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Deus ex machina

What Google Translate tells us about the state of the liturgy

  • Fr William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • June 11, 2012
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Below in random order are four translations from Latin of the Opening Prayer (Collect) for this past Sunday, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

One is from the Sacramentary we used until last November. Another is from the translation approved by the English-speaking bishops’ conferences of the world in 1998. One more is the translation currently mandated for use. Yet another was done by Google Translate, an online computer translation program.

Without checking any liturgical books, can you figure out which is which? Can you pick out the one done by a machine?

1. Lord Jesus Christ, in this most wonderful sacrament you have left us the memorial of your passion; deepen our reverence for the mystery of your body and blood, that we may experience within us the fruit of your redemption. You live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever.

2. God, who in this wonderful Sacrament left us a memorial of your Passion, grant, we beseech you, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood, that we may always be conscious of the fruits of your redemption in us. Who live and reign with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.

3. O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your passion, grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your body and blood that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption. Who live and reign with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

4. Lord Jesus Christ, you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial of your suffering and death. May our worship of this sacrament of your body and blood help us to experience the salvation you won for us and the peace of the kingdom where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

If a machine that has no faith, no emotions, no aesthetic sense and no connection with the Church produces a translation that is indistinguishable from or even better than the official one, what does that say about the quality of the official translation or translators?

The introduction to the Roman Missal states that, "It should be borne in mind that the primary purpose of the translation of the texts is not for meditation, but rather for their proclamation or singing during an actual celebration."

So, if you had to proclaim one of them in a way that conveys meaning without stumbling over punctuation or losing your breath, which would you use? Would you use any of them, or would you seek a prayer that originates in the language and the experience of faith today rather than a translation of ancient prayers?

As many predicted when the new translation was imposed, priests increasingly ad lib edits of the texts in order to make them intelligible to their congregations and able to be proclaimed sensibly before English-speaking human beings rather than machines. Of course, those priests risk being reported to their superiors by those who go to Mass to monitor priests instead of for the sake of joining the community in prayer. Is this what Rome wanted in mandating the new texts?

Will the next development be a partial or complete boycott of the new translation? There is, of course, a precedent for that, a precedent endorsed by Pope Benedict.

In his apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum broadening the use of the 1962 Latin Mass he says, "in some regions, no small numbers of faithful adhered and continue to adhere with great love and affection to the earlier liturgical forms" and goes on to say that such dedication (and some 40 years of defiance that accompanied it) deserve to be rewarded.

The new missal prompts many questions. A typically poignant one is that of a priest writing in The Tablet, the English Catholic weekly: "How can the prayers really be proclaimed? I am bewildered as to where we go from here. How do we priests recover our enthusiasm for celebrating the liturgy?"

Increasingly, as they realize that answers will not be given, priests and congregations are beginning to work out their own answers to the questions. And those answers will not please those whose actions have prompted the questions.
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