01 July 2024, The Tablet

How are we to write these new words into our hearts?

How are we to write these new words into our hearts?

A few months ago, I picked up a small leaflet at the back of the church. It had a picture of a stained glass window, and “2024” in big numbers on it; it came from the diocese. It contained a brief item at the back: “From the First Sunday of Advent 2024, parishes in England, Wales and Scotland will be using a new translation of the Bible for readings at Mass and the sacraments” and promised “various workshops in autumn 2024”.  This was news to me and nothing has transpired since. Later that month, we had a parish liturgy committee meeting, and I raised this. No one else seemed to have heard about it.

Since then, I have seen references to the change in The Tablet, but nothing official has been passed on, except that it’s mandatory. I am very interested in this because I write tunes for the responsorial psalm settings and for the Gospel acclamations that we use at Mass every week. I have been doing it now for twelve years or so, and I have learnt a lot while doing it.

There are at least four English-speaking Lectionaries in the Roman Catholic Church: the UK and Eire, the US, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand. They are all slightly (sometimes not so slightly) different, especially for the psalms, because each bishops’ conference has the final say over its country’s Lectionary. I write tunes for all of them and post them on a website so that people can download and use them (if anyone needs a psalm setting, click on the link at the end of this article). I actually started by writing a Mass setting for my daughters’ school after the single new translation came in and the adaptations on offer didn’t work very well; at that point I had no idea that there even were different Lectionaries, and so no idea how big the job would be.

We have managed to acquire Missals for all these different countries, with grateful thanks to family members who have tracked them down for us. It has been fascinating being able to compare and contrast the different versions, but in the end you need a tune each Sunday for whatever the words on the page actually say. And the differences can mean that you need four different tunes, although more often you can manage with two main tunes and a set of four Responses. This is because the US version and the UK Grail version of the verses are different. Canada and OZ use the same verse words as the UK version, but often change the Response, usually to something nearer to the US version. Even the numbers are different. The UK and Australian Lectionaries use the Septuagint numbering; the US uses the Hebrew, and the Canadian uses both, with the second in brackets. The Canadian Missal also has two versions of every psalm, the Grail and the NRSV, but that is not the same as the version in the US Missal, nor the new version, as far as I can tell.

The Gospel acclamation is a separate piece of music. The guidelines say that if it isn’t sung, it should be omitted, from which I conclude that singing it is important; but you have to have the words to sing it, and they are often not what you might expect, ranging from neat one liners to esoteric periods from St Paul. It is continually surprising how much one sentence can vary in the different lectionaries, the Transfiguration being a good example. Simple intonation is always possible, but I think we should be able to do better than this.  And I am keeping off the topic of Lent Gospel acclamations here, but there are at least two blogs about their peculiarities on our website.

The new lectionary is going to be based, for the psalms, on the American revision of the Grail, called The Abbey Psalms and Canticles, but there will be local variations in the text, so we don’t know what it will be until we actually see it. Our website prides itself on using the exact words in the Missal, so this is important to me. We have been urged to welcome what might be a more inclusive translation, and I look forward to seeing it. This is, after all, where our translations now might easily be improved, though this is not what is actually being promised. I thought it might be interesting at this stage to look at the variety we currently have in this area and see whether there are any lessons to be learned.

The UK (Grail) version dates from 1963, and so is not good at being inclusive. I always notice this particularly around All Saints – “Such are the men who seek your face, O Lord” Ps 23 –  but it happens all year round. The US version of this psalm has “people” and “race”, which I would have thought a bit risky, but uses “he” in the verses; the Australians have “people” in the Response but “men” and “he” in the text because they are using the Grail wholesale; the Canadians use the Grail text but recast the Response completely: “Lord, this is the company of those who seek your face”, which I must say I like, with its Pilgrim’s Progress heraldic overtones.

I am worried about the effect of choosing one (US) version to cover discrete Lectionaries, because stylistic criteria are so different in the two base languages (US English and UK English). US religious English tends to be much more self-conscious than the UK equivalent. It deliberately uses longer and more unusual words to create an orotund and florid impression, choosing words with Latinate roots where possible. The overall effect is to make the text longer and more difficult to grasp on first hearing; to an English ear, more lofty, more alienating, even slightly pompous. If you look in our current Parish Mass books (the McCrimmon two-to-a-year version), you can easily spot the newly-translated bits where US/UK English equivalence is assumed e.g. in the Collects or the Prayers after Communion, because they have needed to be recast in a smaller font to fit the space, because they are more wordy.  This is where you will find the “oblations”, the “ordinances”, “conciliation”, “the grace of integrity” and so on – all perfectly good words, but not anything like normal UK English or even God’s own words in our Bibles. But if you look at US translations of the Bible, it makes more sense. It is a question of style.

I do not react appropriately to the US texts because it’s not my idiom. The difference between the two languages is real, and people in the Vatican (who mostly presumably have a different mother-tongue) should not simply impose the US text on other English-speaking nations. I was working abroad and using an American missal in an international community when I first started setting psalms and acclamations; many of the US psalms are dear to me and were my first version of a given psalm; but personally, as an Englishwoman, I prefer the Grail originals, corrected if necessary for accuracy, and with more inclusive language, which is entirely possible. I have had a copy of the Revised Grail Psalms and then the Abbey Psalms and Canticles since they came out, and the text is certainly better than the current US version in many ways (to my ear: simpler words, better rhythms and less Yoda-speak).  The differences from the UK Grail psalms are substantial, and not always felicitous (I still prefer “see his face” to “behold”). Why the need for only one version?

I have to work carefully with the different forms of English because the stresses can be different. I set the word “toward” as a disyllable even in US psalms until I discovered that it’s usually pronounced as “tord” (there is an on-line tutorial, believe it or not), and then I corrected it. I listen carefully to films or modern US television series (selected equally carefully by my children) partly to hear how words are pronounced. The word “frustrated” does not appear in the Psalms (only in Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 3.21, Jerusalem Bible translation), and I’m glad, because in US English, its accent is on the first syllable, so it would have to fall on a strong beat. “Power” has two syllables  - needs two notes - in US English, but usually only one in UK English, though Handel (a native German) gives it two. And that’s all before you notice the spellings : “Savior”, “splendor”, “worshiping”. The Canadians often use the same words as the US, but spell them the UK way. And there is someone in the Canadian Liturgy Office who is keen to stress God’s reliability; when the word “love” comes up in a Canadian Psalm Response, it will nearly always have the word “steadfast” attached to it (which can mean rewriting the whole phrase). I don’t know whether it reflects some element in the Hebrew text, but I enjoy noticing it. The Canadians are also concerned by irregular length in the psalm verses, adding in a couple of extra lines here and there to make the psalm more uniform. I can handle all this if I get the text in plenty of time.

I have ordered a copy of the new Missal, but I don’t know when it is coming out. I don’t know whether the other anglophone Lectionaries are planning to impose this version on their congregations, and if so, what the timescale might be. Even with just the UK and Eire changes, there will be a lot of work to do in not much time. There seems to have been zero consultation, and certainly no Conversations in the Spirit.

Where the Psalms are concerned, the words are peculiarly important, because these are what lodge in the head and heart and become our own prayers, whereas only occasional sentences from the readings find a place in our memories, usually Jesus’ remarks, or someone else’s (Lord, to whom shall we go?).  But the psalms are so strong a poetry that they have influenced the poetic tradition of every country that has a translation, and you can catch the echo down the years if you know the text, like seeing a genetic inheritance in members of a family. Uniquely able to survive translation because of the strength of its poetic engineering, rooted in parallelism and in natural images from the beginnings of human history, the Book of Psalms is a treasure that keeps on giving. We can of course keep retranslating; but we need to be sure that we are not losing a better version by imposing a newer but worse one. These are words written in our hearts; we can’t just rub them out and substitute others without it hurting. Like Jesus himself, we reach for these words in time of stress and anguish; we need them to be familiar, to be loved.

Kate Keefe composes musical settings for psalms and the Mass and writes about the process. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.   The address for the psalms etc. website is www.musicformass.co.uk

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User comments (1)

Comment by: JohnCPW
Posted: 02/07/2024 20:45:30
The vernacular continues to evolve and so must our liturgical vocabulary, unless we want to end up with something like the King James Bible. I like to think that it is more than a matter of taste that we embrace gender inclusivity and more than a matter of "little englishness" that our language should not be replaced by American english.
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