Local people must be able to understand liturgical translations

Four years after Pope Francis modified canon law around translating the Mass, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, 22 October, published an executive decree formalizing the new process.

Key in the decree is an emphasis on one of the fundamentals of communication; that people need to be able to understand what is being said.

However the issue of faithfully translating the liturgical texts has been around for more than ten years, but on Friday, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments emphasised three facets of fidelity in regard to the liturgical translations: the original text, the language in which it is translated and the ability of the congregation to comprehend the text.

“The adverb ‘faithfully’ [in revised canon 838] implies a threefold fidelity: firstly, to the original text, secondly to the particular language into which it is translated and finally to the comprehension of the text by the addressees who are introduced to the vocabulary of biblical revelation and liturgical tradition.”

The decree also quoted Francis’s 2017 instruction: “While 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, nevertheless some particular terms must also be considered in the context of the entire Catholic faith because each translation of texts must be congruent with sound doctrine.”

The new document urges attention to the way local languages are actually spoken and are evolving.

It seems to open the way to wider use in English translations of inclusive language, such as “people” or “men and women” instead of “men,”.

It also seems open to translations that may not be word-for-word, nit-pickingly accurate, but still convey the teaching of the church.

Caution is also urged.

“The adoption of vernacular languages in the liturgy must, among other things, take into account that the fundamental criterion is the participation of the people in the liturgical celebrations and not other types of considerations, such as social issues or issues related to identity.”

Francis is on record as saying that changes to canon law take precedence over the norms for translation contained in a 2001 instruction from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments

“One can no longer hold that translations must conform in every point to the norms of [the 2001] ‘Liturgiam Authenticam’ as was done in the past.”

In 2017, the time since the pope’s original announcement, New Zealand’s bishops expressed their desired to collaborate with English speaking Bishops’ Conferences around the world to consider the possibility of an alternative translation of the Roman Missal and the review of other liturgical texts.

As a liturgist commented to CathNews, the new decree may actually challenge the earlier collegial intention of the New Zealand bishops and their colleagues to have one English translation.

“Just because various countries, nationalities and cultures speak English does not mean they use the English language in the same way”.

“As the decree says, ‘the congregation must be able to comprehend the text’ “.he said.


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