Worth a new Mass?
By RUPERT SHORTT
How should seminal texts from the remote past be translated or otherwise recast in a contemporary idiom? When it comes to liturgy, the matter is of much more than academic interest. British readers, especially, will be familiar with the ferocity of quarrels between Prayer Book traditionalists and modernizers in the Anglican Church. Now, though, the rumblings are coming from English-speaking Catholics, whose own services have been changed by the new translation of the Missal introduced earlier this month.
There are two broad schools of thought about translation. In one, described by the biblical scholar Eugene Nida as dynamic equivalence, entire sentences are reconceived as if written in normal modern English, with subordinate clauses and avoidance of repetition. Others, though – including Robert Alter, another distinguished voice – believe that this approach is based on a misunderstanding of literary translation. For exponents of formal equivalence such as Alter, the translator’s job is not to make the reader believe that the text was written in normal modern English in the first place, but to suggest the flavour of the original language; and this can be achieved only by a measure of imitation and by refusing to gloss the meaning of the original through paraphrase. The King James Version largely sticks to formal equivalence. More recent translations, including the New Jerusalem Bible and the Good News Bible, use dynamic equivalence much more extensively. A notorious liturgical example of formal equivalence comes in the Book of Common Prayer collect that begins "Prevent us O Lord in all our doings", where "Prevent" (a literal rendering of prevenire) means "Go before".
Pope Benedict – who wishes the Latin Mass had never been replaced by vernacular versions in the first place – clearly stands in Alter’s camp. Aware that there is no going back on the vernacular, he has long set his sights on at least securing a more stringent English-language version of the Missal. His chief concern about the liturgy launched in 1973 lay not just with its perceived banality, but also with its whiff of Pelagianism – the heresy of stressing unaided human resources, while downplaying the centrality of divine grace. The new Missal thus sticks more closely to the Latin original in emphasizing the reverence and humility due to God.
But even some of those who share Vatican reservations about the 1973 Missal nevertheless fear that the latest version creates fresh problems in the process of solving others. High among the list of complaints is that the new language is artificial. The “cup” elevated by the celebrant has become the “chalice”, for example; the simplicity of “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the Word and I shall be healed” has been replaced with a reference to the centurion’s comment “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof”; “one with the Father” has given way to what in English sounds like theological jargon, namely “consubstantial”; and Christ’s blood is no longer shed “for all” but “for many”.
The pity is that a fine new translation, agreed by Anglophone bishops’ conferences before the turn of the millennium, was unjustly swept aside by allies of the then Cardinal Ratzinger, who assembled a new team to start the process all over again. Given the difference between English and other languages, the powers that be in Rome would have done better to let native speakers take ownership of the process without interference. My interim verdict is that the 2011 Missal is a curate’s egg. Only time will tell. A TLS review will appear next year.