New Roman Missal Translation

Translation is a difficult business with religion and it’s something I spend a great deal of time thinking about. The words we use in English are only pale translations of the Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, or Latin originals. We trust that great scholars put together these translations and yet what we are left with is many approximations of the original source texts. As scholarship continues, these translations get better and better in some ways, but choices are always made: do you keep the meter of the poetry or the meaning? Wordplay is lost. Balances must be struck between technical accuracy and understandable English. Do you use an exact uncommon word? Or a close-enough common one?

This weekend, this challenge will be understood first-hand by English speaking Roman Catholics in the United States. For the first time, a new translation of the liturgy will be used in services. This new Third Edition of the Roman Missal, first established by Pope Paul IV in 1970, includes many changes which are intended to bring the words closer to their meaning in the original Latin.

The downside? More difficult vocabulary. Do you know what “consubstantial” means? Me, neither. Read on for more!

Roman Catholic Mass (Chaplain John Burnette)
Roman Catholic Mass (Chaplain John Burnette) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I admit that this is outside my typical blogging range, but I was raised Roman Catholic. While I left that flock many years ago, the Catholic mass still echoes in my brain. It’s a beautiful text. It will still be a beautiful text after the changes, but a different one.

Let’s take the Nicene Creed. This is the text recited in every Roman Catholic mass and is one of the things that I remember most from my youth in the Catholic church. (You can find a full text of the old and new versions here.)

My example word, “consubstantial” comes from the second verse. While it previously started:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, one in Being
with the Father.

The new creed starts with:

I believe in one God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial
with the Father;

The text moves from a joint declaration (“We believe”) to an individual one (“I believe”). The text “one in Being” was replaced by that difficult word, “consubstantial”. Jesus is no longer “eternally begotten”  but rather begotten “before all ages”, a switch from a present eternal to a primordial one.

Other changes come later:

  • Jesus is no longer “born of the Virgin Mary”, but instead “incarnate” of her.
  • Jesus no longer “suffered, died, and was buried,” as three separate things, but now only “suffered death and was buried”, as two. (And how does that affect the Passion?)

And it is not just the Nicene Creed that has changed, but many other aspects of the mass. When the priest says “Lord be with you”, the congregation used to reply “and also with you”. They will now reply “and with your spirit” instead. I could go on and on.

The intent of this change is to bring the English text in line with the Latin one. While the previous translators aimed for simplicity, the new ones aimed for exactness of language– even when it means that churchgoers will need to boost their vocabularies. The FAQ from the United States Congress of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) states the goals as:

The texts of the revised translation of the Roman Missal are marked by a heightened style of English speech and a grammatical structure that closely follows the Latin text.  In addition, many biblical and poetic images, such as “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” (Communion Rite) and “…from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Eucharistic Prayer III) have been restored.

Whether you like the text or not, one thing is certain: Roman Catholics are in for a change on Sunday. And it’s a great time to reflect on the easily forgotten role translation plays in every aspect of our religious lives, regardless of whether you are Catholic or Protestant. Even most Jews experience religion at least partly in the vernacular.

Up next: Thanksgiving food coma. Happy Thanksgiving!

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