What Are We Looking For In A Translation

The other day I read yet another article on the new translation of the Roman Missal that will go into effect in Advent of this year. I have heard many defend and applaud the changes in the language of the Mass, while others lament many of the particular changes as well as the broader shift they fear the changes signal.

I have read or heard any number of people laud the changes as being more faithful to the literal meaning of the Latin phrases in the Mass. In fact, that is not consistently the case. (For example, the Latin Word astare in the Eucharistic Prayer, which literally means “stand in your presence,” is being translated as “be in your presence,” apparently because of the fear that a literal translation might suggest to people that it is acceptable to stand during the Eucharistic Prayer.) More importantly, however, it is legitimate to ask whether literal translation of the Latin is the most important consideration in the language we use for the Mass.

While I appreciate a desire that the language of liturgy be beautiful, there is also a value in clarity and intelligibility, especially since is language the congregation is hearing, not studying. The article I just read says that the average number of words per sentence in the new Eucharistic Prayer is 35.4, an almost 80% increase in sentence length. (In Eucharistic Prayer I, all but one of the sentences is longer than 40 words long, with the longest at 82.)

More than length, some of the phrases are downright confusing. The article gave as one example a Mass preface that reads, “For when you children were scattered afar by sin, through the Blood of your Son and the power of the Spirit, you gathered them you yourself…” Absent careful recitation by the presider, people are likely to hear that the Blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit scattered God’s children. The author of the article lamented that “[e]ven read well, this prayer will likely lose all but its best-educated and most highly attentive hearers.”

Part of me cautions to await Advent and the usage of the new translation before making a judgment. Part of me, however, is concerned that the new translation has elevated a desire to be faithful to a literal translation of the Latin (except where it has decided for other reasons that a literal translation is undesirable) over the goal of language that will be meaningful to the congregation. I pray I am wrong in this concern.

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