known as dynamic translation, where more attention is paid to the meaning of sentences than to the individual words. According to this principle, translators focus on meaning rather than on expressions. For example, a greeting often used in the liturgy is “Dominus vobiscum”, the response being “et cum spiritu tuo”. Word by word, this translates as “Lord with-you”, answered by “and with spirit yours”. Following the principle of dynamic translation, the approved English text became “The Lord be with you; and also with you”.

During the ensuing decades, translators debated the value of such dynamic translations. The conviction grew that by straying from the words themselves, nuances in the original meaning were being lost as well as echoes from the Bible itself. For example, in writing to his friend Timothy, Saint Paul used the greeting: “The Lord be with your spirit” (2 Tim 4:22). By avoiding the word “spirit” in the English translation of the Mass, the connection between the liturgical greeting and Scripture was lost.

For such reasons, the Vatican issued a new set of guidelines for translation in 2001. The principle of dynamic translation was abandoned in favour of an approach that pays greater attention to the individual words and expressions. The hope expressed in these guidelines is that new the translations “should be characterized by a kind of language which is easily understandable, yet which at the same time preserves these texts’ dignity, beauty, and doctrinal precision”.

The bishops of those countries where English is a principal language entrusted the development of these new translations to an international committee. Each draft was sent to each Anglophone bishop for his comments and eventual approval. The ultimate version has been recognized by Rome. The implementation date for the new translation has been set for the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011, both in Canada and in the United States.

The first of many changes people will notice is that now, when the priest greets them with the words “The Lord be with you”, they will answer “And with your spirit”. It will be noted that, as a rule, care has been taken to maintain continuity in the people’s responses and prayers. However, the priest’s prayers have been radically overhauled. Next week, I’ll explain a bit more what these changes entail.

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