The Art of Pastoral Translation, Part Four

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

It is my contention that many arguments about the worth of LA, and  therefore about the worth of the results that come from applying its  principles, are rooted – at least implicitly – in differing views about the  nature of language, that is, about what words are and how they work. What I am speaking about are the convictions  that shape the whole approach of the Instruction. Such convictions live in LA's principles and  give rise to them. We might call them  "meta-principles." In so far as they  are true, it is wise to recognize them and even wiser to act in accordance with  them, for, after all, what could be more foolish than to act in defiance of how  things are and must be. And, in so far  as these "meta-principles" are sound, the results of implementing the  particular principles which rest upon them will be the fruit of wisdom.

In the next two sections of my remarks I want to  discuss four of these "meta-principles," two that are derived from natural  insight and two that come from faith. To  use more traditional language, we might call the first pair, philosophical  principles and the second pair, theological.

  1. The first naturally knowable "meta-principle" I want to discuss is this: That translations and paraphrases, while having much in common, are two essentially different kinds of things.  Each has a distinct nature, a distinct set of qualities.  Their difference is not a human invention; the two do not exist because somebody or some group of people want them to exist.  They are because of the very nature of language.

    Specifically, translations and paraphrases must both be, and they must be like but different from each other, because of how identities and differences are at play in what we say.

    Let me spell out what I have said so abstractly.  Let us begin by observing that there are many ways you and I can "say the same thing."

    I can repeat word for word exactly what you told me.  The clearest instance of this is when I recite after you exactly what you said.  My speaking is not the same as yours, even though I quoted you exactly. However, we are far more clever than parrots.  We can exploit so many more of the potentialities for language to express the same thing.

    Let us begin with names.  You and I can give a different name to the same thing.  For example, you might call the third child of August and Dorothy Kott "Mrs. Vigneron."  I will usually call her "Mom."  We are naming the same thing, but with each of these two names very different features of this woman manifest themselves.

    But most of our speaking is not just naming; our language, as we discussed earlier, has syntax.  We express facts and their relation.  Here, too, it is possible to say the same, but to say it differently.  You and I can make different statements about the same state of affairs.   For my example in this instance I will use the old standby of a six-ounce glass holding three ounces of water.  You can say that the glass is half full.  I can say that the glass is half empty.  Now, we might be motivated to make our different observations on the basis of our different temperaments, but that does not change the fact that we are talking about the same glass on the table, with water in it.

    With these few examples in mind we can, I think, go on to understand better how LA wants the Roman Rite to be the same in Latin as it is in English.  Such sameness between the original and the translation is necessary, you will recall Cardinal Dulles said, for the vernacular text to be a reliable medium for the transmission of the revealed mysteries.

    What LA is calling for is not the identity of repeating exactly; that would be to exclude the very legitimacy of translation.  And while in some religions it may be the case that sacred texts can never be used in translation, the Church has never been of that mind.  However, the Instruction is calling for the maximum degree of sameness between the Latin and the English texts of the liturgy.  Different names for the same thing won't do; the English text must have the closest equivalence to the Latin name for the thing spoken of.  Different facts about the same state of affairs won't do.  For example, in the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer, the affirmation that at the Last Supper the chalice was "ex genimine vitis repletum," means that soon we will no longer hear that "cup [was] filled with wine," but rather that it was filled "with the fruit of the vine."  What we have is a paraphrase; what we will have is translation.

    LA is calling for a vernacular expression of the Roman Rite which presents God and his acts and the objects of his actions just as the Latin does.  That is, that which results from every act of naming things and relating what is named and then comes to expression in Latin must come to expression in English.  This is what happens when you translate.

  2. My comments on the real and irreducible difference between a translation and a paraphrase take me to my next observation about another naturally wise insight on language which is embodied, at least implicitly, in the principles of LA: That words, names as well as sentences, are windows through which things disclose themselves.  Monsignor Robert Sokolowski, a philosopher at The Catholic University of America, captures this truth with the pithy maxim: "Words present things."20  Words in their primary way of working do not express what is going on "inside" of speakers and hearers, but words bring into presence parts or dimensions of the world in which speakers and hearers find themselves together.

    Sometimes this confidence in the way language works is called "realism."   In that sense, LA is founded on a realist rather than a subjectivist view of language.  The translations of the liturgical texts must be accurate and sacred because the subject matter of the texts is principally divine realities, the mysteries of grace and not our own interior dispositions (see LA, 19).  Or we might put it this way: the words of the Liturgy have as their primary referents God and his saving deeds; true, it is concerned, but it is only secondarily concerned with the reactions which we have to him and his actions.  The Liturgy speaks in an "objective" and not a "subjective" key.  As I see it, the principles of LA are designed to ensure that vernacular translations will not modulate out of that objective key.

    My remarks about words presenting things gives rise to an opportune moment for commenting on the relationship between the two objectives which Cardinal Dulles identified as those which LA sets for itself: an accurate translation and a reverential translation.  These two aims are intimately connected.  When the liturgical texts accurately present to us God and his mysteries, these texts must necessarily be reverential.  Texts which are accurate in presenting the divine would seem bizarre were they anything other than sacred in their tone.


  1. See Sokolowski, Husserlian Meditation: How Words Present Things (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974). Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy