~by Bishop Peter Elliot, Melbourne, in Adoremus Bulletin
Telling the Truth
The first way of understanding truth in liturgical translation is obvious and has been raked over by various critics ever since the International Commission for English in the Liturgy [ICEL] produced its translations over thirty years ago. This is simply the question of whether this vernacular text tells the truth, the question of truthfulness or truthful accuracy in translation. Do these English words convey the Catholic doctrinal meaning that is embodied in the words of the Latin original authorized by the Church?
Many of the negative responses to that question are based on examples of what might be called mendacious banality, that is, a translation that tells lies in a rather dull way. To be fair, it must be stated at the outset that this was brought about by good intentions, distorted by applying the flawed principle of translation known as dynamic equivalence. This principle was endorsed by the 1969 instruction of the Consilium for Implementing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Comme le prévoit. The old ICEL was faithful to much of that instruction, and even went beyond it.
Thirty years ago an Australian archbishop linked to ICEL told me that a religious, un-named, had translated the Sunday collects in use today. He praised this work. When I groaned, he scowled. They surely rank among the worst instances of liturgical translation. They are as brief as their Latin originals, but that is not what a vernacular version of a collect should be, for the compact Latin of a collect is a literary genre with its own conventions and structure, demanding rich expansion in the vernacular; otherwise a collect sounds abrupt, trite, even absurd, which is what has happened. Each collect has been reduced to something like this: “God! You are good. So do this for us”, followed by a slightly inaccurate version of the trinitarian ending. Yet, by eliminating any traces of the Latin “oratorical cursus, rhetorical-prose cadence”, the unknown translator had only followed Comme le prévoit.
When we examine the specific content of the current ICEL collects, however, we find a more serious result of this ruthless paraphrase or précis: the virtual elimination of “grace”. It could be argued that this goes beyond Comme le prévoit. This serious falsification may be observed in the current translations of seven collects assigned to Sundays per annum, or in so-called “Ordinary Time”, that contain the word gratia. Of these seven collects, not one has translated gratia as “grace”. Gratia is usually rendered as “love” or “gifts of love” (Sunday XXVI). Surely that is stretching the principle of dynamic equivalence beyond the limits.
For Sunday XXVIII, the beautiful collect about God’s prevenient grace, the grace that goes before us, has been hacked to pieces. The word “grace” has been excised and the meaning of the collect has been lost. Likewise, the word “grace” has effectively vanished in the four Sunday Prayers over the Gifts and the one Sunday Post Communion Prayer where gratia appears.
Taking the essential Christian word “grace” out of seasonal liturgical prayers is a symptom of the deeper doctrinal malaise underlying the current ICEL texts. As others have noted, this is a kind of Pelagianism. What we do is what matters. So we make the liturgy; it is no longer primarily a gift to us from God through the Church. By contrast, Pope Benedict XVI, when Cardinal Ratzinger, pointed out that the “liturgy derives its greatness from what it is, not from what we make of it”.
Nevertheless, the current version of Eucharistic Prayer I blithely begins, “We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving….” These are good words, but they have nothing to do with the majestic Te igitur clementissime Pater of the venerable Roman Canon, where the emphasis is on God and how the divine actio liturgica flows out of the Sanctus and preface — hence the igitur. The first lines of this current ICEL text would make a good hymn, which might be sung to a German chorale melody, but the shift from God to us in an anaphora is not only a violation of consistent tradition, but also a dangerous shift of emphasis that is characteristic of the current translations.