Notes from Msgr. Wadsworth Seminr

Aspects of English Translation


Outline of a Seminar by Msgr Andrew Wadsworth

Executive Director of ICEL

Church Music Association of America Colloquium XXI

Salt Lake City, June 28th2012


1.      The work of ICEL takes shape


In October 1963, during one of the sessions of the Second Vatican Council, the bishops of 10 English-speaking countries (including the United States) agreed to collaborate in the production of English translations of liturgical texts and so formed the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Other language groups, including French and German, formed similar commissions.


2.    Dom Placide Bruylants OSB outlines the challenge


How should we approach these texts, which could be called the classics of Christian prayer? Do they deserve this title in the sense in which Cicero is called the classic of Latin eloquence? Or are they classics in the manner of a Corneille or a Racine, for the depth with which they have succeeded in depicting the constants of the human soul and heart?

We would be tempted to say that they have both of these characteristics, though in different ways.

Without doubt, the orations that we call ‘ancient’, those of the liturgy of the seasons and principal feasts of the Roman calendar, which we find definitively fixed at the time of Charlemagne, exhibit a literary perfection that has hardly been successfully imitated later, or outside the purely Roman tradition. In this sense, one could speak of a classic period, stretching roughly from Leo I (440-461) to Gregory I (590-604). . . .

But there is another respect in which the orations are ‘classics’, and have remained so in the full sense of the word. They express in a classic manner what is most fundamental in our attitude towards God. They teach us how to enter by prayer into the mystery of God, and more especially into the mystery of God’s redemptive love.

Beyond their literary form, which reflects the Christian culture and civilisation of a quite specific period, they express the permanent religious reality of the Christian mystery, which transcends the contingencies of time and space…

If we are to transmit into the texts that we shall be praying tomorrow in our own language all the religious density of their Latin originals, our language, like theirs, will need to have a clearly sacred character, which translators will probably take a long time to discover’.

Dom Placide Bruylants OSB ‘In search of a new style of prayer in translating the orations of the Missal’.


3.    Vernacular developments using the 1962 Missale Romanum


In 1964/5 and 1967 some changes were officially introduced into the Roman-Rite liturgy of the Mass in the wake of decisions of the Second Vatican Council, but no new edition of the Roman Missal was produced to incorporate them. They were reflected in the provisional vernacular translations produced in various countries when the language of the people began to be used in addition to Latin. References sometimes met in an English-language context to “the 1964 Missal” concern these temporary vernacular productions, not the Roman Missal itself. Even countries that had the same language used different translations and varied in the amount of vernacular admitted.


4.    An initial  approach based on translating the Roman Canon


We have reached the stage of first revision, but have said nothing to the bishops of the ten countries involved. . . . We have rigorously eliminated from the text any traces of the Latin rhetorical flourishes, excessive use of adjectives, etc. which might in any way detract from the nature of our own language and the contemporary tone we wish to give to the translation.


Fr Frederick McManus, then Director of ICEL, a letter to Mgr Wagner of the Trier Liturgical Institute, March 13, 1967.


         5. Comme le prévoit – January 25, 1969


The Consilium, began to prepare for the promulgation of the new Roman Missal, and issued this text which contained guidelines for translators. The guiding principle of the document was “dynamic equivalency,” which translates basic thoughts rather than words. The original words and form are seen as important only as a vehicle for the meaning; therefore, it is the meaning alone that is considered truly important in the translation.


6.Formal v Dynamic Equivalence


Comme le prévoit was much influenced by the writings of Eugene Nida of the American Bible Society. He had developed these notions in relations to translation of the Scriptures. He contrasted ‘formal equivalence’, where the translator renders the sense of the original word for word, with ‘dynamic equivalence’, which allows a freer approach, seeking to reproduce the effect, rather than the structure, of the original. In Nida’s own view, dynamic and formal equivalence are not opposites, but rather two principles to be held continually in balance by a sensitive translator.


         7. Particular Challenges in translating Latin into English


·        Register – the elevated register of the original texts is difficult to reproduce in English which will be easily understood when heard.  Thou/You debate.

·        Consideration of the classic structure of orations

·        Relative pronoun qui difficult to render = you who/you/ who…

·        Lack of semantic equivalence in Latin cognates found in English

sacramentum/sacrament; pius/pious etc.

·        Demands of current English translations of the Scriptures in rendering internal quotations or allusions.