19/9/10 – Why does the English translation have to be closer to the Latin?

As we mentioned before, a new English translation of the Roman Missal is being prepared.  This will be used in English speaking countries throughout the Catholic Church.  To help us learn more about this new translation, we’re trying to answer some of the key questions here.

Why does the English translation have to be closer to the Latin?

Last week we mentioned that one feature of the new English translation of the missal will be a closer relationship between it and the Latin version.  The Latin edition of the missal is considered the normative form upon which the English version of the missal is to be based.

When the last edition of the missal was translated into English, a particular method of translation was used.  This method, which was referred to as “dynamic equivalence”, allowed some freedom in the choice of words provided the general meaning was retained.  Some scholars were in favour of this method, while others were not; often because they believed much of the richness of the original texts was lost.

In 2001, the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments released a document, Liturgicam Authenticam.  This document focused on the use of vernacular languages in the liturgical books such as the missal.  It insisted on the original Latin texts to be translated as exactly as possible, mindful that languages like English have their own structural, grammatical and rhythmic conventions that are not found in Latin.  The Congregation’s hope is that the richness and depth of meaning that is found in the Latin texts is also captured in the English translation, as well as the examples of imagery in the prayers; many of which originate from the scriptures.

3 thoughts on “19/9/10 – Why does the English translation have to be closer to the Latin?

  1. I understand your point, but as a post-Vatican-II convert I still find the Church’s fondness for Latin to be a bit difficult to fathom completely. The use of Latin as the language of the Church occurred well after the time of Christ or the very early Church. Neither Jesus nor our earliest Church fathers spoke or understood Latin. Can you help me understand why it would be important to maintain close ties to a language that is no longer spoken today and which wasn’t known to the early Church at all?

    I hope I don’t sound argumentative here – that’s truly not my intent. I just don’t “get it”.

    Thank you, and God bless you!


  2. As someone who has grown up with celebrating Mass in English, and having an extremely limited understanding of Latin, I’m afraid I wouldn’t consider myself able to provide a thorougly accurate answer. I will share some of what I know (and a bit of my own opinion, perhaps) in the hope it may help.

    Firstly, let me say that many people are wondering about this same question – you’re not the only person to think they “don’t get it.”

    It is true our Church did not begin as a Latin-speaking one, at least not universally. I suppose you could describe our retention of Latin as a result of “long-held tradition” – it’s not something Christ handed down to the apostles, which they handed down, etc. It did take longer for Latin to replace the vernacular languages and become the language used consistently within the Catholic Church.

    Also as you noted, the widespread use of vernacular languages in the liturgy has seen Latin fall into relative disuse in many places. I suppose where the Latin text retains a purpose in such cases is as a source text. After all, if the missal has to be written in dozens of different languages, and all the translations have to convey the same meaning, which version do you base all the translations on?

    Many of the prayers we have in the missal now find their origins in, or are quoted directly from missals composed many centuries ago; a number of which would have been originally composed in Latin. In this way, the passing on of the Latin texts helps to preserve the prayers in their original forms (or at least close to it) as much as possible.

    The danger of continually translating from translations, and one need to retain an (as much as possible) original source text, is the more you do it, the more the meaning of the text distances itself from the original. This isn’t due to anyone’s deliberate motives, but simply as a result of translating from one language with it’s own vocubulary, grammatical and structural conventions to another which might have very different vocabulary and conventions.

    Of course, we could still use Latin if we wished. In fact, while Vatican II permitted the use of vernacular languages in the liturgy, it only suggested it may be worthwhile for some parts of the Mass and encouraged continued use of Latin. Of course, history shows that this permission has been applied far more extensively. As the official language of the universal Church, it may also be appropriate to use Latin at gatherings when a large number of language groups are represented and a common language is difficult to determine. Pope Benedict celebrated parts of the Masses in Latin in his recent trip to England. Although given that the English are reasonably familiar with their own langauge, I’d expect the reasoning here was based more on tradition rather than pastoral sensitivity.

    On a somewhat related note, and perhaps somewhat in keeping with your line of thinking, the blog PrayTell recently noted that papal latinist of nearly fifty years Fr Reginald Foster, was asked in an interview whether Latin was a sacred language. His response? “A sacred language? In the first century every prostitute in Rome spoke it fluently – and better than most people in the Roman Curia.”

    I hope this helps, at least in part on giving you a bit more information; or at least my thoughts on why we might still need a Latin text to work with.


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