This weekend the Catholic Church is changing the required English-language Mass. This is a big deal because it is the third time in the 1700-year history of the Church that the Mass is being formally changed, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. First let’s review a brief history of the Catholic Church. The Church and its sacred documents were codified at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and it didn’t really change for 1200 years. As a response to the Protestant Reformation, the Church called the Council of Trent in 1545, and it went on for 18 years. That’s the longest family meeting ever.
One topic recurs again and again at Church councils: language. Jesus did not speak English; in fact, he didn’t speak Latin either. (He probably spoke Aramaic, which is related to Arabic and Hebrew.) Different sections of the Christian Bible are written in different languages, too, and there have been many, many different translations over the years. However, the Catholic Church does not say, “We don’t know.” Instead at large, official meetings, they reaffirm a particular translation. At the Council of Trent, they reaffirmed the Vulgate, which was a Latin version of the Bible translated by Saint Jerome in the 300s. The Church doesn’t hold very many of these councils. After the Council of Trent, the next one that specifically address language in Church doctrine was 400 years later when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (also called Vatican II) to discuss how the Catholic Church would face the modern world.
The major change initiated by Vatican II was to translate the traditional Latin mass into the vernacular. What is the vernacular? A vernacular is a language specific to a place. In the context of the Catholic Church it means any language that is not Latin. Until 1965, all Catholic Mass was said in Latin, and the Church realized that may alienate parishioners who spoke Latin only in church.
So the Church had to translate the Catholic Mass into a variety of different languages. At the time, the Church wanted these translations to reflect how people spoke in everyday life. However, the Church realized they may have gone too far and drifted from the original Latin Mass, and so the new English-language Mass is closer to the original Latin. The old version used the word “happy” where the new version uses the word “blessed.”
Translation is a notoriously difficult feat. If you speak two languages, you already know that they don’t fit together perfectly. There are many things that you can say in one language that you can never say quite the same way in any other language. An old adage, “Translators, traitors,” embodies the sentiment that many feel towards translations.
It is also often said that there are as many translations as there are translators. Translating into English may be a particularly variable task because English has such a large vocabulary that there are numerous options for any one word. For example, one line that is changing in the new English-language Mass may seen inconsequential. The old text reads: “of all that is seen and unseen.” The new text reads: “of all things visible and invisible.” They have the same meaning, but the Church says the new one is closer to the original Latin.
The new version sounds clunkier and more like Latin at times. In the Eucharistic Prayer before Communion, where it used to read “When supper ended, He took the cup,” it now reads, “In a similar way, when supper was ended, He took this precious chalice in His holy and venerable hands.”Some of the changes have more significant religious meaning. For example, when the priest says that Jesus died for their sins he will now say “for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” instead of “for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”
Here are more side-by-side examples in The Washington Post.
What do you think of translation?