Last November at #aarsbl I had the opportunity to attend a session dedicated to the work of John O’Malley, hosted by the Vatican II Studies unit. This was my favorite session of the conference (after the Religion in Europe unit’s sessions, of course). This is in part because although I’ve never had a chance to study with him, I am a total John O’Malley fangirl. I’ve used his work on the Council of Trent in my research to contextualize Mother Angélique Arnauld’s reform of Port-Royal and I’ve read some of his work on Vatican II. I am giddy with excitement to see what he says in his forthcoming book on Vatican I!

Anyway, one of the main themes throughout the presentations was the relationship between history and theology, a topic that regular readers already know I am very interested in. I especially appreciated the beginning of Brenna Moore’s presentation when she talked about how John O’Malley helped her to understand her scholarly vocation in relation to the study of religion and the study of history because—given my scholarly background in historical theology—that is a question that I have also had to wrestle with. It was in response to a question on the topic of history and theology from Massimo Faggioli that John O’Malley stated clearly the importance of historical theology: you don’t know what and where you are unless you know your history.

However, the presentation that stood out to me the most was the one by David Stosur, “A Tale of Two Translations: Rhetorical Style and the Post-conciliar English Translations of the Mass.” The key question that I noted from Stosur’s presentation was: should English translation rely on the Latin translation of the Paschal Mystery? This is something interesting to consider and reflects an overall apophatic approach to theology—a recognition of the imperfection of our words, even those in Latin, to express the reality of God. Most of his presentation involved comparisons between the 1973 English translation and the 2010 translation—the one we currently use—evaluating them in the context of Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation.

Ricoeur’s philosophy of translation uses the idea of language and signs to get at the overall process of translation. He emphasizes the idea that there is no real criterion for a good translation, because “this absolute criterion would be the same meaning, written somewhere, on top of and between the original text and the target text.”[1] Now, for the liturgy, we do, in a sense, have that absolute criterion, which is the Paschal Mystery, as Strosur indicated, but again, as humans, we do not have a perfect understanding of that mystery so all of our language will retain imperfections in expressing it. Instead of looking for a perfect equivalence, Ricoeur argues that we should practice what he calls “linguistic hospitality.” He writes:

Bringing the reader to the author, bringing the author to the reader, at the risk of serving and of betraying two masters: this is to practice what I like to call linguistic hospitality. It is this which serves as a model for other forms of hospitality that I think resemble it: confessions, religions, are they not like languages that are foreign to one another, with their lexicon, their grammar, their rhetoric, their stylistics, which we must learn in order to make our way into them? And is eucharistic hospitality not to be taken up with the same risks of translation—betrayal? I retain these risky analogies and these question marks… (Ricoeur 2006, 23–24)

This linguistic hospitality is a recognition of the imperfections of translation, of the aim for equivalence without identity, as Ricoeur says. It is “where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house” (Ricoeur 2006, 10).

Now, part of the reason I find all this interesting is because I am currently working on a translation of Mother Angélique’s writings about her reform of the convent of Port-Royal. As I go through the process of translation, I find myself thinking a lot about how to make the English language best express what the French is saying. And through this experience I have found more and more that although it’s important to try to stay faithful to the original language, sometimes the literal translation is not the best translation. As Ricoeur notes, “the work of the translator does not move from the word to the sentence, to the text, to the cultural group, but conversely: absorbing vast interpretations of the spirit of a culture, the translator comes down again from the text, to the sentence and to the word” (Ricoeur 2006, 31).

As a side note, in recently cleaning out some boxes of papers that I had moved with me to Los Angeles, I came across a series of articles on biblical translation, given to me by my former professor Fr. James Walsh, S.J. and, given that I was in the process of writing this post about translation, I took some time to reread them.[2] In these articles, Fr. Walsh generally rejected the idea of dynamic or functional equivalence in biblical translation because he distinguishes between the roles of the translator and the exegete. In his perspective, the translator should not be interpreting the text for the reader. He’s particularly concerned about translations that, in their effort to make the biblical text understandable to the modern reader, betray the effect of the biblical text on that reader, which creates theological problems. Although I am sympathetic to his perspective (which may come from the fact that he was my Old Testament professor when I was an undergrad and I found his methods of biblical interpretation, which focused on word choice and structure, useful in interpreting other texts, like Blaise Pascal’s Pensées), I do agree with the response by Roger Omanson that the amount of interpretation in a translation has to depend on the function of that text. When I’m doing scholarly work on Angélique Arnauld, I try to remain as faithful as possible to the original language when I translate her work in articles, etc. However, in my forthcoming translation, my concern is also making the text understandable to a non-specialist audience, so I’ve generally taken Omanson’s recommended approach: “Rather than reject dynamic equivalence translations as ‘wrong-headed,’ is it not the better approach to retain the literal translation when possible while working within the framework of functional equivalence?” (Omanson 1990, 505). In terms of the translation of the liturgy itself, I think we can make a distinction between the biblical text which can be taught and mediated through, especially, the homily (Walsh 1990, 508), and the liturgy itself which should be easier to understand as is.

This latter point is made also by Gerald O’Collins’s Lost in Translation: The English Language and the Catholic Mass (Liturgical Press, 2017). Stosur’s AAR presentation actually inspired me to go back to the book exhibit and purchase this book. It’s a short book that I had picked up and considered on an earlier visit to the book exhibit. At that time, I had put it back because I assumed (correctly) that this would be a polemical work targeted against the current translation. But after hearing Stosur’s presentation, I was inspired to know more and to learn what O’Collins had to say on the topic.

O’Collins’s main purpose in this book is to compare the 1998 translation “that never was” to the 2010 translation to argue for the liturgical and theological superiority of the 1998 translation (O’Collins 2017, viii, 111). Furthermore, given Pope Francis’s motu proprio of September 2017, he calls for the English-speaking bishops to adopt the 1998 translation and reject the 2010 (O’Collins 2017, 115-6). His dislike of the 2010 translation, is clear; for example, he asserts in the preface, “Before I die, I would be delighted to celebrate once again the Eucharist in my native language” (O’Collins 2017, viii).

The basic method O’Collins uses to make this argument is to compare the texts, primarily between the 1998 and 2010 Missals, but also including the 1973 Missal and the Latin as needed. This process of comparison does get a bit tedious over the course of the entire text, as the key points that O’Collins wants to argue are established fairly early. Namely, first, that the 2010 translation process was an unnecessary “power” grab by the Holy See that does not fulfill the spirit of collegiality that was emphasized in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The Vatican II text states that “it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority… to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language” (SC 36). He explains that the centralizing process under Pope John Paul II led, at least for the English-language translation, to the work being done by the bishops being taken over and imposed upon by Vatican organizations. And, second, that the 2010 translation is ultimately deficient as a translation, for numerous reasons, but especially because of the “sacred vernacular,” which O’Collins defines as “a language that falls halfway between Latin and English” (O’Collins 2017, vii; see also, 27–30, 37, 104). This language, he argues, hardly inspires the “fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations” that Vatican II desired for all the faithful (SC 14). Furthermore, Sacrosanctum Concilium asserts that the liturgy should be easy to understand and not require much explanation (SC 34). Because this is the goal, Fr. Walsh’s rejection of dynamic equivalence doesn’t work as well for the liturgy as it might for the biblical text.

Ultimately, O’Collins argues that we would do better in liturgy to have a meaning-for-meaning, not a word-for-word translation. The change in the Vatican’s instructions on translation is, in part, a cause of the problem. Unfortunately, the meaning-for-meaning approach that was given in Comme le prévoit (1969) was later replaced by a word-for-word approach in Liturgiam Authenticam (2001). O’Collins blames the latter approach for the translation we have today, in which he notes eight areas of failure: “the choice of odd, ‘stately’ words; obsequious ways of addressing God; the failure to use inclusive language; inaccurate rendering of the Nicene Creed, which is in fact the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed of 381; a total lack of ecumenical sensibility; misleading or even mistaken translations; and theological language that could lead people seriously astray” (O’Collins 2017, 37). I could say a lot about all of these, but a few stand out to me.

For example, one point that O’Collins makes is in the lack of inclusive language, especially in the Creed. As he notes, although the Gloria says, “on earth peace to people of good will,” the Creed says, “for us men and for our salvation” (see O’Collins 2017, 41 for this discussion). Every time I hear that in church, I think, “What about women?” I actually mentioned how I’ve addressed this concern in the context of my teaching in an earlier post. And, I do get it, the Creed is using “men” in an inclusive manner, the way the English language used to, but, as John Wilkins (the author of the first chapter of O’Collins’s text) notes, “By the 1980s it was hardly possible in ordinary speech or writing to continue to use the words ‘men’ or ‘man’ as applying also to women” (O’Collins 2017, 7). By the time the new translation was introduced, my own experience in churches (which had regularly covered California, DC, Massachusetts, and Missouri) was that most people had just started saying “for us and for our salvation,” which is what the 1998 translation did. I’ve noticed that some priests have already started doing that again in spite of the effort to eliminate the gender-inclusive language in the 2010 translation of the Creed. Of course, some might say that I’m just being nitpicky about this language, and it might not bother me as much, except for the long history of misogyny in the Catholic Church, like the Aristotelian view that women were just misbegotten men or the whole early modern querelle des femmes which went so far as to question whether or not women were even human. Language has a history and I seriously question the rationale and motives behind returning to gender-exclusive terminology in the Creed.

Again, in discussing the choice of “old-fashioned English words that hardly belong to the spoken and written English of today” (O’Collins 2017, 38), O’Collins mentions the use of charity instead of love. Now, charity is obviously a theological term that refers to a certain type of love, but is that entirely clear to the average churchgoer? This semester I had my students read Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009) and I realized quickly based on student comments that I had to do a short lecture on the meaning of charity in the Catholic tradition. The students had read charity and immediately associated it with “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need,” not a theological virtue associated with the love of God and the love of neighbor, which is the primary way that Pope Benedict XVI used it in that encyclical. I imagine the majority of average Catholics make the same association and, as O’Collins points out in a later example, things like this violate the instructions of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which says that the liturgical texts “should be within the people’s powers of comprehension, and normally should not require much explanation” (SC 34).

O’Collins points out the choice of “for many” instead of “for all” as a particularly problematic point that requires a lot of explanation in violation of the above instruction. He asserts, “After forty years of hearing that Christ laid down his life ‘for all,’ switching to dying ‘for many’ unfortunately requires such explanation. Otherwise people could be misled into thinking that Christ did not die ‘for all.’ The reversal promoted by Pope Benedict to ‘for you and for many’ can too easily suggest that Christ died for some but not others” (O’Collins 2017, 49). Of course, my mind immediately connects the change in language to Jansenism and the fifth proposition condemned by Cum occasione (1653), which looks at the statement that “it is semi-Pelagian to say that Christ died or shed His blood for all men without exception,” and says that it is condemned as “false, rash scandalous, and understood in this sense, that Christ died for the salvation of the predestined, impious, blasphemous, contumelious, dishonoring to divine piety, and heretical.” O’Collins is concerned in his text about the Pelagianism of the 2010 translation, evident in translations that imply that humans can “merit” salvation, but I’m more concerned about the Jansenist influence, a closing off of the church, Christ, and salvation instead of using more welcoming language.

O’Collins ultimately argues for the superiority of the 1998 translation because it was based on more linguistically-sound guidelines for translation, guidelines that allow it to be more liturgically and theologically accessible to the faithful. My own experience with translation confirms this perspective; a literal, word-for-word translation is not, in many instances, going to be the most accessible and, in this we agree with such theological authorities as St. Jerome (“If I translate word for word, it sounds absurd.”) and St. Thomas Aquinas (“It is the task of a good translator, when translating material dealing with the Catholic faith, to preserve the meaning but to adapt the mode of expression, so that it is in harmony with the idiom of the language into which he is translating. … When anything expressed in one language is translated merely word-for-word into another, it will be no surprise if perplexity concerning the meaning of the original sometimes occurs.”).[3] Although I am probably not as invested in arguing for a new liturgical translation as O’Collins is in his text, it would be nice to have a liturgy that is actually in a vernacular that people will understand.

[1]: Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, trans. by Eileen Brennan (Routledge, 2006), 34.

[2]: The three articles are: J. P. M. Walsh, “Contemporary English Translations of Scripture,” Theological Studies 50 (1989): 336–58; Roger L. Omanson, “Dynamic Equivalence Translations Reconsidered,” Theological Studies 51 (1990): 497–505; J. P. M. Walsh, “Dynamic or Formal Equivalence? A Response,” Theological Studies 51 (1990): 505–8.

[3]: Both quotes are cited by O’Collins 2017, 20–21.

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks for this very interesting piece Elissa. From a pastoral perspective I completely agree about translation being understandable.

    Many blessings

  2. Yes!! I love the idea of approaching translation through the lens of hospitality and charity — it seems like such a simple idea, but whenever we approach theology as if it were independent of reality and completely abstract — I think that’s when it gets tricky. Understanding context and how a translation will ultimately be used makes so much sense. I studied liturgy, and the work that you’re doing is super exciting to me! Words and language hold so much power, and it’s encouraging to see this kind of work being done.

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