The good and the bad of the new mass translation

Cindy Yamanaka, AP Laura DeRosa of Mission Viejo, center, prays at the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. on … Continued

Cindy Yamanaka,


Laura DeRosa of Mission Viejo, center, prays at the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011. Roman Catholic parishioners begin using revised responses to common prayers during Mass services, as a new translation of the ancient Latin prayer texts is rolled out across the English-speaking world. It’s only the second time since 1570 that the Roman Missal prayer book has been revised.

If you want reasons to embrace the new liturgy instead of relying only on blind obedience to Rome’s dictates, I recommend the argument for the Latinized translation by Professor Anthony Esolen writing in First Things. Although it is virtually impossible here to do justice to his scholarly arguments, I would summarize Esolen as preferring the poetic sound of Latinized English in worship over colloquial speech. He characterizes the previous translation that made prayer a conversation with God as “the thin, pedestrian, and often misleading version” of the Mass texts (Novus Ordo) that “eliminated most of the sense of the sacred.” In contrast to the ordinary English used by lay people, we now have a literal translation of Latin that emphasizes the distance between believers and a Transcendent God.

Professor Esolen offers examples of how the aesthetics of Latin were not reflected in the first English translation previously used. He laments the frugality of an English prayer where: “sancte Pater becomes Father, dilectissimi Filii tui becomes your son, beatae Mariae becomes Mary, diem sacratissimam,… becomes that day.” Esolen wants to preserve the Latin tendency for adjectives: “holy,” “most beloved,” “blessed,” and “most sacred.” He also complains about the regular omission of the Latin coupling of two adjectives when translating into English. (My example: The Latin fortis et terribilis is literally “strong and terrible” even though in English speech we are likely to say “terribly strong.”) He argues that literal translation from Latin is more biblical than yesterday’s plain English, producing several good examples. However, he ignores the unbiblical use in the new translation of “sacred chalice” instead of “cup.” After all, “cup” is an exact translation of the Greek poterion, the Latin calyx, both meaning an ordinary “cup” befitting a poor Hebrew carpenter. (Check out the next to last scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.)

Despite my admiration for the professor’s insights, I feel he goes too far in suggesting the texts Catholic America used for forty years “have not been a translation at all.” And while I agree that Latin has beauty, I reject the implication that English does not.



A new translation of the Roman Missal sits on the altar after the Catholic Mass Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011 at St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Montgomery, Ala.

To be fair, while the previous translation had defects, so does the new one. Bishop Donald W. Trautman commented to his fellow bishops: “The present text still contains improper syntax, incomplete sentences, archaic and obscure words and idioms, lengthy and incomprehensible sentences and fails to respect the natural rhythm and cadences of the English language.” Some young people don’t like the stuffy language. A high-sounding Latinized translation may resolve the “problem” of local variations in English but isn’t the Mass about prayer and not a class in literature?

I fear Professor Esolen flirts with snobbery, writing: “I defy any English-speaking Catholic in the world to defend the work [old translation], on any grounds whatsoever, linguistic, poetic, scriptural, or theological.” It really is not that hard to do. A 16 year-old high-school Latin student notes the change from “and peace to his people on earth” to “on earth peace to people of good will,” suggests Jesus did not come to save everyone on earth but only those of “good will.” That is heresy. Ironically, the Latin so loved by Professor Esolen, is actually a mistranslation of the Greek text which literally means “goodwill to all people.” And then there is the faulty rendition of
“pro multis”
which is best understood as “the many”(meaning “everybody else”) rather than just “many,” as if salvation is only available to some.

The Creed now reads “incarnate of the Virgin Mary” replacing “born of the Virgin Mary.” Rather than a better theology, this is worse. The word “incarnate” induced the Nestorian heresy that the Word of God (the Logos) entered into a human body, which meant that Jesus had not been born of Mary: because only his body had come from her. It took the faith of the people to affirm that Mary was the “Mother of God” at the Council of Ephesus correcting “incarnate” for not meaning “born of the Virgin Mary.”

The consolation to Catholic America is remembering God is moved not by the words of a human translation, but by the disposition in our hearts. Without virtue, any text is “clanging cymbal.”

  • ktyc14

    This makes me want to go back to the 1960s where I was 10 and we mostly had one or 2 priests in our church and we took direction from the priests and every once and a while the bishop would come. Our old priest who served the parish for over 48 years would plead with us to sing when the bishop came. We respected our priest, who used to say the sermon in both Czech and English. He was older and would repeat parts of the sermon and time marched on but their were very few deserters. Today it would be a flood after 2 hours of Mass. The bishop ran his own diocese and I am sure had some communication with the pope’s representative but he was trusted to do his job. I don’t know for sure but it seemed as if bishops were chosen on their ability in leading a flock of committed Catholics and on their own holiness and also humbleness before God. I know more about the Pope and his habits, politics and how he is wielding power than I wish to know. This one makes me paranoid. About all I knew about Pope Pius XII is that he looked sad and one would see him in a photo now and then. I believe Pope John XXIII was divinely inspired in calling the Vatican Council. After this was over, sadly, some of the American Cardinals, one the bishop of California, dragged their feet and fought to hang on to their power and thwart what change they could. Bishop James Shannon of Saint Paul, MN had the misfortune of explaining the spirit and changes that the Vatican Council came up with over national television. The cardinal was irate at what was being told and in essence fired him. Bishop Shannon was just waiting to be assigned to Africa. The archbishop of Saint Paul after he told Shannon he would back him up, never showed up at the inquisition or whatever you call it. Until this happened he was considered one of the up and coming young bishops in this country. He had a PHD from Yale. I do like the new translation better except some places where they clearly are changing some of the word

  • thebump

    For those old hippies quibbling over the corrected translation, there’s an obvious remedy: Stick with the Latin!

  • RyanHaber

    Professor Stevens-Arroyo,

    The best service you offer your reader with this piece is the reference to the one by Professor Esolen, who you state flirts with snobbery by wanting an accurate translation. Your chief counterpoint to Professor Esolen, an English professor competent in Italian, Latin, German, Anglo-Saxon, French, and New Testament Greek is an article about a sixteen year old “Latin whiz”? And in the article, the Latin whiz, you fail to disclose, concedes that the new translation is in fact more literal, only arguing that such literalism might not be desirable.

    Who died and made the Latin whiz competent to decide for the Church what is desirable?

    Meanwhile, you call it “the frugality of an English prayer” to translate “sancte Pater” as “Father”. It is not frugality; it is mistranslation gross enough to receive a big red X from the hand of any high school Latin teacher. When translating, we account for the entire semantic value of the original in our translation. That is rule number one for translating.

    Then, as if in deliberate mockery, you reference Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to validate your view that Jesus (who after all, had a huge following and women who cared for him “out of their means”) MUST have had an “ordinary cup” for the Passover. It is a distinctly NEW thing among RICH people to decide to make God their homeboy and use only the cheapest of crap for his worship. Poor people the world over have always used their best for the Almighty.

    Your hole bit about Nestorianism is inaccurate, by the way. The word incarnatus is still in the Creed and comes as the settlement of that debate, and is an exact translation of the Greek word used in the same Creed: σαρκωθέντα.

    Do you read Greek and Latin? You don’t seem to, but I do, and Professor Esolen does. Have you studied the historical systematics? I have. On what basis did you make your faulty judgment regarding the new translation as closer to Nestorianism?

    “And while I agree that Latin has beauty, I reje

  • Elohist

    Ryan Haber seems to have a “hate thing” with the Professor. It clouds his judgment. I like the Indiana Jones reference: it makes the whole issue of who Jesus is in the scriptures contrast with the distortions made by remaking him into the image of a medieval king.
    And Haber’s taket on what translation is all about from goes against what the MLA requires of academics (I would guess that Esolen is not a member of this international organization.) Awards are given to translators for making the language feel natural, not in stultifying it.
    I checked out the reference to Nestorius from the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia which was the link. It is obvious that Harber is wrong. The creed was the Nicene creed from nearly a century before and what Nestorius challenged was the meaning of the Greek word, not the use of the term itself. As the New Advent piece pointed out, the different schools used the same term to mean different things, and Nestorius was rejected for not allowing “born of the Virgin Mary” to be the meaning. Is Harber a heretic too?
    I guess Esolen is not the only one flirting with snobbery.

  • Sajanas

    Or, better still, you could simply write something new and poetic in English…. its not like the Mass is some sort of spell that will go wrong if is a little different from the old one. After all, someone, at some point, sat down and wrote it all out in the first place.

  • ccnl1

    The Creed as it should read in the 21st century:

    The (Apostles’) Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly based on the studies of NT historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven?????

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.


    Some of the references used in developing said Creed:

    o 1. Historical Jesus Theories, – the names of many of the contemporary historical Jesus scholars and the ti-tles of their over 100 books on the subject.
    2. Early Christian Writings,
    – a list of early Christian doc-uments to include the year of publication–
    3. Historical Jesus Studies,,
    – “an extensive and constantly expanding literature on historical research into the person and cultural context of Jesus of Nazareth”
    4. Jesus Database,–”The JESUS DATABASE is an online annotated inventory of the traditions concerning the life and teachings of Jesus that have survived from the first three centuries of the Common Era. It inclu

  • maphcon

    As a Catholic, I resent the high-handed way this change in the wording of the Mass has been forced on us. The new translation is horrible! I can see absolutely no reason for this change other than as another attempt by the Vatican to stifle any independent thinking or any real participation by lay people. I’m sickened by the pathetic attempts of the clergy to make us think that the new wording has anything whatsoever to recommend it. It’s obvious that the real reason for the new “translation” is to return to the archaic mumbo-jumbo of the pre-Vatican II Church.

  • thebump

    Oh, please. Take a deep breath.

  • jimwalters1

    Funny you mentioned the idea of the mass as a sort of spell where the words must be exactly right to work. That is is also something that came to my mind when I was trying to think of why being as literal as possible was the top priority in this translation. I’ll assume that wasn’t what really happened, given the theological problems with that attitude, but it is interesting that we both had the same thought.

    I’m no linguist, but I have studied languages enough to get a feel for what is needed in a good translation. You have to deal with the problem that words with the same denotations often have different connotations in the two languages. There are idioms that are instantly understood in one language that are puzzling in the other. You have to try to recreate the feel of the original in the translation. That can be difficult because poetic structures that work in one language may not work in the other. Finally, the translation has to be accessible to the target audience. It’s a freshman mistake to confuse obscurity with depth.

    I am not going to argue that the old translation was the perfect balance. It had its weaknesses. There are things in the new translation that I have come to like better, once I understood where they were coming from. Still, I think the new translation has definitely over-corrected and gone too literal. I hope it won’t be another 40 years before the next translation comes along to get us closer to that perfect balance.

  • plattitudes

    You know, when you post the same reply almost verbatim to multiple articles in the WP On Faith section, you kinda look like an idiot. You no longer appear to be an honest atheist adding to the conversation, but rather an anti-Christian with an axe to grind.

    I won’t ask you to hold to the old adage “If you can’t say something nice…” but please make comments that are actually relevant to the points being made.

  • Sajanas

    While not a linguist myself, I’ve known a few linguists and classicists (well enough to know that no one makes it through Ancient Greek without crying). What surprises me in this case is that they even *need* a translation. The author of the article was pointing out how many accidental heresies that the translator made, from relatively simple changes to the text, so it seems like it would be far easier, and more importantly, far clearer, to just write out what you want said in English, and then find a way to make that poetic and nice. But I think it is kind of a ‘magic words’ thing… when you believe that God was involved in the original creation of the Mass, I suppose you can’t discard that… and perhaps they want to keep all the different languages similar to each other so that the church is still ‘universal’.

  • jimwalters1

    I think they don’t want to start from scratch in English because the want to have the same mass throughout the world. That is possible if everybody is using a translation of the same text, but not if everybody is using a different text.

  • ccnl1

    Once again, reiteration is a major component of a good education as demonstrated by the number of times the OT has been reiterated over the last 3000 years and the NT over the last 2000 years.

    Reality and Truth are simply catching up. Deal with it and learn.

  • john1513

    This again? Do you ever get tired of repeating lies before you actually look into them?

  • maphcon

    Obviously, Bumpo, you don’t care about this issue, so why comment? Maybe you’re one of the brain-dead Catholics who have no idea and don’t even care what’s being said during Mass or you don’t think that this issue matters one way or the other. Well, some people care very deeply about the words we use and believe that the wording and style does change the meaning. Vouchsafe, I beseech thee, to remain all comfy in your local Catholic sheep pen.

  • agapn9

    I have no problem with the new Mass – I pick up and read the new changes and the changes are rather small o begin with. I am not a latin scholar but latin isn’t a language that translates easily into english because it has no articles (the, an, a) and the sentence structure is much different.

  • maphcon

    It’s too bad that there is no Catholic website that I can find to complain about the changes in the wording of the Mass, although considering the authoritarian structure of the Catholic Church, that’s not at all surprising. I can see why non-Catholics find this to be an unbelievably boring subject. I can also see why so many Catholics are so unconcerned about the changes—most of them haven’t been paying attention anyway since they are conditioned to be apathetic and just follow the rules.

    However, I find it appalling to read so many articles that reinforce the image of Catholics as such mindless robots. For some of us, it matters very much whether the priest (or anyone) says that Christ died “for many” or “for all.” Who’s being excluded in the new version? Why does it matter whether the new wording is closer to the “original” Latin? And how is Latin “original” anyway? If people weren’t paying attention to the wording of the Mass, why should they pay more attention to the present wording? Should the wording be changed frequently to force us to pay attention to it?

    The new wording doesn’t sound more “reverent” or “mysterious” to me—it sounds stilted and awkward, like the very bad translation that it is. It reminds me of the way that I translated Latin and Greek when I was in school. It always amazed me to read a good translation of what I had been struggling to comprehend. Whoever came up with the new wording wasn’t really interested in the best English wording of the Mass but, rather, in imposing a stultifying rigidity on the most important prayer of the Catholic Church.

  • maphcon

    Did you read all the changes, both for the priest and for the congregation? There are actually quite a few, some not insignificant. Overall, the effect is pretty deadening. (You make a very good point about the differences between Latin and English—very few languages can be translated word for word from one language to the other.)