Motu proprio “Magnum Principium”—a translation

Herewith my hasty and rough translation of the pope’s new motu proprio, Magnum Principium. Comments to follow in due course.

The great principle, confirmed by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, according to which liturgical prayer, as adapted to their comprehension, should be understood by the people, required the grave duty be entrusted to the Bishops for introducing the vernacular into the liturgy, and to prepare and approve the [vernacular] versions of liturgical books. Continue reading “Motu proprio “Magnum Principium”—a translation”

When criticising the new Missal scores an own goal

Zr Z on his blog has more than once said that if people are unhappy with the English translation of the Roman Missal, they can always go back to the original Latin. No translation is perfect, from any one language into any other. The balance between meaning and style is usually impossible to replicate precisely. The previous English translation of the Missal failed often on both counts. The revised Missal succeeds far more often than the previous; indeed it is overwhelmingly superior as will be apparent when people do a little study of it and, well, just get used to it. That said, it is not, cannot be, a perfect translation. There have been moments when I have thought to myself I could have rendered a particular phrase better or more felicitously. Yet, then I remember that it is not about me; and also that the previous Missal more often than not paraphrased rather than translated the prayers, robbing us of so much meaning and resonance. If, on the rare occasion, a particular phrase or passage can be critiqued with some justification, it is always best to do so quietly and humbly, with a view to making its meaning clearer rather than merely stirring up angst.

So when the bulletin of a particular eastern Australian parish was brought to notice, it was disappointing to see that a priest seems to be looking for things to criticise, and doing so in terms far from humble. That at least one blogger has taken up his criticisms approvingly makes me realise how disastrous such pastoral leadership can be, sowing confusion among the faithful. In this case, both the criticisms made turn out to be own goals. No wonder the priest would not put his name to the critiques, hiding instead behind the soubriquet, Pastor Ignotus, a la The Tablet column. Since he prefers to remain hidden, I will not link to the parish nor name it.

Let us begin with his article MisTranslations, the relevant parts of which read:

In the Prayer after Communion for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time the original Latin text has the pivotal word ‘ut’ present. Indeed the word pivotal is a very appropriate one because the prayer literally pivots on that word ‘ut’, depends on it for its meaning. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that the word was not translated in the prayer that was heard!

‘Ut’ means ‘so that’: we pray that God will do one thing so that (‘ut’) another thing may flow from it. In the prayer in question the Latin text beautifully asked that God would send forth the Holy Spirit so that we who share in the Eucharist might become one in mind and heart through our sharing in the Eucharist….

But the translation gave us none of that. It read:

Pour on us, O Lord, the Spirit of your love,
and in your kindness
make those you have nourished by this one heavenly Bread
one in mind and heart.

The ‘ut’ has been turned into ‘and’ with the result that we pray for two separate and seemingly unrelated things: for the Spirit and for unity in mind and heart. The rich theological connection has been lost.

It is basic Latin and to neglect it entirely changes the meaning of the prayer.

A first year Latin student would have received a resounding F. So should the translator.

It is known that many changes were made to the Missal texts by unknown hands after their careful preparation by experienced translators and approval by the English speaking Bishops’ Conferences of the world. It is the many errors (such as the one above) that have crept into the Missal that has led some liturgists to suggest that its further revision may lie not too many years in the future. Don’t buy a copy yet!

I doubt the first-year Latin student would have received an F. Indeed that is just vapid hyperbole. The good Father’s major criticism is fundamentally and fatally flawed. “And” does not always imply “two separate and seemingly unrelated things” as he asserts. Indeed that sweeping assertion should get him a grade of F in grammar class. “And” often joins related things or ideas, and can often express chronological order and consequence. Take this example:

Since I was remorseful, I went to him and confessed what I had done.

This is pretty standard English. It should be clear that “and” functions here much like the ut, or “so that” whose absence in the prayer so upsets Pastor Ignotus. In other words, it could have also been expressed “I went to him so that I could confess what I had done”. This is good English too, just a little longer and more complex. Or take a biblical example, like Matthew 19:21:

Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (ESV)

Clearly the “and”s here function as “so that”s; viz. “Go sell what you possess so that you can give it to the poor, so that you will have treasure in heaven, and so that then you can follow me”. And it is not just a quirk of the ESV version: the Douay-Rheims version uses “and” in this text as well, as do others.

So really all of Pastor Ignotus’ conclusions, flowing from his faulty premises, are off the mark. It is clear in the prayer that the Eucharistic unity of mind and heart arises as a consequence of the gift of the Spirit.

Pastor Ignotus, so far unchallenged I suspect, and possibly affirmed by his disciples, does not stop here but offers a later week MisTranslations II. Again the translation of ut obsesses him (though he has a couple of other stylistic quibbles). He shall speak for himself:

On special occasions one of the many forms of the ‘Solemn Blessing’ may be prayed at the end of Mass. These blessings, as we all know, have three petitions, to each of which the congregation responds with an ‘Amen’ and then the blessing itself follows.

A number of these blessings in the new translation have the peculiarity that the third petition makes no sense whatsoever. Very peculiar indeed. An example may be drawn from the Solemn Blessing for feasts of the Apostles:

So that through the intercession of the Apostles,
you may inherit the eternal homeland,
for by their teaching you possess firmness of faith.

We have here a subordinate clause (which as any good grammar teacher will tell us cannot exist by itself) existing by itself! There are only two ways that this poor clause can be redeemed (and actually say something meaningful) – by being transformed into a principal clause or by being attached to a principal clause (as any good subordinate clause must do). The second option isn’t available to us because we only have the words we’ve been given. The first option could yield us the following paragraph:

Through the intercession of the Apostles,
may you inherit the eternal homeland,
for by their teaching you possess firmness of faith.

This has the extraordinary virtue of actually meaning something and, as a petition, actually asking for something.

So, how did the problem arise? Well, the translator slavishly & literally translated the little word ut (meaning ‘So that…”) which we’ve already encountered in Part I, even though in the previous example we saw he inexplicably omitted ‘ut’ from the translation of the Collect for the Third Sunday and in so doing completely lost the theological intent of the prayer. And yet here, where idiom demands that it (ut) not be literally translated, he did!

No need to quote further. On the face of it he has a point. But it would have helped his understanding if he had taken note of the two invocations before this last one. Let’s see the blessing in full:

The Apostles

May God, who has granted you to stand firm on apostolic foundations,
graciously bless you through the glorious merits
of the holy Apostles N. and N. (holy Apostle N.).
R. Amen.

And may he who endowed you
with the teaching and example of the Apostles,
make you, under their protection,
witnesses to the truth before all.
R. Amen.

So that through the intercession of the Apostles
you may inherit the eternal homeland,
for by their teaching you possess firmness of faith.
R. Amen.

And may the blessing …

Did you see it? They are not three separate and unrelated invocations. They flow one into another. In effect they are one long sentence, broken up by “Amen”s, which is an ancient style that survives in the various litanies (of the Saints or the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example). Indeed in African-American gospel congregations the preacher’s sermon and prayers often elicit interjections of “Amen” or “Alleluia” or “Praise the Lord” etc. It comes quite naturally really.

So in this blessing we can that the third, supposedly deficiently-translated, invocation is the logical conclusion of the previous two, and ends the extended sentence. Thus the structure is something like “May God do this… Amen, and may God do that… Amen, so that we might… Amen”. If the three invocations were logically separate and distinct, then the Pastor would have a valid criticism. But in the context, which he has failed to note, we find something quite different to that he assumes is to be found. In fact, all the Solemn Blessings follow this structure. Did the Pastor read them too? If so, did he not marvel that the same supposed mistake had been made in all of them?

Most likely Pastor Ignotus is an example of someone itching to find fault at any price. In the process he scores an own goal, for the joke is on him. More serious is the fact that these forays into liturgical criticism were published in the parish bulletin, unsigned, though probably by the Parish Priest (though he does not want explicitly to associate his name with the critique… in case he gets in trouble?), and spreading error and confusion among his flock. His grandstanding has revealed a fundamental failure to nurture his flock and serve the universal Church of which his flock is an integral part and without which the parish becomes a sect.

As a Pastor, Ignotus gets a grade of F.  (Perhaps I am a little harsh, but Ignotus did rather ask for it!)

Collect 30: another voyage through liturgical translation.

The Sunday just past (Sunday 30 in Ordinary Time), the collect for which will generally be used on ferial days in the coming week, provides yet another example of how theological or motivational shifts affected the translation of the Missal.

The collect (or opening prayer at Mass) for Sunday 30 of the year is another, and ancient, prayer which has been retained from the pre-conciliar liturgy, in which it was found on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. The Latin text is:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
da nobis fidei spei et caritatis augmentum,
et ut mereamur assequi quod promittis,
fac nos amare quod praecipis.

A hasty literal translation, to get the sense of this prayer, might be:

Almighty ever-eternal God,
grant us an increase of faith, hope and charity,
and, that we might merit to attain to what you promise,
make us love what you command.

It is another beautiful and spiritually sound Roman prayer, hallowed and confirmed by centuries of use in our worship. As so often happens in our liturgy, the Church’s corporate worship, it is an ambitious prayer. We ask for an increase in God’s gifts to us of the three things that abide (as St Paul teaches), faith, hope and charity (the theological virtues). Even more, we ask that God might make us worthy to attain to his promises by making us love his commandments. In other words, we dare to ask God to make it easier, as it were, to obey him, because we always find it easier to do what we love, and to serve those whom we love. If we love God’s commandments, we will be more likely to overcome our weakness and obey them. In its spirituality this prayer acknowledges human psychological reality.

Two points of note before heading into the translations. The first is that the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are gifts from God, not achievements or attributes of our own. This is reflected in the phrasing of the Latin, but not always very clearly in some of the translations to follow. Moreover, “charity” is the precise and appropriate way to translate caritas (employed in the form caritatis in the collect). Though the word has been debased a little in idiomatic usage, being used to refer to giving to the poor and the like, it still captures the essential meaning that giving to the poor is itself an example of: namely, that charity is love in action.

Secondly, and consequently, the concept of our being able to obtain merit in the eyes of God is expressed. The theology of merit is not popular today, not least because protestant Christians often find it offensive (as they understand merit, that is). Yet our ability to merit is another example of God’s fatherly love for us. Out of his gratuitous love for us, he gives us credit for using the grace he has given us towards its proper end.

It is much like when a young boy wants to give his mother a birthday present but, of course, he has no money of his own. So his father gives him some money that he might buy a present for his mother. Now both the father and the mother know that their son has not any means of his own to buy the present. Nevertheless, the mother will give thanks to her son as if the gift was wholly his own, and the father will confirm the credit the boy receives from her. The boy has gained merit. It is the fruit of his parents’ love for him.

So, being an ancient prayer, we can expect to find earlier translations of this collect, not least from the 20th century hand missals that were such a rich fruit of the Liturgical Movement. So let’s proceed as we did for last week’s collect.

In the St Joseph Daily Missal of 1959 the collect is translated as:

Almighty and everlasting God,
give us an increase of Faith, Hope and Charity;
and that we may deserve to obtain what you promise,
make us love what you command.

It is a faithful translation of the original. As we saw last week, the use of “everlasting” is not quite spot on. It is the Duracell or Energizer God that comes to mind, at least to mine. God is beyond time, without beginning or end, and “eternal” best captures that sense of timeless existence. On the other hand, “merit” has been rendered as “deserve”, which is fine as it preserves the truth that our obedience (the gift of grace) is that which makes us deserving of God’s promises.

The Layman’s Missal of 1961 (reprinted 2008) offers this translation:

Almighty and everliving God,
increase our faith, our hope and our charity,
and that we may be able to obtain what you have promised,
make us love your commandments.

The translation here is a little more ‘dynamic’. “Everliving” is somewhat better than everlasting, but not as good as eternal. More significant is the rendering of nobis (lit. “to us”) as “our”, and not just once but thrice. Instead of asking God to give something to us, we ask instead to have something we already possess (thus, “our”) increased. Now theologically this is not wrong necessarily, since when we accept God’s gifts with an open and faithful heart, they live within us and become part of us. However we lose the lovely ambiguity of the original Latin, which balanced the divine origin of the theological virtues with our derived, grace-based possession of them. Indeed the triple mention of “our” seems almost to emphasise our possession of them only. Lastly, some tinkering with verbs has occurred. Promittis has become past tense instead of present tense – the Latin is present tense, and God’s promises are eternal not merely a past phenomenon, so the Latin was better. Praecipis, (lit. “you command”) is now made into a noun, “(your) commandments”. This disrupts the effective and educative coupling of “what you promise” with “what you command”: as God promises, so too he commands what is needed for us to benefit from his promises. In a few memorable, words much theology is contained.

In the New Roman Missal of 1961 our collect is translated:

Almighty and everlasting God,
grant unto us an increase of faith, hope and charity:
and that we may deserve to obtain what Thou dost promise,
make us love what Thou commandest.

We need not refer to “everlasting”. Enough said. Otherwise it is a precise, faithful translation which captures the rhetorical coupling and wholesome ambiguity of the Latin original. In this rendering it is quite easy to perceive that our deserving of heaven is related to our being given grace to obey (and so using that grace). The only significant difference with the other translations so far is that it has a much more elevated register of English, even archaic. It seems appropriate to liturgical prayer but is not something to lose sleep over.

The St Andrew Bible Missal of 1962, of Belgian Benedictine origin, offers this rendering:

O God, almighty and everlasting,
give us more faith, hope and charity.
Make us love your Law
so that we may deserve to gain your promises…

Here is a real attempt to move from a more literal translation to a more (perhaps) idiomatic one. God is still addressed in a more formal way (though with that pesky “everlasting”). The theological virtues are not made ours too prematurely, though the asking of them might seem a little brusque: “give us”, rather than the softer “grant us”. Then again, the original Latin is so bold as to say just that: da – “give”. The first of two syntactical changes is the division of the prayer into two sentences, a procedure followed in the 1975 Missal. I suspect this is an attempt to break the prayer up into shorter, more manageable units, to cater for our diminishing attention spans (rather than God’s). That said, they have a better reason than the 1975 Missal usually has: there are two prayers or petitions here, in a sense. The second change in syntax is the reversal in order of the loving with the deserving. This too is a reasonable massaging of the text. Striking, however, is the replacement of the verbal phrase “what you command” with “your Law”, which (in line with the title of the Missal itself) seems to be introducing a biblical gloss on the prayer.

In the Roman Catholic Daily Missal of 2004, which is effectively a reprint of a 1962 missal, we find this translation:

Almighty and everlasting God,
give to us an increase of Faith, Hope and Charity;
and that we may deserve to obtain what Thou dost promise,
make us love what Thou dost command.

Again another more formal, very faithful translation, though with some variations on the similarly archaically-phrased translation of the New Roman Missal of 1961 above. Though not detectable in the actual speaking of the prayer, the capitalisation of the three virtues enhances the sense that these are divine gifts rather than naturally human virtues. It is a sound translation, and its elevated register of language is quite appropriate to the formal communal act of liturgical worship.

Moving now into the post-conciliar official attempts at translation, we begin with the undated, but pre-1966, unbound inserts from Burns & Oates, which provide this translation of our collect:

Almighty, everlasting God,
grant us increase of faith, hope, and charity;
and fit us to obtain what thou dost promise
by making us love what thou dost command…

Again we find a more formal register of English. The omission of “an” before “increase”, while grammatically possible, does sound awkward, and perhaps would sound slightly less awkward if it were “increase in” rather than “increase of”. The original translation of fac nos as “fit us” is mixed in quality: it keeps clear the truth that it is God who is the origin of our worthiness, but seems to rule out any sense of our possessing this bestowed worthiness as our own. We appear to be only acted upon, rather than also acting. It is, perhaps, a little too brutally theocentric. As English, however, it works well. In last week’s collect this interim translation rendered the same Latin phrase, fac nos, as “so deal with us”, another creative variation.

In the lovely 1965 experimental Missal of the Scottish Bishops, again by Burns & Oates, we find a translation that almost exactly reproduces the previous one:

Almighty, everlasting God,
grant us increase of faith, hope, and charity;
and fit us to obtain what thou dost promise
by making us love what thou commandest:…

The difference is minor: “thou dost command” is here made into “thou commandest”, which has the virtue of being shorter but the vice of being less felicitous to the ear.

The National Liturgical Commission for England and Wales in 1972 offered this interim translation, though the change in the liturgical calendar is reflected in this collect now being placed in its current place on Sunday 30 of the year:

Almighty, eternal God,
help us to grow in faith, hope and charity.
Teach us to love what you command us to do,
so that we might be able to receive what you promise to give.

As this translation gives us something, it takes away something else. At last we find “eternal” used, for which it deserves (merits?) a round of applause. Then it introduces words we saw constantly in the 1975 Missal, “help… grow”. “Help” is far too weak here, and could imply that we have some power of our own to grow in the theological virtues, and that we merely seek some help, some fertiliser, to grow them. It also can be made to imply that these virtues are native to ourselves. But “charity” has been kept. Again, with another harbinger of its successor, this translation has divided the collect into two sentences, though as mentioned above, this has some justification from the content of the collect, which effectively has two petitions in it. Another weakening is that merit has disappeared entirely, to be replaced by the bland, and non-committal, “be able”. Theologically there is no error as such, for to merit something is to be able to receive it, but it is an evasion of a clear statement of the Catholic teaching. Lastly, the translators have embellished the verbs “command” and “promise”, rather tediously spelling out what was clearly implied in the more succinct original.

As with last week’s collect, this translation makes it unchanged into the 1973 Goodliffe Neale Missal authorized for England and Wales.

In 1974, the Divine Office reveals dynamic equivalence in full swing when it gave us this translation of the collect:

Lord God, deepen our faith,
strengthen our hope,
enkindle our love:
and so that we may obtain what you promise
make us love what you command.

It is the first half of the prayer that has felt the hand of change more forcefully. The two adjectives describing God have been ditched in favour of “Lord”, which is not in the Latin, but of course is not wrong theologically. But why the change? “Grant us an increase” has been triply elaborated, divided for each virtue. And for the first time since the Layman’s Missal of 1961 (see above) the virtues are again described as “our”. The effect is very poetic, but the force and theological precision of the original prayer have been sacrificed. Also, is “enkindle” the right word here? Since one assumes we are not asking for the gift of love is not new to us, perhaps “re-kindle” would have been better in this context. Surprisingly it keeps the one-sentence structure, and thereafter fairly faithfully sticks to the Latin original except for its fudging of the issue of merit: “that we may merit” has been watered right down to “we may”. And for the first time, “charity” has been forsaken for the vaguer but warmer “love”.

In the 1975 Missal which we have been using hitherto, the prayer is neutered radically:

Almighty and ever-living God,
strengthen our faith, hope and love.
May we do with loving hearts
what you ask of us
and come to share the life you promise.

The adequate opening line is the best part of this translation; it is all downhill thereafter. “Grant us an increase of” has become “strengthen our”, so that the virtues again appear to be native to us, and in need only of some extra nutrition. Charity has succumbed to “love”. “Love” is near-universal in this Missal, obscuring the finer nuances of the several words it translates. The collect is here also split into two sentences. In the second sentence the damage is even greater. To love what God commands has been diluted to doing with “loving hearts” (a saccharine expression of feeling not found in the original) what God “asks” of us: no commandments now, just requests from God. Lastly we do not seek to merit what God promises any more, but only to “come to share the life” God promises. The addition of the gloss “life” rather restricts the broad horizon offered in the orignal prayer, and it is arguable that “life” is an adequate summation of all that God promises us. This translation has radically changed the collect and diluted its theology significantly.

The 1998 draft Sacramentary from ICEL offered this translation:

God of holiness,
increase within us your gifts of faith, hope, and love,
and enable us to cherish whatever you command,
that we may come to possess all that you promise.

Another exercise in dynamic translation. “God of holiness” is theologically fine, just not in the original, and the change seems to have no real purpose other than to be different. However the first of the two petitions or sub-prayers in this collect is translated very well, with a little licence, true, but at the service of sound theology; in this case making it explicit that the three theological virtues are God’s gifts not our own original possessions. The continued use of “love” for “charity” is unfortunate. The translators have resisted the temptation to form a new sentence for the second petition. This petition begins well, with “cherish” being a clever translation of amare, “to love”. Cherish has a sense of commitment about it which is apt here. Alas, the theology of merit has been dodged, and we ask more weakly only “to come to”. The post-conciliar tendency to downplay merit actually militates against its otherwise sunny view of human nature, which seems to have been sacrificed here to an ecumenically-driven desire not to offend protestants (“seems” – it is not certain, but why else remove the theology of merit?). That said, it is a much better prayer than the 1975 Missal’s.

To finish we have our new translation, which some may have heard this week, but not all:

Almighty ever-living God,
increase our faith, hope and charity,
and make us love what you command,
so that we may merit what you promise.

It is a much better prayer than that we have had until now, but it is not entirely perfect. The good work of 1998 in making explicit the divine origin of the three theological virtues has been undone by a reversion to “our”. As said before, it is not theologically wrong if read correctly, but it has needlessly weakened the happy ambiguity of the Latin original, which allowed the divine origin of these virtues, and our making them our own. Perhaps I am too harsh on this point. Thankfully, “charity” has returned, and welcome it is, though “eternal” still fails to appear. The second petition, no longer separated into a second sentence, faithfully reproduces the meaning and force of the original prayer, including its theology of merit.

Anyway, as we continually discover, almost by definition no translation is perfect, but some are clearly better than others. The tendency in the immediate post-conciliar period to soften the Church’s theology in its liturgical prayer, and to reflect a sunnier view of human nature and destiny, may have had a spiritual cost for the Church. If we do not explicitly pray for certain things we cannot expect to get to them. Closing our eyes to the tougher truths will not make them go away. As a Russian proverb puts it:

Better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie.

(NB – this collect was included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662 for the 14th Sunday after Trinity [and probably in earlier Anglican service books]. In that translation our collect is rendered:

Almighty and everlasting God,
give unto us the increase of faith, hope and charity;
and that we may obtain that which thou dost promise,
make us to love that which thou dost command;…

It is a remarkably faithful translation [though merit is side-stepped], and beautiful to boot.)

Collect 29: A Case-Study in Liturgical Translation


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.