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New translation muddies waters

Revised version of Missal in English has more than its share of linguistic oddities

  • Mike MacLachlan, London
  • United Kingdom
  • September 6, 2011
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Thousands across Asia attend an English-language Mass, particularly in the Philippines and the increasingly polyglot larger cities.

If you are one of those thousands you may already be using the “new” translation. The timing is left to individual bishops’ conferences but by Advent it will be in use worldwide. After much heated controversy it started in the UK last Sunday.

I was at first surprised at the controversy and also by the use of the word “new” since to someone of my generation it seemed mostly a return to the old, pre-Vatican II form, which, though archaic, had a certain poetry. For instance, I welcome the return of the reply to the priest’s greeting “The Lord be with you .”

The reply “And with your spirit” has much more resonance than the post-Vatican II “And also with you.” – which sounds more like something you would say to a friend in the street. But there are plenty of other places where a return to the older phrasing is literally a step backward.

In the Creed, for instance, is “consubstantial with the Father” any better than “one in being”? It’s just less understandable. And “incarnate of the Virgin Mary”. Why not “born of”? It means exactly the same and means more to most people. Similarly, in the Sanctus, the phrase “Lord God of hosts” became “God of power and might” – a loose translation of the Hebrew “sabaoth” maybe, but it conveyed the meaning beautifully.

Now “hosts” is back. But who understands the meaning of “hosts” in the sense of armies? And does it not invite confusion with the Communion Host? And in the Preface, I much preferred “It is right and fitting” to “It is right and just.” The Latin “justum” can mean fair, just or fitting.

Journalists like me are taught to avoid wasted words and to keep the meaning absolutely clear. But look at response after the Agnus Dei (and, by the way, why “behold” twice in that prayer?). “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” is a phrase taken from the Gospel story of the centurion with the sick child. Post-Vatican II it became “Lord I am not worthy to receive you.” A sensible change, since I remember the nuns at my primary school tying themselves in knots trying to explain that it meant the roof of your mouth, not the roof of your house, as in the centurion story.

But, would you believe, it’s back. Finally, at the very end, “Go, the Mass is ended”, becomes “Go forth, the Mass is ended”. Why? Where else would you go?

And the poor priest has it even worse. He has to negotiate such jawbreakers as: ”Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you …” Why “for”? Why “received”? Why “we offer you”? Isn’t it all obvious from the context?

Even worse: “… we may merit to be co-heirs to eternal life …” What exactly is a co-heir? There are constant unnecessary “therefores” and “indeeds” and so on.

And of course there is the phrase that caused the real controversy – in the Consecration itself: “The blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many.” For many? Who are the lucky many? Why not “for all”?

Of course, this is a faithful translation of the Latin “pro multis”. But that Latin dates from a time when the Church was somewhat less inclusive than it is today. In fact a cynic might conclude that the whole “new” Mass is less inclusive than the old.

As you can see, this opinion has sparked a great deal of reaction, much of it unfavorable. The writer, Michael MacLachlan, has responded to many of his critics on our blog, Give Us This Day. To read what he has to say and to add further comments yourself, just click here.

Michael MacLachlan is a London-based Catholic and journalist
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