The Art of Pastoral Translation, Part Five

Supernatural Insights (Wisdom) that Vindicate These Principles and Their Results

Having discussed how LA's norms for translation are rooted in fundamental natural truths about language, I want to move now to considering two theological truths which undergird the Instruction's principles and make them sound paths toward achieving the accurate and reverential vernacular texts which are apt media for transmitting divine realities. It is my hope to show here that the translations called for by LA are the fruit not only of natural wisdom but supernatural wisdom as well.

  1. The first theological "meta-principle" I want to discuss is this: That the order of salvation brought to us by Christ transcends what is natural. It is a grace. The ecology of the New Covenant is supernatural. Therefore, the mysteries presented in the liturgical texts are always beyond our registration. While in this world we can have some experiential glimpse of the Revelation, here below it is fully grasped only by report – by what Christ has said and by what his Apostles and their successors have handed on. Vision of the mysteries waits for the world to come. Only there will we be able to register what we know now by report. This veiled character of the New Covenant realities in this age makes it imperative for us to present accurately in English what has been authoritatively reported in Latin. What we know about God and his mysteries we know by hearing, not by sight, and so our vernacular texts must say all and only what the Church has heard and has recorded in her Liturgy. Accuracy is always important in translation, in any translation; however, in the case of translating texts which present Revelation, the wisest translators will do everything possible to craft texts which express exactly what the original expresses.

    This theological "meta-principle" helps us understand why LA is so insistent that our first response in translating liturgical texts should not be to make them sound like what we are used to. They present a dimension of reality that is not only beyond the ordinary, but even transcends the most hidden aspects of created reality. The Revelation expressed and made present in the Liturgy's texts is the norm for our culture, and not vice-versa. This basic meta-principle leads me to conclude that if a translation of the Roman Rite did not to some significant degree strike us as being out of step with our ordinary speech, we should be suspicious of that translation.

  2. A second theological "meta-principle" is this: That in the ecology of salvation God has revealed himself in both words and deeds. As the Second Vatican Council's Dogmatic Constitution of Divine Revelation Dei verbum says: "Jesus perfected Revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds" (n. 4).

    The sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, are the ways God makes present to us in our day those same saving deeds of his which are recounted in the Sacred Scriptures. Since the deeds are the same, the words used to speak of them today in the liturgy should be clearly the same as those found in the Scriptures. Grasping this theological conviction goes a long way to helping us understand why LA is so insistent that vernacular translations should be faithful to the biblical vocabulary and diction which are found in the Latin originals.

    The epiclesis of the Second Eucharistic Prayer offers us a good illustration of this point. In that prayer the Holy Spirit is called to come down upon the bread and wine to change them into the Body and Blood of Christ in these words: "Hæc ergo dona, quæsumus, Spiritus tui rore sanctifica." Presently this is translated as "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy..." The Latin original specifies that is to happen through the ros, the "dew," of the Spirit. In the translation we bishops had proposed, instead of speaking of the "dew of the Spirit," we translated ros as "outpouring," asking that the bread and wine be transformed by the "outpouring of the Spirit." We recently learned that the Holy See has judged our proposed translation to be off the mark. They have decided that our translation ought to speak of the "dew of the Spirit." I believe that we can fairly infer that the Holy See understands that this expression will strike us as strange at first, even to the point of sounding a jarring note. And I am convinced that they are not insisting on this translation simply to assert their authority. Rather, it seems that they have judged that this expression is so deeply embedded in the Scripture's style of speaking about God's action, that to forego it in our liturgical text would be to obscure the identity between what happens at our altars and what is recounted in the Bible. This gain is, the Holy See has said, worth whatever puzzlement will be arise from hearing about what seems strange to us, viz., "the dew of the Spirit."


  1. On the distinction between a registration and a report, see Sokolowski, pp. 32-56.