Collect 29: A Case-Study in Liturgical Translation

UPDATED

Today is the 29th Sunday of the Year according to the calendar of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Missal (both 1969 and 2002 editions). So if you were to look up the normative Latin text of the collect for the Mass of the today you would find this prayer:

Omnípotens sempitérne Deus,
fac nos tibi semper et devótam gérere voluntátem,
et maiestáti tuæ sincéro corde servíre.
Per Dominum nostrum…

This is one of those punchy, pithy and finely balanced prayers for which the Roman liturgy is famous, and which causes a translator to think carefully in order to capture the meaning and force of the Latin. The verb gérere, “to bear, carry” is one of those words that had a basic original meaning, but later came to have other meanings derived from the original. The main verb of the prayer, though, is fac (nos), “make (us)”. So we know it is going to be one of those bold prayers the Roman liturgy frequently dares to make, asking God to do in us and for us something that it is not in our own capacity to do unaided. In this case we are asking God to do two things. A basic but sensible translation of it might be:

Almighty, eternal God,
make us manifest a will always devoted to you,
and to serve your majesty with a sincere heart.
Through our Lord…

Now this is not a new prayer. In the Roman Missal prior to the Second Vatican Council it was used on the Sunday after the Ascension. In Latin, of course. However, that does not mean there was never a translation of this prayer prior to the post-conciliar concession of vernacular liturgy. One of the great fruits of the Liturgical Movement was the development of the people’s hand missal, with its notes on the actions of the liturgy and their meaning, and its translation of the prayers and texts of the Latin Mass. So it was of interest to me to look back into some of these and find the translations they employed.

So in the Layman’s Missal of 1961 (reprinted 2008) the collect is translated as:

Almighty and everliving God,
let us always serve your sovereign majesty
with devoted will and sincere heart.

This reads very well in English and captures the essence of the prayer, while changing it slightly and reducing something of its force. Thus, “make us” has been weakened to “let us”, which is a shame, as in the liturgy we can dare to ask God to “make” us to do things. Also, our devoted will is now explicitly at the service of the divine majesty, not only the sincere heart. This is a change that does not affect the theology of the prayer, and perhaps makes it more intelligible on first reading.

In the Roman Catholic Daily Missal of 2004, itself based largely on the Ideal Missal of 1962, we find this translation:

Almighty and everlasting God,
make us always bear towards Thee a devoted will,
and serve Thy Majesty with a sincere heart.

Here we find a far more formal English style, but also an exact translation of the Latin. The use of “everlasting” is unfortunate, as it always makes me think of batteries. The best word to use of God in this case is “eternal”, as it has a far richer theological sense and range of meaning. But the verb gerere is literally translated as “bear”, and here, as in the Latin, the devoted will is not explicitly put at the service of the divine majesty, though it is hardly erroneous to render it that way.

In the American St Joseph Daily Missal of 1959, we find yet another translation:

Almighty and everlasting God,
grant us both ever to have a will devoted to You,
and to serve Your Majesty with a sincere heart.

The ‘Duracell’ God appears with the use of “everlasting”, but a good compromise has been reached with the main verb. If “make us” sounded a little too in-your-face, and “let us” too passive, then the use here of “grant us” manages to soften the impact of the former, while negating the passivity of the latter. By granting something to us God is still seen as making an active decision and giving us a capacity to perform what we are asking to be able to do. The use of “both ever” however is a little clunky when read aloud, but that is quibbling.

Turning to the Saint Andrew Bible Missal of 1962 we find another attempt at translation:

Almighty eternal God,
grant that we may always be obedient to you
and serve your majesty with a sincere heart…

The invocation of God here is spot on, with its preferable use of “eternal”. “Make us” has been softened again by the canny use of “grant us”, but we find now some dynamic equivalence. Instead of seeking to bear towards God a devoted will, we now ask to be “obedient” to Him. The Latin for “obedient” is not found in the original prayer, and the translation here has acted as an interpretation of the Latin: to have a will devoted to God is to be obedient. Now this is not wrong theologically, since obedience and disobedience, which is to say virtue and sin, are functions of the human will. Yet one might find this too restrictive. When we think of obedience we tend automatically to think of laws and commandments. Yet the original Latin prayer seems to be asking for more than the grace to obey God’s laws; it asks that we might conform our will in all things and at all times to God’s: “not my will, but thine be done”. So some of the scope of the original prayer has been lost in the interpretive translation offered here… a shame, but not criminal.

Lastly in The New Roman Missal of 1961, this translation is used:

O Almighty and eternal God,
grant us ever to have a will devoted to Thee,
and to serve thy majesty with a sincere heart.

Again, we find variation. The use of “O” in the invocation of God reflects the vocative case of the Latin original, and is pleasant to the anglophone ear. Here we find the felicitous use of “eternal” again, as also “grant us” for the main verb. The devotion of the will is again seen as separate, at least in the syntax if not the theology of the prayer, from the service of God’s majesty with a sincere heart. And the use of “thee” raises the register of the English an appropriate degree in formality: this is not a private and personal prayer, but a liturgical, communal prayer.

Now if you are still awake, we are getting to some interesting forays into translation. The translations above were not official translations such as the English version of the Roman Missal is today. They were ecclesiastically approved, naturally, so they were attested as being without error, but this approval was not the same as saying that the particular translation was definitive in any way.

However, after the Council, the process began in earnest to produce a definitive single translation to be used in English-language worship. Here too we find that there were varying, interim, attempts to render this collect. These are the translations we might have had. My sources are not exhaustive but nevertheless they are very interesting.

Firstly there is a set of unbound but officially-printed missal inserts that are undated but seem certainly to date from before 1966. This collect, still in its original place of the Sunday after the Ascension, is rendered in a markedly different way to the hand missals examined above:

Almighty, every-living God,
so deal with us that we may always be dedicated, heart and soul,
to the service of thy glory…

Here we find an interesting mix of dynamic equivalence and formality. A “thy” has been included, elevating the register of the English. Yet the translation is not exact. God’s majesty has become his “glory”, which is theologically adequate, since God’s glory and his majesty are both ways of describing the stupendous, transformative, transcendent essence of the Godhead. But it is not an exact translation: gloria is the Latin for “glory”, and it is not in the Latin original. But no harm done at all.

However, “make us” has become “so deal with us”, which certainly captures God’s essential activity in our lives, but the expression “to deal with” is usually used in the first instance regarding problems, or things of lesser priority: “if there is a problem, I will deal with it”; “I’m busy; can you deal with him?”. Now fallen humanity certainly must be problematic for God, otherwise he would not have seen need to send the Christ, but I am not sure that God experiences us a problem or of low priority. Indeed the whole force of Revelation suggests the opposite! And “deal with us” has a curiously distant, impersonal air to it. It is an ingenious translation, but it does not quite work.

In a finely-printed volume of the interim Missal in English published by Burns and Oates in 1965 for the Scottish bishops, we find this collect rendered almost exactly the same as the previous:

Almighty, ever-living God,
so deal with us that we may always be dedicated, heart and soul,
to the service of thy majesty…

In this attempt, the translator(s) have decided to keep “majesty”; otherwise it is the same as the previous translation.

Moving on a little, the National Liturgical Commission for England and Wales published in 1972 three volumes of Interim Translations of the Masses of the New Roman Missal. its interim translation of the collect, now moved to the 29th Sunday of the year, shows more signs of dynamically equivalent translation:

Almighty, eternal God,
make us always intent on doing your will
and single-hearted in your service.

Here we see an example of the inherent tendency of dynamically equivalent translation to seek the meaning of a text by interpreting it, which is not necessarily a bad thing. “Eternal” is used, and that is well done. The translator(s) here have opted to keep the boldness of the main verb by using “make us”. But now we see some marked differences. In the Latin we are asking that God make our will devoted to him; in this translation we are now asking to be made intent on doing God’s will. Now as we noted above, the underlying concept is that of conforming our wills to God’s in all things, so to be intent on doing God’s will is not inconsistent with this underlying meaning of devotedness. Yet it should be noted how the expression of the prayer has changed, as the “will” mentioned is now God’s not ours. The translators are interpreting for us the meaning of the Latin prayer, and their effort is not unreasonable.

In a similar way, whereas in the Latin we ask God to make us serve him with “a sincere heart”, in this translation we are asking to be “single-hearted” in God’s service. Again, we have an interpretation guiding the translation. Is to have a sincere heart the same as being single-hearted? If to be sincere in something is to be honest and unfeigned in it, then acting so would be opposite to acting duplicitously, we might say. The word “duplicitous” comes from the Latin root duplex, which means “double” or “twofold”. So, to act duplicitously is to be “double” in one’s conduct, to be treacherous, to seem one thing while being actually another. So it is no stretch to say that this would to be to act insincerely. So sincerity could be seen as singleness in one’s conduct, actually to be what one seems… to be single-hearted. It is a long route to get there, but get there we can. Whether it was worth the journey is another question! Why could “sincere” not have been used?

This same translation makes it into the Roman Missal: English Translation of the 1971 Missale Romanum – Authorised for public use by the Hierarchy of England and Wales, published in 1973 by Goodliffe Neale.

In 1974, the English version of the Divine Office was published, and it used another translation again! The translation has become even more dynamic, and indeed, more embellished:

Almighty, ever-living God,
make us ever obey you willingly and promptly.
Teach us how to serve you
with sincere and upright hearts in every sphere of life.

The translators are beginning to let their creativity run off the leash. All of a sudden, we have (effectively) two prayers, not one. The first asks God to “make us” do something, so the option has been for the full boldness and forcefulness of the Latin original. What is it we are to be made to do? To “obey” God “willingly and promptly”. We saw “obey” appear in an earlier translation, and while not wrong as such, it has removed the more expansive reference to our “will”, and the need underlying this to conform our wills to god’s in everything, not just in obedience to God’s laws. The focus has been narrowed, and we have lost something. Obedience to God’s laws is a duty for us all; conforming our wills to God’s in all things is something beyond duty – it is a counsel of perfection, a striving for holiness beyond basic obedience. The translation has deprived us of the holy ambition of the original prayer. “Willingly and promptly” appear to be a wordy way of saying “devotedly”. These adverbs are not in the Latin, and again serve as the translators’ interpretation of the original. They are fine theologically, but they have weakened the pithiness of the original, making it more verbose in translation, and to no real benefit.

Then comes a second prayer, grammatically acknowledged as such by the intrusion of a new sentence. Now we are also asking God to “teach us”: another interpretation of “make us” but without its force and its implicit desire for God to compel us, to overcome our weakness for us. To teach is not to compel but merely to guide and commend. It is much weaker. What are we asking to be taught? To “serve” – which is fine, an accurate translation of servire.

To serve what? “You”, and no longer “your majesty”. Again theologically there is no problem, but the full resonance of the original has been neutered. In the original we were asking to serve God in the very essence of his Godliness – his glory which transforms all those who behold it, who stand in its presence, as a servant stands in the presence of his or her master. All this wonderful richness of meaning is lost in the rather rationalistic reduction to “you”.

To serve how? “(W)ith sincere and upright hearts in every sphere of life”. The words are flowing like a flood now. Where a simple “sincere” would have sufficed there has been added an elaboration and amplification, “and upright”. What it may have added in meaning has been negated by making the prayer more verbose in English. And “in every sphere of life” seems to be a delayed translation of semper, literally “always”. But there is a subtle change in this: “always” conveys a sense of time; “every sphere of life” conveys more a sense of place. Again, more interpretive verbosity to no real benefit. The punchy, bold force of the original prayer has been lost in an excess of words.

But there is more! (Are you still awake?) In 1975 the translation in the Missal changes again, and we have a new approved version (still in force for just one more time):

Almighty and ever-living God,
our source of power and inspiration,
give us strength and joy
in serving you as followers of Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

The translators seem to have become intoxicated with their own creativity. For this is almost an entirely new prayer. It is hard work indeed to recognise it as the prayer for the 29th Sunday as given in the Latin. We have been praying for something quite different to the rest of the Catholic world for 36 years. Words are flowing like a river. God has become “our source of power and inspiration” – a lovely sentiment but nowhere to be found in the original prayer. It is pure verbosity for an emotional effect. Now we are asking God to “give” us “strength and joy” – again, lovely, but where are they in the original prayer?! What do we need strength and joy for? “(I)n serving you as followers of Christ”. At least service of God makes it into the prayer if God’s majesty does not, but the elaboration of us as “followers of Christ” is totally superfluous as well as being another example of a creative flight of fancy. Yet again, it is nowhere in the original.

Even worse, the whole thrust of the prayer has been totally changed. The original prayer asked God to make our wills devoted to him, and our hearts sincere in serving his (transformative) majesty. Now we ask for “strength and joy” as we serve God (however we might do that). Gone is any sense of our total need of God’s grace to serve him as he deserves; now all we ask for is some strength and the feeling of joy as we serve God by (it seems) our own power. It is such a bad “translation” that it could bring one to tears. No wonder the anglophone Church is in such dire straits – our liturgical prayers have been so tepid and complacent, even self-satisfied.

In the long process leading up to the Revised English Missal we are now introducing, there was another draft translation, the 1998 Sacramentary (“Sacramentary” was the in-word at the time, rather than Missal, but they refer to the same thing). That draft was ultimately not accepted by the Vatican, a decision that still arouses controversy. It is fruitless to debate the decision now, but we can certainly look at how it would have translated this collect:

God ever faithful and true,
form our wills at all times to accord with your own,
and so direct our hearts,
that we may render you undivided service.

From the first line we might reasonably suspect that we are seeing again the unfettered hand of the creative translator. It gets off to a bad start. God is no longer all-powerful and eternal, but “ever faithful and true”. This bears no relation to the Latin original at all, though the concepts introduced are not objectionable in themselves. Yet again, however, the dynamic of the prayer has been changed. God is no longer described in his more transcendent aspects, but instead he is cut down to size, and addressed in more human terms, or rather in terms that relate him to us rather than describe him in himself. Again this no bad thing in itself, but it does perpetuate the constant tendency in the 1975 translation to centre things on, to refer things (God included) to, us. The focus is on humanity not on the God we have gathered to worship by means of our missal.

Thankfully, though it remains a dynamically-equivalent translation, it gets better. “Make” has become “form”, though it is our wills being formed now. This retains the original sense, and the use of “form” preserves the strong emphasis on God as the potent and active partner in the divine-human relationship. Furthermore, the whole implicit meaning in the original of the needs for our wills to be conformed to God’s is maintained.

The second half of the prayer is again quite changed in form, but the meaning and its force are preserved. Our hearts (rather than, as before, we ourselves) are being directed. This is not bad at all. Again it is a strong usage: there is no teaching or giving being requested, but direction, the guidance of a hand powerful enough to guide us. Our dependence on God is affirmed. Still the prayer has changed focus somewhat. In the Latin original we ask to be made to serve God with a sincere heart; here we are asking that our hearts be directed to give God undivided service. Has this refocusing done violence to the original? It seems not in any real way. “Undivided” has replaced “sincere”, but following the argument we noted above, we can see that this is not an unreasonable translation. If to be sincere is to be of a single purpose and conduct, if we are what we seem, then to preserve that singleness of purpose is to keep it undivided, not torn between service of self as well as God. Apart from the awful opening, it is not a bad translation. The translators are being reined in.

Next year we will all have a new translation in the 2011 English version of the Missal:

Almighty ever-living God,
grant that we may always conform our will to yours
and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart.

Once again we will have the same prayer as the Latin, and the rest of the Catholic world. Gone is the verbosity; back is the boldness. As we saw above, “grant” is an adequate rendering of the Latin, though weaker in force. And yes, there is more dynamic equivalence. Having a will devoted to God has been interpreted and translated dynamically now as conforming our will to God’s. But, again as we saw above, this still captures the full scope of meaning in the original very faithfully: we ask for more than merely to obey God’s laws, but to conform our wills to his always. This is excellent dynamic translation. Furthermore, we are again seeking to serve God’s “majesty” in “sincerity of heart”. Quibbles? It would have been great to see “eternal”, so much better to use with reference to God, who exists in eternity, beyond time, and not just forever. “Make us” would have been a more accurate way to capture the bold force of the original prayer, but still “grant” acknowledges God as the active and potent party in the divine-human relationship.

So we have seen something of the journey the collect for the 29th Sunday has made in translation. There is a lot to be said for the translations used in the old hand missals. Indeed someone asked at a talk I gave recently on the Missal why we did not just use them. Hopefully it can be seen how the translation process came off the rails when the principle of dynamically-equivalent translation was allowed to be paramount. Lastly, surely we can rejoice now that we have a theologically sound translation again, one that captures the force and resonance of the original prayer. And what is more, we are praying again the same prayer as the rest of the Church.

Pax!

7 thoughts on “Collect 29: A Case-Study in Liturgical Translation

  1. Here is another:
    O almighty and eternal God,inspire thy servants with true devotion,and grant that we may serve Thy divine Majesty with sincere hearts. Through…

    From Missal for the Laity. (Thomas Richardson, Derby. For the Catholic book Society.)
    Imprimatur Birmingham, 25 September,1845.
    Thomas, Bishop of Cambysopolis.
    Nicholas, Bishop of Melipotamus, Coadjutor.

    Well before the Liturgical Movement.

    Like

    1. Superb! Thank you for adding that. It is a beautiful and faithful translation, and makes me even more convinced that in the post-conciliar process of translation too much effort was expended in re-inventing the wheel.

      I had not meant to imply that hand missals were a phenomenon of the Liturgical Movement, if that was the impression I gave. People’s missals were around long before, as you have demonstrated beautifully. Rather, it is with the Liturgical Movement that we find copious notes and explanations being included to supplement the translations and enrich one’s experience of the Mass. That was the LM’s great gift.

      Pax!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s