A ‘Harry Potter’ Liturgy Translation?

by Michael Potemra


English-speaking Catholics are in the process of implementing a new translation, closer to the Vatican’s original Latin texts, of the eucharistic liturgy. Michael Walsh of England’s Catholic magazine The Tablet objects:

I much welcomed English in the Mass, found it devotionally helpful, and frankly didn’t mind, back in the 1970s, if it couldn’t compete with the English style of the Book of Common Prayer.

What I really do mind, however, is the notion that what we say in English has to be an exact reproduction of the Latin, as Rome seems to want. Why does it matter? The exact repetition of sacred texts is Harry-Potterish magic, not religion. I was amused to see L’Osservatore Romano recently praising the Baptist scripture scholar Eugene Nida for translating the Bible not word-for-word but thought-for-thought. Tell that to the liturgists.

I am sure that there exists a scattered handful of Catholics who believe that strict adherence to liturgical phrasing and rubrics has a magical efficacy, but for the most part such people have existed only in the fevered imaginations of anti-Catholic polemicists of a bygone age. (I mean the sort of people who think the phrase “hocus pocus” has its roots in the Latin words of consecration, and also think that this is an entirely appropriate association.) But the desire for a more precise translation has a much more plausible, and indeed sensible, explanation, one rooted in Catholic distinctives. Think about it: What is the one most obvious element of Catholicism that distinguishes it from other Christian denominations? The belief in the authority of the Pope, and the notion that he and his Vatican officialdom have a special charism to offer leadership and guidance to the faithful. These officials have labored strenuously to write prayers, only — over the past few decades — to see those prayers drastically watered down in the process of translation into other languages. Is it so surprising that a perfectly normal Catholic believer might want a somewhat more accurate representation of the words these gentlemen labored so hard to produce? (I leave aside the question of whether the typical Catholic believer does want this: Liturgical controversies of this kind tend to excite ecclesiastical-partisan bloggers much more than they do the pewsitters. I am a great fan of this sort of crankery and — I abashedly admit — I even participate in it myself, in my Episcopalian way.)

I praised Eugene Nida here a few days ago, and I’m delighted to learn from Mr. Walsh that that the Vatican newspaper shares my high opinion of him. But there is a place for more strictly accurate translation as well, and I don’t think the desire of some Catholics for a greater access to the riches of the Vatican’s work is a sign of a craving for Harry Potterish incantation.

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