12 July 2023, The Tablet

Mass translation is ‘hybrid’ says priest

“What we use today is not the ICEL translation, but a hybrid,” said Mgr Bruce Harbert.

Mass translation is ‘hybrid’ says priest

Mgr Harbert’s lecture, “Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rites”, was organised by the Liturgy Institute at Ealing Abbey.
Mick Sinclair / Alamy

The new English translation of the Mass is a hybrid of different ideas about translation, according to the priest who was at the heart of the efforts to provide a new version of it.

The translation, introduced in 2010, was the work of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), set up as a body of bishops conferences in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, to work on translation of sacred texts for the English-speaking world.

But after the Vatican rejected a translation provided by ICEL in 1998, another body, Vox Clara ­– with the late Cardinal George Pell as its president – would check ICEL’s work.

During a lecture Mgr Bruce Harbert, who was executive director of ICEL during the years preparing the 2010 translation, he said that Vox Clara made many changes to what ICEL had devised.

“What we use today is not the ICEL translation, but a hybrid”, he said.

Mgr Harbert also highlighted the difficulties that ICEL faced due to the prescriptive Vatican document Liturgiam Authenticam issued in 2001 to set out ground rules for translation.

During a question-and-answer session, following his lecture on Saturday at Ealing Abbey, he said: “We had to take account of Liturgiam Autheniticam which said that the order of thoughts had to be the same in English as in Latin, and that was a bit of burden.”

At the time and since the 2010 translation of the Mass was published, experts on the liturgy have said that this word-for-word principle, demanded by Liturgiam Authenticam, rather than the meaning-for-meaning approach advocated by Thomas Aquinas and adopted for centuries by ecclesiastical transalators, was a major problem and had made the latest translation too complicated and verbose.

According to Mgr Harbert, ICEL also had to deal with interventions from the Congregation of Divine Worship (CDW).

The words of the priest to the congregations at the start of the eucharistic prayers are “sursum corda”, and one suggestion was to translate it into English as the courteous “let us lift up our hearts”, but the CDW insisted on “lift up your hearts” being used instead.

“This was odd”, said Mgr Harbert, “because it was the priest barking orders.”

Critics of the translation have questioned why no poets were asked to help ICEL produce a translation that offered more cadence, rhythm, and attractive English, but Mgr Harbert said he never approached poets to help because it had been tried before and the experiment was not a success.

“Poets are not involved in a communal act and translation is a communal act,” he said.

The lecture, “Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rites”, was the twelfth annual St Bede Liturgy Lecture, organised by the Liturgy Institute at Ealing Abbey. Mgr Harbert stood down from ICEL in 2009 and was replaced by Mgr Andrew Wadsworth.

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