Vatican Publishes Norms for Liturgical Translations

Include Criteria on Use of Inclusive Language

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 8, 2001 ( The Vatican has published a new document to guide liturgical translations.

The 40-page document, published by the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, addresses questions such as the use of inclusive language and the choice of appropriate vocabulary.

«Liturgiam Authenticam» deals with the correct application of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. The document is signed by Cardinal Jorge A. Medina Estévez, and Archbishop Pio Tamburrino, prefect and secretary of the Vatican congregation, respectively.

Following are excerpts from «Liturgiam Authenticam.»

* * *


The Fifth Instruction begins by referring to the initiative of the Council and the work of the successive Popes and the Bishops throughout the world, recalling the successes of the liturgical reform, while at the same time noting the continued vigilance needed in order to preserve the identity and unity of the Roman Rite throughout the world. In this regard, the Instruction takes up the observations made in 1988 by Pope John Paul II calling for progress beyond an initial phase to one of improved translations of liturgical texts. Accordingly, Liturgiam authenticam offers the Latin Church a new formulation of principles of translation with the benefit of more than thirty years´ experience in the use of the vernacular in liturgical celebrations.

Liturgiam authenticam supersedes all norms previously set forth on liturgical translation, with the exception of those in the fourth Instruction Varietates legitimae, and specifies that the two Instructions should be read in conjunction with each other. It calls more than once for a new era in translation of liturgical texts.

It should be noted that the new document substitutes for all previous norms while integrating much of their content, drawing them together in a more unified and systematic way, underpinning them with some careful reflection, and linking them to certain related questions that so far have been treated separately. Moreover, it is faced with the task of speaking in a few pages of principles applicable to several hundred languages currently used in liturgical celebration in every part of the world. It does not employ the technical terminology of linguistics or of the human sciences but refers principally to the domain of pastoral experience.

In what follows, the general development of the document is followed, but not always the exact wording or order of points.

Choice of vernacular languages

Only the more commonly spoken languages should be employed in the Liturgy, avoiding the introduction of too many languages for liturgical use, which could prove divisive by fragmenting a people into small groups. A number of factors should be kept in mind when choosing a language for liturgical use, such as the number of priests, deacons and lay collaborators at ease in a given tongue, the availability of translators for each language, and the practical possibility, including cost, of producing and publishing accurate translations of the liturgical books.

Dialects which do not have the backing of academic and cultural formation may not be formally accepted as liturgical languages, although they may be used for the Prayers of the Faithful, sung texts or parts of the homily.

The Instruction next gives a careful updated outline of the process to be followed by the Conferences of Bishops in communion with the Holy See in deciding up full or partial introduction into liturgical use of a given language.

The translation of liturgical texts

The heart of the Instruction is a fresh exposition with a reflective tone of principles that should govern the vernacular translation of liturgical texts.

From the outset this section stresses the sacred nature of the Liturgy, which the translated texts must carefully safeguard.

The Roman Rite, like all the great historical liturgical families of the Catholic Church, has its own style and structure that must be respected in so far as possible in translation. The Instruction repeats the call of earlier papal documents for an approach to the translation of liturgical texts that sees it not so much a work of creative inventiveness as one of fidelity and exactness in rendering the Latin texts into a vernacular language, with all due consideration for the particular way that each language has of expressing itself. The special needs that must be addressed when making translations intended for newly evangelized territories are mentioned, and the Instruction also discusses the conditions under which more significant adaptations of texts and rites may occur, referring the regulation of these issues to the Instruction Varietates legitimae.

Using other texts as aids

The usefulness of consulting ancient source texts is acknowledged and encouraged, though it is noted that the text of the editio typica, the official modern Latin edition, is always the point of departure for the translation. When the Latin text employs certain words from other ancient languages (e.g., alleluia, Amen, or Kyrie eleison), such terms may be retained in their original languages. Liturgical translations are to be made only from the editio typica of the Latin and never from other translations in turn. The Neo-Vulgate, the current Catholic version of the Latin Bible, should be employed as an auxiliary tool in preparing biblical translations for use in the Liturgy.


The vocabulary chosen for liturgical translation must be at one and the same time easily comprehensible to ordinary people and also expressive of the dignity and oratorical rhythm of the original: a language of praise and worship which fosters reverence and gratitude in the face of God´s glory. The language of these texts is, therefore, not intended primarily as an expression of the inner dispositions of the faithful but rather of God´s revealed word and his continual dialogue with his people in history.

Translations must be freed from exaggerated dependence on modern modes of expression and in general from psychologizing language. Even forms of speech deemed slightly archaic may on occasion be appropriate to the liturgical vocabulary.

The liturgical texts are neither completely autonomous nor separable from the general context of Christian life. There are in the Liturgy no texts that are intended to promote discriminatory or hostile attitudes to non-Catholic Christians, to the Jewish community or other religions, or which in any way deny universal equality in human dignity. If incorrect interpretation arises, the matter should be clarified, but this is not primarily the business of translations. The homily and catechesis are there to help fill out and explain their meaning and to clarify certain texts.


Many languages have nouns and pronouns capable of referring to both the masculine and the feminine in a single term. The abandonment of these terms under pressure of criticism on ideological or other grounds is not always wise or necessary nor is it an inevitable part of linguistic development. Traditional collective terms should be retained in instances where their loss would compromise a clear notion of man as a unitary, inclusive and corporate yet truly personal figure, as expressed, for example, by the Hebrew term adam, the Greek anthropos or the Latin homo. Similarly, the expression of such inclusivity may not be achieved by a quasi-mechanical changes in grammatical number, or by the creation of pairs of masculine and feminine terms.

The traditional grammatical gender of the persons of the Trinity should be maintained. Expressions such as Filius hominis (Son of Man) and Patres (fathers) are to be translated with exactitude wherever found in biblical or liturgical texts. The feminine pronoun must be retained in referring to the Church. Kinship terms a
nd the grammatical gender of angels, demons and pagan deities should be translated, and their gender retained, in light of the usage of the original text and of the traditional usage of the modern language in question.

The translation of a text

Translations should try not to extend or to restrict the meaning of the original terms, and terms that recall publicity slogans or those that have political, ideological or similar overtones should be avoided. Academic and secular style-books on vernacular composition should not be used uncritically, since the Church has distinctive things to say and a style of expression that is appropriate to them.

Translation is a collaborative effort that should maintain continuity as much as possible between the original and vernacular texts. The translator must possess not only special skills, but also a trust in divine mercy and a spirit of prayer, as well as a readiness to accept review of his work by others. When substantial changes are needed to bring a given liturgical book into conformity with this Instruction, such revisions must be made all at once so as to avoid repeated disturbances or a sense of continual instability in liturgical prayer.

Scriptural translations

Special consideration is given to the translation of the Scriptures for use in the Liturgy. A version should be developed which is exegetically sound and also suitable for the Liturgy. Such a translation should be used universally within the area of a single Bishops´ Conference and be the same for a given passage in all parts of the liturgical books. The aim should be a distinctive sacred style in each language that is consonant, as far as possible, with the established vocabulary of popular Catholic usage and major catechetical texts. All doubtful cases regarding canonicity and the ordering of verses should be resolved by reference to the Neo-Vulgate.

Concrete images found in words referring in figurative language that speaks, for example of the «finger», the «hand», the «face» of God, or of his «walking», and terms like «flesh» and the so on, should usually be translated literally and not replaced by abstractions. These are distinctive features of the biblical text that are to be maintained.

Other liturgical texts

Norms for the translation of the Bible as used in the Liturgy apply also in general to the translation of liturgical prayers. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that while liturgical prayer is formed by the culture which practices it, it is also formative of culture, so that the relationship is not merely passive. As a result, liturgical language can be expected to diverge from ordinary speech, as well as to reflect its better elements. The ideal is to develop a dignified vernacular fit for worship in a given cultural context.

Liturgical vocabulary must include the major characteristics of the Roman Rite, and should be drawn from patristic sources and harmonized with biblical texts. The vocabulary and usage of the vernacular translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church should be respected as far as this is feasible, and the proper distinctive terms should be used for sacred persons or things, rather than employing the same words as for the persons or things of everyday domestic life.

Syntax, style and literary genre are also key elements to be considered in rendering a faithful translation. The relationship between clauses, especially as expressed through subordination and devices such as parallelism, must be accurately conveyed. Verbs must be translated precisely in respect of person, number and voice, while some latitude will be needed in rendering more complex syntactical structures.

A prime consideration should be the fact that liturgical texts are intended to be publicly proclaimed aloud and even sung.

Particular types of texts

Specific norms are then given for the translation of Eucharistic Prayers, the Creed, (which is to be translated in the first person singular: «I believe …»), and the general ordering and layout of liturgical books and their preliminary decrees and introductory texts. This is followed by a description of the preparation of translations by Bishops´ Conferences and the processes to be used for obtaining the approval and confirmation of liturgical texts from the Holy See. The present special requirements of papal approbation for sacramental formulae are reaffirmed, as is the insistence on the desirability of a single translation of the Liturgy, especially the Order of Mass, within each language group.

The organization of translation work and commissions

The preparation of translations is a serious charge incumbent in the first place upon the Bishops themselves, even if they naturally often draw on the services of experts. In all work of translation at least some of the Bishops should be closely involved, not only personally checking the final texts, but taking active part in the various stages of preparation. Even if not all the Bishops of a Conference are proficient in a given language used within its territory, they must take collegial responsibility for the liturgical texts and the overall pastoral language policy.

The Instruction sets out clearly the procedures (in general those in use until now) for the approval of texts by the Bishops and the forwarding of the texts for review and confirmation by the Congregation for Divine Worship. The document devotes some space to expressing the significance of the referral of liturgical matters to the Holy See, in terms partly based on the Pope John Paul II´s Motu Proprio Apostolos suos of 1998, in which the nature and function of Bishops´ Conferences was clarified. The referral procedure is a sign of the Bishops´ communion with the Pope and a means to strengthening it. It is also a guarantee of the quality of texts and aims at ensuring that the liturgical celebrations of the particular Churches (dioceses) be in full harmony with the tradition of the Catholic Church down through the ages and throughout the world.

Where cooperation is appropriate or necessary between Bishops´ Conferences using the same language, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments alone erects joint or «mixed» commissions, usually following up on a request from the Bishops. Such commissions are not autonomous and are not a channel of communication between the Holy See and the Bishops´ Conferences. They have no decision-making capacity, but are solely at the service of the pastoral office of the Bishops. They are concerned exclusively with the translation of the Latin editiones typicae, not with the composition of new vernacular texts, nor the consideration of theoretical questions or cultural adaptations; and the establishment of relations with similar bodies of other language groups lies outside their competence.

The Fifth Instruction recommends that at least some of the Bishops making up the commission be chairmen of the liturgical commission of their Bishops´ Conference. In any case the «mixed» commission is run by Bishops, in accordance with statutes confirmed by the Congregation for Divine Worship. These statutes should normally have the approval of all participating Bishops´ Conferences, but if this is not feasible, the Congregation for Divine Worship may both draw up and approve statutes on its own authority.

Commissions of this kind, says the document, operate best by coordinating use of resources available to individual Bishops´ Conferences, so that one Conference, for example, may produce a first draft of a translation which is subsequently refined by the other Conferences of Bishops to arrive at an improved and universally serviceable text.

Such «mixed» commissions are not intended to replace national and diocesan liturgical commissions and therefore cannot take on any of the functions of the latter.

Because of the importance of the work, all involved in the activity of a «mixed» commission on a stable basis, other than the Bishops,
must obtain a nihil obstat from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments prior to taking up their duties. Like all connected with the commission, they serve only for a fixed term and are bound by a contract to confidentiality and anonymity in completing assignments.

Existing commissions must bring their statutes into conformity with this Instruction and submit them to the Congregation for Divine Worship within two years from the issue date of the Instruction.

The document also stresses the Holy See´s own need for liturgical translations, especially in the major world languages, and its desire to be more closely involved in their preparation in future. It also refers in general terms to various kinds of bodies which the Congregation for Divine Worship may set up to resolve translation problems of one or more languages.

New compositions

A section on the composition of new texts notes that their purpose is solely to respond to genuine cultural and pastoral needs. As such, their composition is the exclusive province of Bishops´ Conferences rather than the «mixed» translation commissions. They are to respect the style, structure, vocabulary and other traditional qualities of the Roman Rite. Particularly important, because of their impact on the person and on the memory, are hymns and chants. There is to be a general review of vernacular material in this field and Bishops´ Conferences are to regulate the question with the assent of the Congregation within five years.

The Instruction concludes with a number of brief technical sections giving guidelines on publication of editions of liturgical books, including copyright, and on procedures for the translation of the liturgical texts proper to individual dioceses and religious communities.

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