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Lost in Translation by Gerald O'Collins with John Wilkins

20 April 2018

Christopher Irvine on liturgical polemics

THIS short, tightly argued, and polemically charged book delivers quite a punch. Readers may feel that they are eavesdropping on an argument in another Church.

We may think that achieving full authorisation for liturgical texts in the Church of England is a complex and byzantine process, but the story of the revisions of the English translations of the Roman Catholic mass has something of a Le Carré novel about it. There are various committees and consultations, each with their own acronyms, national bishops’ conferences, and finally the centralised arbitration by the Vatican authorities. All this is made more complex by the reconstitution of various bodies under new chairmen, which has resulted in conflicting and contested guidelines.

The story begins with the rapid translation of the 1973 Roman Missal (the book containing all the prayer texts of the mass), and the subsequent work of ICEL, the international body answerable to the various national bishops’ conferences whose task was to cast the mass into the English language. From there, the plot thickens, and it is related in detail by Gerald O’Collins.

There are two main bones of contention. The first is the sidelining of ICEL’s translation of 1998, and the second is the publication of Liturgiam Authenticam: Vernacular languages in the books of the Roman liturgy by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2006. Pope Francis has already hinted that the latter guidelines may well be revisited, and this book amplifies calls for its withdrawal. Detailed comparisons are drawn between the 16 years’ work that resulted in the 1998 translation, and the 2010 English mass that followed from the principles set out in Liturgiam Authenticam.

It is lamentable that many of the key texts that the Churches had in common, such as the Gloria and the Creed, have been abandoned in the 2010 translation. Ecumenically, this is a retrograde step. Liturgiam Authenticam calls for a “sacral” language in the translation of prayer texts, but this hardly justifies resorting to the technical term “consubstantial” rather than “being” in the Nicene Creed in the 2010 Missal. O’Collins’s aim is to demonstrate the superiority of the “lost” 1998 translation to that of the 2010 Missal’s translation, but what has wider application is what he and John Wilkins write about the art of translation and about the nature of liturgical language.

On this, Wilkins particularly has much to teach those who perform the liturgical texts of public worship. What he said reminded me of key elements of liturgical language. The first is that the language of worship is primary theological speech. It is cast in language that is addressed to God and is not, therefore, talk “about God”. And yet the language that we use to speak to God does tell us something about who we think God is, and this should make us reflect on the register in which our public prayer is cast.

Second, attention needs to be given to the texture of the language. In some respects, our prayer needs to be poetic; it should be evocative, and its phrasing should be memorable. Finally, as O’Collins and Wilkins remind us, the language of public worship is language that is written to be spoken, and the real test of any new liturgical writing is to read it aloud, and then to ask how it sounds.

The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst Green and Bodiam, and a Teaching Fellow at St Augustine’s College of Theology.

Lost in Translation: The English language and the Catholic mass
Gerald O’Collins with John Wilkins
Liturgical Press £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

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