As the Church prays

Column: ‘As the church prays . . . ’ or why translations matter

by Michael Podrebarac

Believe it or not, folks, it actually looks like a new English translation of the Mass is drawing close. It’s really going to happen after all!

Nine years after a “third” post-conciliar edition of the Roman Missal was announced by Pope John Paul II, and seven years after that new edition was first published in Latin (the “typical edition” from which all vernacular translations are made), the U.S. bishops are expected to vote on the final sections of the proposed English translation this November. It is estimated that, with an expected timely confirmation by the Holy See, it will take about a year for the new missal to arrive at an altar near you.

Now, many have asked, “Why did this have to take so long?”

Well, for one thing, translating one language into another is a complex process. Considering that this translation will most likely carry the English-speaking church through the sacred mysteries for a long, long time, it had to be done carefully.

The process also opened up quite a discussion among bishops and scholars about the best way of going about translating Latin into English. Should translations be word-for-word (sometimes called “literal equivalence”) or should they rather express the overall meaning of the text, even if not always word-for-word (often called “dynamic equivalence”)? And, of course, there has been the argument that both methods have merits and limitations, leaving the need for some individual discretion and compromise at certain points.

Needless to say, for those who have followed the whole process these past nine years, it has been an extremely interesting journey . . . and one that’s not over just yet.

For, you see, what we say at Mass expresses what we believe about the Mass. And not only what we believe about the Mass, but in a sense, about our whole Catholic faith as well. This is summed up in a nice little phrase attributed to St. Propser of Aquitaine (c. 390- c. 455): Lex orandi est lex credendi.

The literal translation of this Latin phrase is: “The law of prayer is the law of belief.” Its dynamic translation would be: “As the church prays, so it believes.”

Both get the point across, don’t they? The words we use at Mass really matter. They’ve been around for hundreds and hundreds of years in Latin. How we translate them into English is crucial if we are not only to celebrate the mystery of faith, but also if we are to understand the faith of mystery.

When it comes, the new translation will undoubtedly take some getting used to. But perhaps with it will come a cherished opportunity to reflect upon what we are saying about what we believe. Stay tuned.

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Michael Podrebarac

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