Does the new translation mean we’ve been wrong?

The upcoming changes in Mass texts have given rise to the obvious question: “Have we been wrong all of this time?”

Since the Mass was first translated into English by decree of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, several revisions have been made to the texts.

The first version of the English translation of the Mass was released in 1965. It heavily resembled the existing English translations used by Catholics to follow the Mass in their daily missals when the Liturgy was still celebrated in Latin.
In 1969 the Vatican released a document that came to be called “Comme le Prévoit” (“So as to allow”) — named for the first three words in the French version. This instruction detailed the process of how liturgical translations would be translated into various vernacular languages. Comme le Prévoit illustrated the preference for what is called a “dynamic equivalent” method of text translation.

In this approach, a concept in the original text is rendered into the vernacular to communicate the ideas as they would have been understood in the historical context in which they were written.

To see how this method of translation works, examine Matthew 8:8, where Jesus is approached by a centurion who asks Him to heal his servant. Since the centurion knows that a good Jewish man like Jesus would cause scandal by coming into the home of a Roman soldier, the centurion says: “Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus.”

In the New American Bible, which we use at Mass, this text is translated: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.” This is the text where we base our response before Communion, “Lord I am not worthy to receive You …”

The dynamic equivalent approach would argue that in contemporary usage people don’t say “have you under my roof” to talk about hosting someone in their home. The meaning was understood to the original audience of the phrase, and even to us now as an awkward construction.

Using dynamic equivalence — where it would be paraphrased so that its meaning is rendered in everyday speech — the above citation becomes: “Lord I am not worthy to receive You, but only the say the word and I shall be healed.”

Since this method can lead to inexact equivalence between the scriptural citation and the liturgical text, the Vatican released a new instruction on liturgical translations entitled “Liturgiam authenticam” (“authentic Liturgy”) in 2001. The document espouses a “formal equivalence” approach instead of a dynamic equivalent method of translation.

In formal equivalence, rather than translate concepts into contemporary language, the aim is to render the original text into the vernacular as closely as possible while maintaining proper grammatical syntax.

Matthew 8:8, then, reacquires a more exact biblical translation in the liturgical usage: “Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus” becomes “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

It might sound strange to 21st century English speakers, but the original text is brought into our language exactly as it was spoken centuries ago, with exception of one word. “Puer,” “child,” becomes “soul.” Still, the theological reality is the same: Aren’t our souls essentially the children of our being? The change is necessary to turn a third person biblical citation into a first person individuation.

Clearly, it isn’t that the current translation is wrong — quite the opposite. According to the principles of “Comme le Prévoit” and dynamic equivalence, the texts we use now are perfectly correct. However, because the method often confuses the citations of the Scriptures — the origins of our faith — with equivalent translations, the Vatican wishes vernacular versions of the texts to reflect the original Latin more closely. The Latin versions were, after all, composed with direct quotes of the Scriptures.

Most of us acquire a more formal vocabulary as we mature, and 40 years after the texts we now use were first uttered, it’s time to grow.

In the life of the church, 40 years is a mere blip on the radar — an infancy. We are now going to use new words, with a much deeper and more biblical meaning.

Father Bryan P. Babick, SL.L., is the diocesan vicar for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.