Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Pope's Letter on the Translation of 'Pro Multis'

The official Vatican website has recently posted the text of Pope Benedict’s letter to the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Robert Zollitsch, archbishop of Freiburg, in which His Holiness explains why the Holy See has insisted upon the literal translation of the Latin words ‘pro multis’ in the Canon of the Mass. In the English-speaking world, this correction was introduced as part of the broad correction of liturgical translations in use since the beginning of the current liturgical year. In Germany, the occasion for this correction is the imminent publication of a new edition of the Catholic hymnal and prayer-book Gotteslob, which also contains the text of the various Eucharistic prayers. Although this letter was written to address a very specific issue for a particular language group, it touches upon some broader issues of liturgical reform, and should be read who all those are interested in Pope Benedict’s ideas about the liturgy. I here wish to highlight two of these issues in particular.

The Holy Father begins by noting that the translation of ‘pro multis’ as ‘for all’ derived from “a consensus among exegetes to the effect that the word ‘many’ in Isaiah 53:11f. is a Hebrew expression referring to the totality, ‘all’.” This consensus, however, has subsequently “collapsed.” This is not the first time that the scholarship behind the liturgical reform has turned out to be lacking, the most famous case being perhaps the so-called Canon of Hippolytus, of which the Second Eucharistic Prayer is a broad paraphrase. What the Holy Father writes here may therefore help to pave the way for further corrections of the modern liturgical reforms in the light of newer and better scholarly research.

The Pope goes on to describe this use of ‘for all’ in place of ‘pro multis’ as “not merely a translation but an interpretation, … something more than a translation.” In many cases, the combination of translation and interpretation is necessary to make ancient texts intelligible to modern listeners. But in many cases, such interpretative translations have produced very different results in different languages, not all of them of equal merit, and some of very little merit at all; as the Holy Father himself writes, “Some banal elements have also crept in, which are real impoverishments.” He also notes from his experience of celebrating the same liturgy in a variety of languages over the years, “it has become increasingly clear to me personally that as an approach to translation, the principle of structural as opposed to literal equivalence has its limits.”

Bearing this in mind, the Holy See decreed in 2001, in the instruction Liturgicam authenticam, that translations of the official liturgical texts into the vernacular should be more literal. If the result “seems alien and raises questions”, it is the task of the Church to explain it; herein lies the second essential point which the Pope makes in this letter. “Not even the most sensitive translation can take away the need for explanation: it is part of the structure of revelation that the word of God is read within the exegetical community of the Church…”

Many persons within the Catholic Church (and elsewhere) have succumbed to the temptation to believe that one need merely put the liturgy into the vernacular to make it instantly and entirely clear to the men and women in the pews. The experience of the decades that have passed since Vatican II has shown otherwise; instant intelligibility can just as easily mean instant ignorability, especially when dealing with translations of indifferent literary merit. Even the best use of the vernacular does not dispense the preacher, the catechist and the parent from their duty to instruct those in their charge in the Faith. I was recently told by someone that the new translation of the Mass “divorces the people from the liturgy”; when I asked for an example of how it does this, I was told that “no-one knows what the word ‘consubstantial’ means.” The Holy Father very rightly points out that the very fact that the word is unusual (manifestly not unintelligible) is what should drive the Church to fulfill Her ministry to teach the faithful what ‘consubstantial’ means and why it is important. “The word must be presented as it is, with its own shape, however strange it may appear to us; the interpretation must be measured by the criterion of faithfulness to the word itself, while at the same time rendering it accessible to today’s listeners.”

The change from ‘for all’ to ‘for many’ should therefore be seen as what is now often called “a teaching moment”, (if I may be forgiven the use of an expression which itself has rapidly decayed into banal political jargon.) The Holy Father himself undertakes such a catechetical explanation as the occasion demands, “aware that it poses an enormous challenge to those with the task of explaining the word of God in the Church.” After explaining the significance of the correct translation in three paragraphs, he urges the German bishops to impart a similar catechesis to their flocks, with the hope that it “will be presented soon and will thus become part of the renewal of worship that the Council strove to achieve from its very first session.”

As the Church implements the directives of Liturgicam authenticam over the coming years, this will not be last translation controversy. In this letter, Pope Benedict has given the whole Church not simply a good explanation of why one particular phrase should be translated literally, but a key to understanding the proper use of the vernacular in the Sacred Liturgy.