In a profoundly important and unexpected document issued on September 9, 2017 (see document), Pope Francis, corrected an ongoing neuralgic liturgical issue impacting the translation of liturgical texts. While this might sound terribly esoteric, for the mass going Catholics who have had to endure the stilted, inelegant, unpoetic and slavishly literal, most recent revision of our mass texts, this decree will come as an incredible breath of fresh air.
As a student of the liturgy for over 50 years, the tectonic call of the Second Vatican Council, permitting mass to be celebrated in the vernacular and not just in the traditional Latin language, was one of the most visible and well received changes ushered in by the Council. Toward the end of the Council that spanned the years 1962-1965, the English-speaking Bishops, aware of the Herculean task of translating the myriad of revised liturgical texts into English, established an International Commission of liturgical, theological and linguistic experts, to draft the new English Liturgical texts for the various English speaking Episcopal Conferences of Bishops. ICEL (International Committee on English in the Liturgy) under the leadership of its first Executive Director, Mr. John Page, provided an historically invaluable contribution to the English-speaking Church throughout the world, in their first and second generation translations of liturgical texts. Not perfect, yet they strove to be faithful to the criteria articulated by Rome in its first document on guiding principles for translators (see Document, Comme le Prévoit) – it is the ‘meaning’ of these venerable texts that is paramount, and not just the slavish translation of ancient words and phrases. It was a guiding principle known as ‘dynamic equivalence.’ Early in the new millennium, however, influenced by an ongoing trend toward greater centralization of authority in Rome, as well as ideological tendencies that sadly witnessed a growing retrenchment toward pre-conciliar liturgical forms and even the broad permission, under Pope Benedict, of the use of the pre-Conciliar liturgical rites, (see Document, Summorum Pontificum), new criteria were issued guiding liturgical translators (see Document, Liturgiam Authenticam). No longer would the criterion of dynamic equivalence be utilized but rather a slavish, word for word, reversion to the originating Latin text and syntax. The history of the shoddy evisceration of ICEL and it's 'redirection,' is masterfully documented in the John Wilkins article, appearing in the November 28, 2005 issue of Commonweal, "Lost in Translation."
While Conferences of Bishops understandably reacted to this abrupt shift, the trend was set, and a mandate was given for a wholesale revision of the original translations utilizing the new criteria. The painstaking work that ICEL had already exercised in preparing their 'second generation' translation of the Roman Missal, was 'set aside,' in favor of the 'oversight' to English translations of the Mass and Sacraments by a newly created Roman committee called, Vox Clara. (See, "Revisiting Liturgiam Authenticam - Part I: Vox Clara," by Rita Ferrone). As a consequence, ‘one in being with the Father,’ gave way to ‘consubstantial with the Father,’ a direct transliteration from the Latin, that continues to mystify folks to this day.
While the USCCB acquiesced to this change and dutifully implemented the new translation, a number of European Conferences of Bishops balked at the usurpation of their prerogative of having substantial oversight of their translations and revisions. The German Episcopal Conference refused to utilize the new literal criterion and continued to use their older translation (see NCR article). Up to the last moment, before a final vote on the new translation by the USCCB, Bishop Trautman of Erie, Pa., vainly attempted to halt the steamrolling of a new and deficient translation on the American Church (see, "Last ditch effort to dump Mass translations," by Jerry Filteau, in Nov. 6, 2009 NCR).
Tension continued and not a few Conferences of Bishops during their ad limina visits with Pope Francis, brought up their concerns with this issue and the implication it gave on minimizing the legitimate oversight of liturgical issues by National Conferences of Bishops, articulated by the Council. With the Motu Proprio, Magnum Principium, that legitimate oversight has now been restored. Does this mean another new translation of our Mass and other liturgical texts? Don’t hold your breath! However, the door is now open to begin the painstaking and meticulous work by liturgists, theologians and poets, in taking the profound meaning of our ancient prayer texts and giving new shape to them in an English translation that will be beautiful, and poetic and worthy of the language we call our own.
One possible pathway in reclaiming a translation that would be worthy of the principles articulated in Comme le Prévoit, namely, dynamic equivalency, and be respectful of the literally years of careful scholarship that ICEL exercised in meticulously preparing a second generation translation of the Roman Missal, is to resurrect this monumental draft that was shelved in favor of the present turgid, inelegant, 'pony' transliteration from the Latin. Time will tell.