The New Translation of the Mass – the People’s Part. Part 1: The Opening Greeting and the Gloria. (#167)

The new Latin Missal (1969), introduced after the Second Vatican Council, made important changes: three Bible readings, public intercessions, and a choice of Eucharistic Prayers. And a different style of service came in: the people joined in, the priest faced them, there was a real kiss or handshake at the Peace, and Communion was given under both bread and wine. The 1970 English translation came out in 1970 with Vatican approval. For two generations of English speaking Catholics, born after 1960, it is the Mass.

Basically, this translation tried to say in English what the original Latin meant. It deliberately did not reproduce wordy and elaborate language in the Latin, taken from the high style of the Roman Emperor’s court when spoken and written Latin were growing further and further apart. It used plain English – though not colloquial English. The result was dignified when it said something important clearly and simply. For example, consubstantialem Patri became “of one being with the Father”. Neat, plain, and exact: the same being, God, as the Father, even though a separate “person” and perceived as such. “I and the Father are one” (John 10.30).

 It was made easy for priests, readers and congregation to say aloud, because it followed the rhythms of everyday speech and writing, and paraphrased a text where the meaning was obscure – for example, Dominus Deus Sabaoth becomes “God of power and might”.

The 1970 translation sometimes sounded flat: ab omni perturbatione in the prayer after the Lord’s Prayer becomes “[keep us] from all anxiety”, a far weaker word. It did not hesitate to depart from the Latin when a word for word rendering into English is not English, or the Latin is now known to be a mistake. It shortened some passages, e.g. in the Gloria. It can get to the whole point of a prayer in fewer words.

No first attempt is ever perfect, and in 2001 an Instruction from the Vatican, Liturgiam authenticam, set out detailed norms for the translation of liturgical books from the basic Latin text, requiring previous translations which did not follow these norms to be revised and submitted for approval. This gave us the 2012 English version. There are two important things to notice about it.

Based on 1975 revision the post-Vatican II rite of 1969, it in no way represents a return to the previous rite (now the “extraordinary” rite). The new rite in the language of the people is here to stay. Secondly, it laid down that translations should stick closer to the Latin. In some cases the actual words are prescribed, e.g. “Amen”, “and with your Spirit”, on the grounds that they are common throughout Christianity and therefore should be translated literally. Shorter, less literal translations aimed at getting across the meaning rather than the structure of the Latin are discouraged. The problem is obvious. If a “translation” does not get across what its original means, it is a failure. But if it lifts words and structures from the original and the meaning is different or obscured, it is a failure just as much.

The two parts of this study explains and comments on the relatively few changes in the people’s part.

“And with your spirit” is a word for word translation of the Latin, cum spiritu tuo. It has to be admitted that the Instruction which imposed the new translation uses these very phrases as examples of the rule that words like “cornua”. The “rays” shining from Moses’ face, (Exodus 34:29), not “horns” should be translated literally. “It is best that such terms not be explained or interpreted by more abstract or general vernacular expressions.” (Liturgiam authenticam para 43). But if the only English words that express their meaning are different, how can they not be used in a translation? In Hebrew the word for “rays” is the same as the word for “horns”. In English, it isn’t.

Now the Hebrew word nefesh, and especially nafshi, “my soul”, originally “my breath”, usually means no more than “I”, “me”, “self, myself”; e.g. Ps. 124:4-5. : the flood would not have gone over “our souls”. In the Catholic Revised Standard Bible translation it is “over us”; and so in literally hundreds of other places. “The Lord be with you” occurs only a few times in the Bible. In Ruth 2.4 Boaz says to the reapers “The Lord be with you” (yhwh ˁimachem) and they reply “The Lord bless you”. What occurs in the New Testament is “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” The word is pneuma, always used in the Greek OT for a different word, ruah, “spirit”. In the New Testament psychē, souls, and pneuma, have often taken on rather special meanings - the spiritual side of a person, so to speak, as well as “Holy Spirit. Here, nevertheless, “my soul” (see the comment on Luke 7:6-7 in pt 2 of this article) can mean simply “me”. In the farewell phrases in Philippians 4.23 and 2 Timothy 4.2 2” your spirit” seems in the same way to mean no more than “you”. And when they stand for and emphatic “I”, “me”, myself”, then “my soul” and “my spirit” mean exactly the same. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour” – a straightforward parallelism typical of Hebrew poetry.

The Latin phrase in the Mass has come to us through Greek, and it looks as if Greek-speaking Jews used a word for word translation from Hebrew or Aramaic. “With your spirit” seems to mean just “with you too”, in the same way as phrases with “soul” in them. It simply matches tecum in “The Lord be with you.” In English, we usually repeat the greeting “Good morning!” “Good morning!” The phrase in Latin just attempts to translate a greeting or a parting “Good-bye”, and it has nothing to do with the idea of an immortal soul. “And with your spirit” made sense in the original language, but by the time it gets to English (three removes!) it is meaningless. “And also with you” is in fact an accurate literal translation, saying what the phrase means in the original, just as Au revoir! translates as “Good-bye” and not “To the seeing again”.

The repetition of “my own fault” has been put back into the confession, which was added to the mass in the Middle Ages as a private prayer of the priest and servers. The first translators thought that nowadays we best express sorrow for sin by simple admission rather than self-abasement, and translated the phrase only once. The new translation keeps “brothers and sisters”, which the Latin does not have, but the Instruction actually allows this. The compilers of the revised Latin seem to have been uncomfortable with it and provided two alternatives, now commonly used in English.

In the Gloria, “to people”, for hominibus, human beings, not just men, is the correct translation and is retained. But “to people of good will” is a mistranslation. It is a correct rendering of the Latin – so the revisers insisted on it – but the Latin itself is a mistake. If you want to see exactly what is meant, look at Ephesians 1:3-5, in Greek “He chose us …according to the eudokias (“what seemed good”) of his will (thelēmatos)”; Latin “according to the purpose (propositum) of his will (voluntātis)” . In Eph. 1:9 beneplacitum (“his good pleasure”, “what seemed pleasing to him”) translates eudokia , “good-seeming”, quite literally. The meaning in the Gloria is “to those to whom God has thought right” or “willed” to grant peace – i.e. his (chosen) people.

In the Gloria in St Luke’s Gospel, only one word, eudokias, was used. However, the Latin Bible used not words translating “of [his] good pleasure”, beneplacitum, but the words bonae voluntātis, “of good will”. Unfortunately, the only possible meaning of this in Latin and English is “on earth peace to people who have (or show) good will”, not “peace to those to whom God has been pleased to give it” or “to whom his good pleasure” has been imparted. The Hebrew word which eudokia and beneplacitum translate is rātsōn, found in this sense, and usually translated as “his favour” in many places in the Old Testament . The Dead Sea scrolls, roughly contemporary with the beginnings of Christianity, use it in the sense of the people God pleased to make his own, and actually speak of “the sons of his good pleasure” (or “favour”. Thanksgiving Hymn 12.33, tr. G.Vermes, The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, p.266.-- “the abundance of his mercies towards all the sons of his favour”. Vermes actually translates it “grace”, and indeed the basic New Testament meaning of the word usually rendered “grace”, charis, is virtually the same.) The point is, the angels are proclaiming God’s mercy favour to us, not requiring ours good will in advance. .

The earlier English version, and almost all modern Bibles, including the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, solve the problem by translating “peace to his people on earth”, or “to the people whom he has favoured” or “favours”, leading simply to “ God’s people on earth”, and this is correct. “To people of good will” does indeed translate the Latin, but the Latin Bible translated the Greek, and presumably the original of the song of the angels, quite wrongly.

Every phrase in the Gloria is translated, as opposed to the somewhat shortened version in the first translation. In Latin adoramus te, said of God , means “we pray to you as God”, not “we like you awfully much”, which is the usual of meaning of “adore” in English. The word was borrowed into English with the meaning “worship”, but now longer means this “except in poetry” (Oxford English Dictionary), and as the term for certain devotions. It has become degraded: “Raspberry wafers, which I adore” (James Joyce, quoted in the OED). It has been used here not because it is faithful to the Latin, which it is not, but because it looks like the Latin. This is not translation, and “We worship you” is the correct rendering, as in the 1970 translation.

We find this kind of literalism throughout the new version. In the passages we have examined, and in those that follow in the second part of this study, it repeatedly leads to mistranslations or obscurity.

Dick Wilson

(For some years Dick Wilson worked as a translator of books on theology, biblical studies and history.)