The Art of Pastoral Translation, Part Two

Principles from Liturgiam Authenticam

The principles that LA offers in order to direct the translation of liturgical texts fall within several groupings.6 Some of these more directly govern the procedure for organizing the work of translation, and need not concern us for long. For example, LA makes it clear that every translation of a liturgical text must work directly from the Latin original and not be a translation of a translation. For example, our vernacular Missal should not be a translation into English of the French or German translation from the Latin. The Instruction also sets out the norms for establishing the respective roles and responsibilities for those involved in the work of translation.

In regard to the principles in LA that are of interest to us today, I would identify three sets: (1) What I will call "global" or "over-arching" principles; these set out what we could think of, to use analogies, as the "architecture" or the "genetic structure" of sound translations of liturgical texts. (2) Principles about vocabulary or individual words. And (3) principles about syntax; that is, principles which govern how those clusters of words which are grouped into sentences and paragraphs to express states of affair should operate in the vernacular liturgical texts.

A. "Global" / "Over-Arching" Principles
Let me begin my remarks on what I am calling the "global" or "over-arching" principles found in LA, by offering what seems to me to be a fairly typical example:

  1. The texts "must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrase or glosses" (LA, 20).

    This norm clearly aims at the goal of accuracy identified by Cardinal Dulles.

Let me give you a sampling of a few more of the principles from the Instruction which fall into this "architectonic" or "genetic" set:

  1. "The translation must always be in accord with sound doctrine" (LA, 26).

  2. The translations of liturgical texts should be "marked by sound doctrine, [exactness] in wording, free from all ideological influence...," and they should be an efficacious medium for the transmission of the mysteries of salvation and the indefectible faith of the Church (LA, 3).

  3. "In preparing all translations of the liturgical books, the greatest care is to be taken to maintain the identity and unitary expression of the Roman Rite, not as a sort of historical monument, but rather as a manifestation of the theological realities of ecclesial communion and unity" (LA, 5).

  4. The translation of liturgical texts is not a work of "creative inventiveness, [but] of fidelity and exactness in rendering the Latin texts into a vernacular language." However, note that here there follows immediately, this important qualifier: "with all due consideration for the particular way that each language has of expressing itself" (LA, 20). Later I will say more about this qualifier and the others that parallel it in the Instruction.

  5. "The translation should not restrict the full sense of the original text within narrower limits" (LA, 32).

As you will have noted, the over-riding concern in this set of principles is accuracy.

B. Principles about Vocabulary
In the class or set of principles which governs the translators' choice of vocabulary, the aim of establishing a reverential or sacred tone in the vernacular text becomes much more prominent. However, this group of norms also aims to guide the translators toward the goal of accuracy.

Here are a couple of examples of principles which should control the translators' choice of words in order to express the sacredness of the liturgical texts:

  1. The kind of language should be "easily understandable, yet...preserve the texts' dignity, beauty and doctrinal precision" (LA, 25).

  2. The translations need to use "words of praise and adoration that foster reverence and gratitude in the face of God's majesty, his power, his mercy and his transcendent nature" (LA, 25).

Now, I want to offer a sampling of principles about vocabulary which help to ensure that the translation is accurate:

  1. The translated texts "should be free of an overly servile adherence to prevailing modes of expression" (LA, 27).

  2. Texts, which seem to us to be inelegant or out of step with our current sensibilities, should not be "sanitized" or altered (LA, 27 and 29).

  3. "The signs and images of the texts" should be allowed to speak for themselves, and the translations "should not attempt to render too explicit that which is implicit in the original" (LA, 27).

  4. The system of words and patterns of speech which the Roman Liturgy has taken from the Sacred Scriptures and ecclesial tradition – especially the writings of the Fathers – should be preserved. Here the tradition of scriptural translations and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are important guides for the translators (LA, 50).

  5. Avoid "psychologizing," "especially a tendency to replace words treating of the theological virtues by others expressing merely human emotions" (LA, 54).

And in LA there is a sub-set of vocabulary principles which, when observed, will assist translators in reaching both aims: accuracy and reverence. For example:

  1. Words and expression which differ from "usual and everyday speech," even those that are "somewhat obsolete," rather than being disallowed, are important resources for good translations (LA, 27).
  2. Translators should avoid expressions characteristic of "commercial publicity, political or ideological programs (and) passing fashions," as well as regionalisms (LA, 32).
  3. "As regards words or expressions conveying a properly divine notion of causality..., one should avoid employing words or expressions denoting a merely extrinsic or profane sort of assistance instead" (LA, 54).

C. Principles about Syntax or How Words are Linked
The words in a text almost never appear as a list of mere names. They come in sentences and in those chains of sentences which form paragraphs. We use words to relate things to one another and parts to wholes, in order to express states of affairs, "facts." And then we go on to relate these facts to one another. We use words to name discrete things, but we accomplish something even more significant with our words: we say how the things we name relate to each other. Since this sort of accomplishment – what we call "syntax" – is in the very nature of language, it is no surprise that the Instruction on translation offers principles not only about vocabulary but also about syntax – about how the states of affairs spoken of in the Latin original of the Roman Liturgy should be expressed in the vernacular translations.7

Here are two very detailed principles that give guidance to the work of translators:

  1. First, LA stipulates that the vernacular translation should preserve "the straightforward, concise and compact manner of expression" that characterizes the Roman Rite (LA, 57). The Instruction specifies several strategies in order to achieve this objective:
    1. "The connection between various expressions manifested by subordinate and relative clauses, the ordering of words and various forms of parallelism, is to be maintained as completely as possible..." (LA, 57a)
    2. The translators should maintain in the translation the same person, number and gender as in the original (LA, 57b)
    3. The translators should express in the vernacular the "theological significance of words expressing causality, purpose or consequence" in the original (LA, 57c)
    4. Syntactical variety in the original should be expressed by syntactical variety in the translation (LA, 57d)

  2. Second, the Instruction says that the rhetorical devices found in the original, even if they are not common to everyday speech, should be maintained in the translation. Such devices are:
    1. "Recurring and recognizable patterns of syntax and style,
    2. "a solemn or exalted tone,
    3. "alliteration and assonance,
    4. "concrete and vivid images,
    5. "repetition,
    6. "parallelism and contrast,"
    7. and a rhythm and lyricism often associated with poetry (LA, 59).

It is apparent that the application of these principles in the work of translation will assist the translators in achieving a result that is both accurate and reverent, the two objectives which Cardinal Dulles said help to ensure that the vernacular liturgical text is a fit vehicle for the transmission of the revealed mysteries.


  1. The Congregation for Divine Worship offered a good summary of LA at the time the Instruction was published.
  2. In setting out these basic distinctions about the nature of speech, I depend on the German phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl. A good summary of his achievements in this field can be found in Robert Sokolowski, Husserlian Meditation: How Words Present Things (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1974). Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy.