The feast of Pentecost celebrates that day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles and empowered them to go forth and preach the good news about the mighty acts of God realized through the resurrection of Jesus. On that day people from many lands understood the preaching of the Apostles and all understood. In a way, this is the primary goal of the recent efforts at translating the Latin text of the Roman Missal, Third Edition into all of the languages in which the Liturgy is celebrated.
Since the 16th century Council of Trent until the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Liturgy was celebrated throughout the world in Latin. Those who did not know Latin may have relied on written translations of the text to help them comprehend what was being said in the prayer texts of the Liturgy. For many this meant reading the book more than participating, and praying the liturgy. Language was a barrier. One of the liturgical principles set forth by the Second Vatican Council was the full, conscious, active participation of the assembly. For this reason, translation of the liturgical texts into vernacular languages was deemed to be beneficial. This meant that all Roman Catholics throughout the world, no matter what language was native to their land, would be able to hear the words of the liturgy in their own language.
With Vatican II and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the entire Roman Catholic world worked quickly to translate the prayers of the Roman Missal into every language of every country where Catholics celebrate the Mass. The big challenge with this was trying to maintain a common, universal understanding of the Church’s liturgical texts, and, at the same time, make sure that all Catholics throughout the world would come away with the same, common understanding of the theology reflected in those liturgical prayers. The post-Vatican II translations of the Latin into many languages was done with some haste to accommodate everyone’s participation in the renewed Liturgy designed by the Council. As a result, there were some inconsistencies. A study of those translations, at least in English, shows that there may have been some confusion between vernacular and the ordinary, familiar conversational style of colloquial language.
As they say, “Something got lost in the translation.”
Since Vatican II the Church has developed clear guidelines for translation of liturgical texts from the Latin of the Roman Missal into every other language. These guidelines insure that all Catholics, of all lands, will hear and understand the words of the liturgy accurately in their own language. This is the goal.
In some ways the goal of this translation process is a recollection of that day of Pentecost described in the Acts of the Apostles when people from many lands heard the Spirit-enabled preaching of the Apostles:
“Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his own native language? .... and we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’” (Acts 2:1-13)
Karen L. Podd is chair of the Buffalo Diocesan Liturgical Commission (BDLC)