by Father Bryan Babick, SL.L.

In my last article I reflected on the three main reasons we may identify for revising the prayers and responses we use at Mass. These changes in Mass texts give rise to the obvious question: “have we been wrong all of this time?”

Since the Mass was first translated into English by decree of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, there have been several revisions made to the texts. For instance, the first version of the English translation of the Mass was released in 1965. It was a version that heavily resembled the existing English translations used by Catholics to follow the Mass in their daily missals when the Liturgy was still celebrated in Latin.

In 1969 the Vatican released a document that came to be popularly called Comme le Prévoit (So as to allow), so-named for its first three words in the French version. This instruction detailed the process whereby Liturgical translations would be carried out into the various vernacular languages. Comme le Prévoit illustrates the preference for what is called a “dynamic equivalent” method of text translation. In this approach to translations, the concept present in the original text is rendered into the vernacular in such a way as to communicate the ideas as they would have been understood in the historical context in which they were written.

Let’s re-examine the citation from my last article to see how this method of translation works. In Matthew 8:8, Jesus is approached by a centurion who asks Him to heal his servant. Since the centurion knows that a good Jewish man like Jesus would cause scandal by coming into the home of a Roman soldier, the centurion says “Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus.” In the New American Bible, which we use at Mass, this text is rendered “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

This is the text upon which we base our response before Communion, “Lord I am not worthy to receive You…” The dynamic equivalent approach to translation would argue that in contemporary usage people do not use the expression “have you under my roof” to indicate hosting someone into their homes. Even though this meaning would have been understood to the original audience of this phrase, and even to us now as an awkward construction, dynamic equivalence would argue that it would be better to paraphrase the expression so that its meaning is rendered in every-day vernacular usage. Thus the above citation, when applied to each individual, becomes “Lord I am not worthy to receive You, but only the say the word and I shall be healed.”

Since this translation method can lead to inexact equivalence between the Scriptural citations and the Liturgical texts, the Vatican released a new instruction on Liturgical translations entitled Liturgiam authenticam, or “authentic Liturgy” in 2001. This document espouses, instead of a dynamic equivalent method of translation, a “formal equivalence” approach. In this method, rather than translate concepts into contemporary language, the aim is to render the original text into the vernacular as closely as possible while maintaining proper grammatical syntax.

Thus Matthew 8:8 reacquires its more exact Biblical translation in the Liturgical usage. “Domine non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur puer meus” becomes “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Though it might sound strange to 21st century English speakers, the original text is brought into our language exactly as it was spoken centuries ago, with exception of one word. “Puer” (child) becomes “soul.” Still, the theological reality is the same: are not our souls essentially the children of our being? Such a change is necessary to apply a third person biblical citation to a first person individuation.

Clearly, then, it isn’t that the current translation is wrong. Quite the opposite actually. According to the principles of Comme le Prévoit and dynamic equivalence, the texts we use now are perfectly correct. It is only because this method can often confuse the citations of the origins of our Faith – the Scriptures – with equivalent translations that the Vatican wishes vernacular versions of the texts to reflect the original Latin texts more closely. The Latin versions were, after all, composed with direct quotes of the Scriptures.

Most of us acquire a more formal vocabulary as we mature. 40 years after the texts we now use were first uttered, it’s time to mature. In the life of the Church, 40 years is a mere blip on the radar – an infancy. We are now going to use new words, with a much deeper & Biblical meaning.