When Pope Francis issued his motu proprio on liturgical translation (Magnum principium) in September, most of the commentary that followed was focused on the change in Canon Law this enacted, which strengthened the role of bishops’ conferences. The 2001 Vatican instruction on translation, Liturgiam authenticam, had strongly centralized authority in Rome and diminished the role of the bishops’ conferences. So it was big news that Pope Francis reaffirmed authoritatively the Vatican II vision expressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 36.4, restoring to the bishops their proper role in both preparing and approving translations.
As important as the question of oversight is, however, the portions of the motu proprio that are directly concerned with translation itself are worthy of the most careful consideration. Francis says a lot about the values underlying the production and reception of liturgical texts in vernacular languages. He has provided us with an interesting commentary that touches on many of the neuralgic issues of the “translation wars” and reframes our understanding of them. He did not merely move around the players. He has spoken helpfully about the task.
The first thing to notice is how frequently Francis draws on the first instruction on liturgical translation, approved by Paul VI in 1969 and generally known by its French name, Comme le prévoit (CLP). (This instruction was replaced by Liturgiam authenticam in 2001.) The 1973 missal translation produced according to Comme le prévoit was relentlessly criticized in the run-up to the most recently published English translation of the Roman Missal, issued in 2011. Liturgiam authenticam, in fact, includes an unusual scolding: “The omissions or errors which affect certain existing vernacular translations—especially in the case of certain languages—have impeded the progress of the inculturation that actually should have taken place. Consequently, the Church has been prevented from laying the foundation for a fuller, healthier and more authentic renewal.” For those in the know, this harsh assessment pointed the finger of blame directly at Comme le prévoit and those who were guided by it.
So it is surprising news, and of the first importance in understanding the pope’s statement, to see that Francis draws heavily upon Comme le prévoit to formulate the interpretive claims he now makes his own in Magnum principium (MP).
The following passages from Francis’s motu proprio are borrowed directly from that 1969 instruction on translation:
MP 6: “Because the liturgical text is a ritual sign it is a means of oral communication. However, for the believers who celebrate the sacred rites the word is also a mystery. Indeed when words are uttered, in particular when the Sacred Scriptures are read, God speaks to us. In the Gospel Christ himself speaks to his people who respond either themselves or through the celebrant by prayer to the Lord in the Holy Spirit.”
CLP 5: “A liturgical text, inasmuch as it is a ritual sign, is a medium of spoken communication. It is, first of all, a sign perceived by the senses and used by men to communicate with each other. But to believers who celebrate the sacred rites a word is itself a ‘mystery.’ By spoken words Christ himself speaks to his people and the people, through the Spirit in the Church, answer their Lord.”
MP 7: “The goal of the translation of liturgical texts and of biblical texts for the Liturgy of the Word is to announce the word of salvation to the faithful in obedience to the faith and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord.”
CLP 6: “The purpose of liturgical translations is to proclaim the message of salvation to believers and to express the prayer of the Church to the Lord.”
MP 7: “For this purpose it is necessary to communicate to a given people using its own language all that the Church intended to communicate to other people through the Latin language.”
CLP 6: “Liturgical translation . . . must faithfully communicate to a given people, and in their own language, that which the Church by means of this given text originally intended to communicate to another people in another time.”
MP 7: “… Fidelity cannot always be judged by individual words but must be sought in the context of the whole communicative act and according to its literary genre.”
CLP 6: “A faithful translation, therefore, cannot be judged on the basis of individual words: the total context of this specific act of communication must be kept in mind, as well as the literary form proper to the respective language.”