Translating From the English Missal

ROME, JULY 31, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: In many English-speaking countries where the new translation of Roman Missal is used, many have embarked on translating the same missal into other vernacular languages. Is it liturgically allowed to celebrate the holy Mass with few translated parts of Order of Mass while the whole translation is not yet finished? — M.L., Kasama, Zambia

A: I suppose our reader is referring to using the new English translation as a basis for translation into local languages in a country that uses English as an official common language while at home most people use other languages.

Therefore, there are really two questions. First, may missals in another language be translated directly from the English translation? And second, may these translations be used in part before the whole missal has been completed?

The clear answer to the first question is that it is not really allowed, but you can probably do it anyway.

In other words, all liturgical translations are supposed to be translated directly from the Latin originals. Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican document which regulates translation, says so specifically:

“24. Furthermore, it is not permissible that the translations be produced from other translations already made into other languages; rather, the new translations must be made directly from the original texts, namely the Latin, as regards the texts of ecclesiastical composition, or the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, as the case may be, as regards the texts of Sacred Scripture.”

At the same time, the Holy See is well aware that for many smaller and poorer bishops’ conferences, especially those with several local languages, the number of people competent for such a herculean task is limited.

This is one reason why the development of the English translation was followed with such care. The Congregation for Divine Worship is well aware that, in spite of the norms, a good number of future translations will probably follow closely the English version while keeping an eye on the Latin. The same would be true when the other major languages finish their definitive translation. This is one reason why the congregation asks that:

“86. In the case of the less widely diffused languages, everything shall be prepared as set forth above. The acts, however, are to be prepared with great care in one of the languages mentioned above as more widely known [English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish], rendering the meaning of each individual word of the vernacular language. The President and Secretary of the Conference of Bishops, after any necessary consultation with trustworthy experts, are to testify to the authenticity of the translation.”

The congregation takes its mission of assuring an adequate translation very seriously, which is one reason why it asks for several levels of consultation.

This goes some way to answering our second question. First of all, responsibility for approving a translation lies with the entire national conference of bishops, who must achieve a two-thirds majority for approval.

The document also specifies:

“71. In nations where many languages are used, the translations into individual vernacular languages are to be prepared and submitted to the special examination of those Bishops involved. Nevertheless, it is the Conference of Bishops as such that retains the right and the power to posit all of those actions mentioned in this Instruction as pertaining to the Conference; thus, it pertains to the full Conference to approve a text and to submit it for the recognitio of the Apostolic See.”

Therefore, no individual, not even a bishop, may introduce a translation by himself of any official liturgical text.

Can these translations be used in part? Liturgiam Authenticam specifies:

“78. In the case of the less diffused languages that are approved for liturgical use, the larger or more important liturgical books, in particular, may be translated, according to pastoral necessity and with the consent of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The individual books thus selected are to be translated integrally, in the manner described in n. 66 above. As for the decrees, the institutio generalis, the praenotanda and the instructions, it is permissible to print them in a language that is different from the one used in the celebration, but nevertheless intelligible to the priest or deacon celebrants in the same territory. It is permissible to print the Latin text of the decrees, either in addition to the translation or instead of it.”

Therefore, although it is possible that not all the books be translated in general, those that are translated should be done integrally. For a just reason, the Holy See can permit that a part of the liturgy (for example, the people’s parts) be introduced at an earlier stage than the missal in its entirety so that the people become familiar with the new texts.

Finally, in the case of dialects or languages which for practical reasons cannot be translated into a full missal, the document suggests:

“13. Moreover, the fact that a language is not introduced into full liturgical use does not mean that it is thereby altogether excluded from the Liturgy. It may be used, at least occasionally, in the Prayer of the Faithful, in the sung texts, in the invitations or instructions given to the people, or in parts of the homily, especially if the language is proper to some of Christ’s faithful who are in attendance. Nevertheless, it is always possible to use either the Latin language or another language that is widely used in that country, even if perhaps it may not be the language of all — or even of a majority — of the Christian faithful taking part, provided that discord among the faithful be avoided.”

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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