There are rumours that Pope Francis has established a working group (composed of bishops) to look at the rules of engagement regarding the translation of liturgical text.
These have been carried by the Jesuit weekly, America, which in turn
cites an Italian journalistic source.
However, there seems to be no
reliable indication of what Pope Francis said, when he said it…or if he
said it at all in the first place.
Print media began to speculate that this will lead to a ‘revision’ of
the Missal and other translations, whereas the original report used
terms like ‘review’ and ‘revisit the rules for translation of liturgical
text’ that have been in operation since 2001, and which were
responsible for the English translation of the current Roman Missal used
in Irish parishes.
If a working group is to be set up, is it likely that they will
authorise the re-translation of the Missal? Rome is not renowned for
publicly admitting that it made an error, so a review is more realistic
than a revision.
Eleven English-speaking Episcopal Conferences printed the Missal in
2011, at great cost, and for financial reasons alone it would be
improbable that Conferences would approve a new text.
If we are to accept that a working group might review the translation
process, including modifying some of the ‘rules’ for translating, then
we could reasonably expect a few changes to the translation process.
We should note that some years ago, Fr Paddy Jones, when leaving
office as Director of the National Centre for Liturgy, expressed a hope
in New Liturgy that Irish bishops would review the process that led to
the current translation.
Unhelpfully, media in Britain and the USA reported that Ireland was
planning for a revision of the texts, and peoples’ hopes were unfairly
What can we sensibly hope for if a review were to take place? Here is part of my wish-list:
1. The most far-reaching consequence of a review would be to give
back to the conferences of bishops throughout the world the right to
approve translations for their own local Churches.
The liturgy constitution of Vatican II (no 33) stated that translations were to be prepared and approved at local level.
This was changed some weeks later, passing on this authority to Rome.
Pope Francis is now systematically trying to decentralise
decision-making so that what pertains to a local Church to be decided
there and not in Rome.
If that were to happen, it would be reasonable that Churches using
the same language would pool resources and work together to produce good
translations that respected the genus of a language, more local needs,
respect for inclusive language and gender, while also taking into
consideration other requirements of liturgy.
2. Rome should dispense with the need for its own agencies to oversee the translation work in the various language groups.
Up until now, Vox Clara oversaw the English work of translation, as
did Sapienti with that of the Irish language, and Ecclesia orans for the
As had previously been the case, and now seems to be the mind of Pope
Francis, Rome needs to trust the competency and integrity of local
bishops’ conferences to produce their own material and make their own
This might lead to appropriate cultural expressions that will promote
the legitimate variety of liturgical expression which was not just
permitted, but encouraged, at the Council.
3. The importance of this last point is well illustrated in the
tendency in the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal to prefer a
Latinate form of English over and against the more proper Anglo-Saxon.
For example, we must now use ‘chalice’ – Latinate English – rather than
Peculiarly, when the so-called ‘rules’ of translation set out in 2001
proposed (in no. 53) that “whenever a Latin word has a rich meaning
that is difficult to render into a modern language” (among the examples
given is the Latin word ‘consubstantialis’), it may be translated using
another word or a phrase, etc.
However, English language translators chose to ignore this and opted
for the Latinate ‘consubstantial’ in the Creed rather than a more
accessible phrase such as “one in substance with”, or “of one being
with” – phrases not unlike those found in the current French, German,
Spanish and Italian translations.
4. Many people do not realise that there are many other new
translations in the pipeline – including those relating to Baptism,
Confirmation, Marriage, etc. In the process of producing these
translations, a lexicon of Latin words with their ‘equivalent’ English
meaning is being developed, as required by the Roman document of 2001,
In all languages, including Latin, words can carry a multiplicity of
meanings. Professional translators speak of the constant need to
interpret and they cannot understand this requirement for liturgical
5. One of the great losses experienced with the introduction of the
2011 translation has been the fact that we no longer pray with a common
language prayers that we share with our brothers and sisters in other
This ecumenical feature of our liturgy (since the 1970s) was praised
by Pope John Paul II in his visits to the USA and to Australia and New
Had English-speaking Catholics throughout the world been allowed to
use the translation of the Missal that was approved by 11
English-language Episcopal Conferences in 1998, these issues – among
many others which could be named – would not be an issue today. We live
in hope that a review might point a way forward.
Tom Whelan, Spiritan missionary, teaches liturgy at Loyola
Institute (TCD) and at Maynooth. He is a member of the (Episcopal)
Council for Liturgy.