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Magnum Principium – The Great Principle

Maurice Taylor
Magnum Principium
In an article for the May issue of Open House earlier this year, I speculated on the prospect of some papal relief for those who find the present translation of the Missal disappointing and burdensome. I wrote:-
‘There are some who have welcomed the new Missal translation as having a dignity worthy of the subject and an accuracy the need for which cannot be gainsaid. Others argue that the art of translation lies not in reproducing each word and every element of syntax, sentence construction and punctuation of the language ex quo but which, avoiding mere paraphrase, respects the ‘ethos’ of the ‘receiving’ language. Moreover, since the fundamental reason for the reform of the liturgy is to make it more intelligible to its users, it seems perverse to make the wording less easy for those concerned, clergy as well as laity, to grasp as they read or listen.
‘It would be good to know whether the authorities (Pope Francis, the Congregation for Divine Worship, the bishops’ conferences) have any likelihood of doing anything. There are some hopeful indications for those who would like change…’
The answer to that enquiry has arrived much sooner than expected and with a response very favourable to those hoping for change. An Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis (motu proprio, that is ‘on his own responsibility’) announces the decision to move the norms of good liturgical translation away from the criteria demanded by a Vatican document of 2001 called Liturgiam authenticam (criteria which are followed strictly by the Missal in present use) to the criteria followed by responsible scholars who recognise that good translation from Latin to a modern language cannot be achieved by slavish adherence to a word-for-word rendering of the Latin text. As the Letter states: ‘Fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre’.
The pope explains, in the very title and opening sentence of his decree, the reason for this fundamental change: ‘The great principle (Magnum Principium), established by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer be accommodated to the comprehension of the people so that it might be understood, required…’ [stress added].
There is one other important correction which the papal Letter brings to our notice. It concerns the official approval which a liturgical text translated from the Latin must have before it can be used in the celebration of the liturgy. Until now the right and duty to give such approval was understood (by the Holy See) to belong to the Holy See. Many people, including liturgical scholars and experts, questioned that claim. The correct interpretation was made more difficult to discover due to the use in various official documents of a number of different words (probare, adpropare, recognoscere, confirmare). What is the exact meaning of these words? Are any of them synonyms? Do they state the right and duty of the Holy See (i.e., the Congregation for Divine Worship) or of a diocesan bishop/a conference of bishops?
Pope Francis’ Letter clarifies the correct answer to these questions. An official explanatory note attached to the document states the following: ‘The “confirmatio” is an authoritative act by which the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments ratifies the approval of the Bishops, leaving the responsibility of translation, understood to be faithful, to the doctrinal and pastoral ‘munus’ of the Conferences of Bishops. In brief, the “confirmation”, ordinarily granted based on trust and confidence, supposes a positive evaluation of the faithfulness and congruence of the texts produced with respect to the typical Latin text.’ [Here I append two notes: ‘munus’ means ‘the proper and official duty’; ‘typical’ here means ‘official and authoritative’].
Thus the claim hitherto made by the Congregation to be the arbiters responsible for a detailed and full assessment of translations of liturgical texts and a judgment of their worthiness is shown to be exaggerated and a wrongful usurpation of the responsibility of bishops’ conferences. The Apostolic Letter, however, uses eirenic language to explain this teaching and to clarify what until now has been a very confused and disputed state of affairs.
The unfortunate result of the Vatican Congregation’s now superseded insistence, of course, has been the imposition, at considerable financial cost to parishes and to many individuals, of an English translation which is defective and second-rate (to put it no lower). It is an inferior text inadequate for the task of allowing the worshipping community to participate as fully as possible and an embarrassing vehicle for expressing our prayers to God.
Our bishops have a decision to make – to retain our present Missal or to change. The latter option would require some courage since people have become used to the wording, and especially the responses, of the Missal now in use; moreover a considerable amount of money was spent in buying copies of the Missal. Nor any chance of refunds on grounds of false and misleading information, either.
An interesting point. At a weekday Mass recently in a parish of Galloway diocese I explained the options to the congregation: ‘change’ (because nothing but the best for our worship of God and for the fullest participation of all present) or ‘don’t change’ (because we’re just recovering from the previous change; and more expense not wanted). Deliberately, I did not watch as the people voted, lest they be put off by my desire to see how they voted. There were thirty adults present. The result: 19 for change; 11 against.
I end with the proposal (here slightly expanded) with which I finished the article of last May. Has the time for the 1998 translation, approved by all the English-speaking bishops’ conferences but banned by the Congregation for Divine Worship under the leadership of Cardinal Medina Estévez (a non-English speaker), now arrived? Although the 1998 version needs some updating, mainly to include Masses for those made saints in the last twenty years, it would be a great deal easier to resuscitate it than to embark on yet another translation. Is that not the road ahead that merits some serious consideration?
A final irreverent thought. Don’t you think that there is a somewhat Brexit character to this matter of the Missal translation? The options, the choice to be made, the growing awareness that, lacking details, the wrong choice was made, the increasing disdain for Theresa May and her leadership. Ah, well! Who would want to be a bishop these days?!
Maurice Taylor is Bishop Emeritus of Galloway Diocese. He was a member of the Episcopal Board of ICEL for over ten years, where he represented Scotland, and chaired the Commission from 1997-2002. His latest book, Thoughts on the Sunday Gospels, is available from www.bishopmauricetaylor.org.uk price £10 including post and packing.

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  1. Sandra Mc Sheaffrey says:

    Aye, well, aboot time.

  2. Given the puzzling lack of much comment on this site on the new and developing situation relating to liturgical translation following Francis’ Magnum Principium, I thought I should offer this interesting piece by Sara Maitland in this weeks Tablet.( Below)
    I am also wondering if the leadership of the ACP will address with the representatives of the Bishops’ Conference at their forthcoming meeting the possibility of our Irish bishops supporting the New Zealand bishops in their recently announced initiative to explore prudently an alternative translation of the liturgy.
    There is absolutely no reason to suppose that Latin is a superior language 08 November 2017 | by Sara Maitland
    Since Pope Francis’ recent motu proprio liberated us from the bondage of Liturgiam authenticam (at least potentially), I have been thinking a lot about what I believe a good – or even a good enough – liturgical translation might be.
    Some bits of this thinking are easy enough: it must be comprehensible emotionally as well as literally; it must be saying the same thing as not only the Latin “original” says but the same thing (more or less) as all the other translations say; it must be “audible” (as opposed to readable) and “sayable”; it must be beautiful – for me this is a sine qua non, because in the liturgical rites we present God to ourselves and to the world and, as well as being goodness and truth, God is also beauty.
    If all these things are necessary, then it is abundantly clear that we need “dynamic equivalence” in translation, rather than, as Liturgiam authenticam tries to impose upon us, a literal translation as close to the Latin as possible. This is because languages are different from each other; there is not simply a magical code able to transfer texts from one language to another, with its precise meaning reproduced intact.
    In English, for instance, we have virtually no “grammatical gender”; with the exception of ships (how odd), almost everything that does not have a natural gender (which tends to mean everything that is not an animate life form) is, grammatically speaking, gender-free. We have three pronouns in the singular: “she”, “he” and “it” – and only one in the plural: they.
    Latin, however, is grammatically gendered. So if I were to translate without the wicked “dynamic equivalence”, I would have to write, “I laid the table and she looked very attractive”, because mensa, “table” in Latin, is feminine and must therefore have a feminine pronoun. This is patently absurd – but deciding to insert “it” is dynamic equivalence (it is how we do it in English and not how they do it in Latin).
    Latin is a fully inflected language (a noun has a different form if it is the subject or the object of a sentence and so on); English is unusually uninflected. But, perhaps because of this rather rudimentary grammar, it has an enormous vocabulary – and it is quite subtle; the “right” word depends very much on context. Take an easy phrase, “Dies irae” (“Day of wrath”): we have, on the whole, used the word “wrath” to describe God’s “anger” and it has taken on a kind of divine “weight” but, in fact, my thesaurus gives me 31 synonyms for wrath: anger, rage, fury, annoyance, indignation, outrage, pique, spleen, chagrin, vexation, exasperation, dudgeon, high dudgeon, hot temper, bad temper, bad mood, ill humour, irritation, irritability, crossness, displeasure, discontentment, disgruntlement, irascibility, cantankerousness, peevishness, querulousness, crabbiness, testiness, tetchiness, snappishness.
    “Wrath”, moreover, is an Anglo-Saxon word so we are not really meant to be using it in liturgical translation. If we followed the “rules” of Liturgiam authenticam and used the word closest to the Latin “irae”, the translation would be “irritation”. (“Behold the day of the Lord comes with irritation,” as Isaiah did not say in 13:9.) I may too often feel that God is being “tetchy” or “cantankerous” but … “Wrath” is an example of good “dynamic equivalence”.
    It is not just vocabulary or syntactical rules. The differences between languages go further than “grammar”. Sometimes it feels as though elements of our Church were implicated in a linguistic equivalent of “institutional racism” – there is absolutely no reason to suppose that Latin is a superior language or one better equipped to fumble our way towards an always-inadequate articulation of the divine. Is it worth remembering that the Orthodox think the Roman Church’s translations are incompetent and always have been, and that Jerome was distinctly snotty towards Augustine because the latter did not know Greek – which was “obviously” the natural language of Christian theology? Is it worth remembering that Jesus almost certainly spoke neither Latin nor Greek? Or that Mary probably sang her son to sleep in Aramaic and perhaps taught him the Scriptures in Hebrew?
    The writers of Genesis knew better. God deliberately threw down the Tower of Babel and divided the human languages. That was pretty “dynamic”. We should celebrate diversity in the word.

  3. In the build-up to the imposition of the new translation, the Tablet had very little discussion and did not encourage correspondence about the looming threat.

  4. Joe, in fairness to the Tablet,I think I can remember many learned articles and much expert debate too in the letters’ pages in the period prior to the imposition of the new liturgy.

  5. Thank you for this Bishop Maurice
    Language is very important. You note things well.
    However I think it is important to remember that things can get ‘lost in translation” or ‘taken out of context” to name just a couple of ways things can get mixed up !
    Accent is very important too and often ‘deep attentive listening ” is called for to imbibe the full and true meaning of what is being said.
    One can talk about the Spoken and the Written Word. Oral tradition comes to mind here too.
    I was lucky enough to be able to learn 4 languages while at Secondary School during the late 1960’s and up to 1972.
    One of them was French and starting from scratch :
    I managed to get a great grasp of French grammer and language and vocabulary during 5 years of learning.Sometimes all those “irregular’ verbs were the hardest to memorise.
    May I am flying off at a tangent now so I will leave it there but I thought I would throw in a few comments !
    Thank you
    Kind regards
    Michael Sullivan

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