October 10, 2011, Philadelphia, PA USA — By Bridget Gabrielle Hylak*
Almost every corner U.S. Catholics peek around as English speaking church-goers, someone, somewhere has something to say about the upcoming release of the “new translation” of the English Roman Missal – the Catholic Church’s definitive volume containing texts and rubrics for the celebration of the Holy Mass.
Pope John Paul II announced a revised version of the Missale Romanum during the Jubilee Year 2000. Final portions of the English translation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, were approved by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on November 19, 2009, and the new text will be officially inaugurated for liturgical use on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011. As the final text approaches implementation, a remote catechetical period is underway to prepare clergy and lay faithful in the United States to receive the new translation.
The revised edition of the Missale Romanum contains, among other things, prayers for the feast day observances of recently-canonized saints, additional Eucharistic Prayer prefaces, extra Votive Masses and Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Intentions, and some updated and revised rubrics for the celebration of the Mass. The English translation of the Roman Missal will also include updated translations of existing prayers, including some of the well–known responses and acclamations of the people.1
Despite the list of changes, concerned Catholics might opt to trust the Church’s wisdom in issuing this new version. From a purely professional translation standpoint, the “new” Missal is not-so-new, nor does it involve great change or a shift in teaching; rather, it is simply a movement into a different style of language which is well-within the Catholic Church’s preference and ultimate authority as “author” of its own message.
Rather than classifying the text as a “new translation,” many professional translators would likely refer to it as “an edit”, or a stylistic shift as per the “client’s” preference. Indeed, a linguistic survey of the various professional viewpoints and commentaries regarding the new Missal points to the following, succinct linguistic opinion: the “new” translation is not-so-new.
Professionally speaking, Catholic translation is in a class of its own. The Catholic Church is undeniably the oldest translation “client” and “author” of translated documents in existence, and much of what we know to be the translation “industry” has been derived from it.
The translation of religious texts, and Catholic texts in particular, often approximates the very demanding, intuitive and interpretative work of a literary translator, while it simultaneously demands specialized vocabulary, acute accuracy, in-depth knowledge, and the dutiful consistency required of legal or medical documents.
Moreover, the liability incurred by, and responsibility demanded of, a specialist in the field of religious translation may even be considered greater than that demanded by linguists in other fields. Beyond life and liberty, the accurate work of a religious translator may be recognized to involve, as an extension, the eternal consequence of another’s soul.
The topic of translation has been at the forefront of philosophical debate for centuries. The very first written translations on record involved religious documents, and early on, a debate evolved over whether or not the Holy Scriptures could be faithfully translated if the structure of the source text were altered to any degree. Certainly, the various versions – or rather, translations – of the Holy Bible have been argued by expert scholars for centuries, and there are still differences of opinion regarding accuracy, tone and word choice.
In his overview of centuries of translation theory, H.J. Vermeer2 states that St. Jerome, “the most famous (and successful) translation theorist of the past two millennia,” believed that translators should focus on meaning rather than words. St. Jerome offered the Holy Scriptures as the only exception to this linguistic rule. In the Scriptures, St. Jerome asserted, word order was a “mysterium” and was to be preserved.
Prevailing professional opinion regarding religious translation can be quite slanted. Religious translations, some experts say, do not follow the “rules”. They can be biased or bent, too literary, too literal, or too poetic, or they simply aren’t properly structured grammatically.
As professional linguists, we may argue on such topics occasionally, and there are many valid opinions and schools of thought. However, all agree that, ultimately, the overriding criterion by which a translation’s soundness is judged always rests with the client or the author of the message (to the extent that they have the linguistic ability to make such a determination).
In the case of what is being promoted as the “new translation” of the Roman Missal, the Catholic Church is obviously the “author of the message”, and much like major pharmaceutical companies, corporate entities or judicial branches, the Catholic Church deserves, owns and has a right to its own preferences and opinions regarding the rendering of any document it may distribute, in any language.
A case-in-point is the translation of the writings and words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A unique twist occurs in Mother’s texts and speeches not frequently encountered in professional translation. As Mother’s speech was itself a hybrid of several languages, and maintained a “translated” sound even as she spoke wonderfully in many languages, to transmit that style and “flavor” into a third or fourth language is a unique linguistic challenge.
To maintain an occasional splash of quirkiness, or unusual twist of a phrase, or a transposed noun and adjective is demanding, and indeed, as a linguist one is presented with various options – some of which could make his/her own work appear to be faulty. Should Mother’s speech reflect the various languages she spoke and cultures with which she was familiar, even as it is translated? Should grammatical errors or twists in her own speech transfer to the target text? Or, should the linguist seek to interpret, clarify and then translate her words using a more natural sound in the target language?
Such a decision can only be made by the Missionaries of Charity themselves.
In working with the Missionaries of Charity on some of Mother’s documents, a team of professional linguists I was privileged to supervise faced this unique request. As an organization, the Missionaries of Charity wisely and prayerfully expressed their desire that somehow, in and through the translation, Mother’s style and uniquely flavored speech would “come through” into the target language.
This was and continues to be a singular challenge, and involves a great emphasis on style in the translation process, as well as on content. As a result, these translations required a good deal more editing and review than similar documents of the same length. In this case, whether we as linguists and editors succeed at it – or not – remains the sole opinion and judgment call of the Missionaries themselves, who are uniquely and intimately charged and inspired with preserving Mother’s message.
Such challenges occur in various shades and degrees over the course of the millions of words that a translator may translate in his/her lifetime. Always, and in every case, the author holds ultimate authority to designate, define and direct the translator regarding specific linguistic preferences or editorial styles.
Likewise, as a dynamic entity on the world scene, and as author and owner of its own documents, the Catholic Church has a right and a duty to disseminate its own information according to the rules, lexicons, traditions and preferences it deems appropriate at any given time. No other organization – whether large or small, secular or religious – does any less.
The “new” translation of the English Missal is no exception. The Church is the originator of the message; the Church has ultimate knowledge of her own goals, and therefore, final authority in how her message is conveyed – in any language. The Church is familiar with what She has done before, what has been successful, and what may be ripe for improvement. Moreover, the Church may alter or refine her preferences and directives at any time, in accordance with what She deems necessary. The intimate process of translation, like language itself, is dynamic and constantly evolving, and to criticize this process is absurd from a linguistic perspective.
Just as goals evolve, messages evolve. Just as language changes, translations change. Just as communication can be improved, sentences can be reworded.
In other words: Objectives change, and campaigns change. Languages evolve, and so do translations. Improving communication is always possible, and editing is one way to do it.
The Catholic Church asserts itself as the Body of Christ in a most perfect form. Alive in an imperfect world, however, She constantly grows and blossoms, inspired always by the wisdom of generations and the whispers of the Holy Spirit. So too has her liturgy evolved in the eternal effort to communicate to the souls of men who seek Truth – in and according to a language or vocabulary best suited to touching hearts.
The Church’s MESSAGE itself is perpetual, and has never changed, though the method chosen to communicate that message may evolve over the course of history. The latest translation of the English Missal does not alter what we eat; it is simply another step toward enhancing the “flavor” of an eternally-perfect meal.
By Bridget Gabrielle Hylak*
*Bridget Hylak is a Stanford University Magna cum laude graduate in Communications (emphasis in Broadcast Journalism) and Spanish/Portuguese, and an occasional contributor to L’Osservatore Romano. She developed her professional linguistic career abroad while working and studying in Russia and Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is currently an ATA-Certified Translator, Pennsylvania Court Registered Interpreter, and Master Editor and Director of Multilingual Multimedia with Come Alive Communications in West Grove, PA, which had served a diverse multinational clientele since 1990 and has honed a particular specialty in the translation and editing of Catholic documents. For purposes of this discourse only, she opts to disclose her personal background as a lifelong, practicing Catholic, which admittedly exerts some influence upon this particular perspective. (“For starters,” she indicates, “Catholic clients often request that their documents be translated or edited by practicing Catholics only, as they feel an intimate familiarity with the subject matter and any intricacies is necessary. We have experienced the same when certain legal clients request lawyer-translators or interpreters, and we take no offense there. The terminology in both cases is simply that specialized.”)