More Cuthbert Johnson on Translations

Picking up on yesterday’s post reviewing Cuthbert Johnson’s piece in The Tablet, Canon John McHugh of Ushaw College is the abbot’s next translation hero, who wrote an open letter in 1980 as ICEL was set to tackle MR2 and the translation of this edition into English.

(I)n the immediate aftermath of the Council, far too much was sometimes expected from a revision of the outward forms of worship, as if putting the Mass in the vernacular, having the priest facing the people, and introducing lay readers, would of itself suffice to make the liturgy meaningful to all.

If this indeed was the expectation (and I always caution reading those who attempt to read goals into others’ intentions) the council bishops in SC 11 were explicit:

Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.

Given the extent of the poor dumb laity meme on both ends of the liturgy debate, perhaps it’s not too surprising that lazy pastors thought just following the rubrics was enough. That said, critics of the quality of the texts that came out of the 70’s were themselves sprinkled across the board.

The “special character” 19th century Abbot Prosper Guéranger said would be needed would be communicated not only by the words on paper, but in the attention, style, and reverence of proclamation–an item you cannot always put in red, but something for which we will have to provide a substantial training.

Some of the solutions for MR2 I found lacking, even a dumbing down for the clergy. Just give the presider, McHugh advocated, a “formal” and “specialist” vocabulary, “a range of words and constructions rather different from those which at other times, the members of a congregation would normally employ.”

Abbot Johnson, aware that many conservative commentators thought the 1969 instruction Comme le Prévoit needed updating, sees its successor document, Liturgiam Authenticam, a “response to a need,” rather than an “imposition.”

That might be a matter of interpretation. I would see LA as evidence of a further dumbing down coming from Rome. The 1969 guidelines certainly did not restrict either the accuracy of Roman originals, nor the possibilities of poetry or elevated language. What LA accomplishes is to leash the translators so that they, along with pastors and laity, are discouraged from exploring the full possibilities and benefits of liturgical language.

Abbot Johnson and other reform2 advocates, in their cheerleading for restorationism, do not touch the concession from Rome in 1969 (Comme le Prévoit 43) that translation alone was not going to be sufficient:

Texts translated from another language are clearly not sufficient for the celebration of a fully renewed liturgy. The creation of new texts will be necessary. But translation of texts transmitted through the tradition of the Church is the best school and discipline for the creation of new texts so “that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already in existence” (SC 23.)

Another present-day hero, Cardinal George Pell, lobbies for his own work (“different from what we are used to”) as Vox Clara chair:

(In the new translation) is a fullness of theological teaching which will be enriching over the years. It is not a literal word-for-word translation of the Latin. It is sophisticated, accurate and often beautiful and powerful.

And we’ll see if the focus on the words works for us when the final result comes out rather than on fruitful evangelization and engagement. Last word for Abbot Johnson:

A debt of gratitude is owed to all those who have worked with a sincere heart to provide for the liturgical needs of the English-speaking world. However, we should patiently keep in mind what Abbot Prosper Guéranger, whom Pope Paul VI called the Father of the Liturgical Movement, wrote: “You cannot change the mind of a people as easily as you can change a liturgical book.”

… and now for you, commenters.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to More Cuthbert Johnson on Translations

  1. Vincent T Nagle says:

    “Focus on the words…rather than on fruitful evangelization and engagement”
    Why set this in contradiction or competition, when they are clearly complimentary? Why have liturgy at all, why have ritual at all, why have a common prayer life at all if one is not going to pay attention to liturgical language? And how does this somehow negate the testimony of faith in life necessary for evangelization?

    • Todd says:

      Agreed. What is needed is a broader effort to improving the quality of liturgy, rather than a narrow focus given us by the CDWDS in LA. Language is important, and not just for the printed words on paper. The words must be communicated well, too. One reason why I will be very interested in how the presidential prayers are typeset in the new sacramentary.

  2. Liam says:

    Much wisdom here. This is a critique I would share, and there’s much more profit in pursuing in than in more facile approaches that are more common heard within the din.

  3. smf says:

    I would suggest getting the words right is at least a reasonable jumping off point, and one of the very few areas where upper level authority can actually make an impact directly. No legislation will ever succeed in producing ideal liturgy if those implementing it are against it (or simply incapable), but at the least a common set of words and rubrics that lend themselves to good liturgy would seem a bare minimum necessity.

    I should also mention that America’s first bishop believed that the entire United States could one day be converted, but that this would be greatly aided by the mass being (at least partially) in the vernacular and being correctly adapted to the American situation. (I suspect this would have been not too different from what is now the Anglican Use). In any case, the point I am making is that evangelization could be greatly helped by liturgy. (Consider the degree of catechesis integral to the eastern liturgies as an example.)

    In any case, revising translations will not be the be all and end all of improving the liturgy. It is, however, a necessary step.

    As for LA, I would argue it was in fact very necessary. It was necessary that a proper English version of the missal should become available, and that certainly had not happened before LA. While it may be that new rites or uses will be allowed to develop over time (or at least greater flexibility in local adaptations), this must be a gradual and organic process, and it must begin firmly rooted with the Roman Rite. Once the English speaking world has shown itself capable of producing and implementing with regularity a version of the MR that is not plainly faulty, then eventually perhaps the possibility of some greater freedom could be considered. After all, if you can’t trust someone to produce a decent translation of an existing text, or to properly implement the current text, then you certainly can’t trust them to produce a new text of their own.

  4. Todd says:

    I don’t see anything “improper” with the current translation. It was produced within the rules, and approved in all the right places. Clearly, the bishops and Rome thought the work was minimally “decent,” otherwise they wouldn’t have accepted it.

    I think the ability to translate is related, but somewhat different from composition.

    I think setting aside bitterness about MR1 and echoing Dom Cuthbert is wise: we thank people for the honest, faithful, and good work they have done. But we don’t stop advocating for something better.

    And lastly, if significant elements of the laity have trust issues with the hierarchy, this breach must be healed, and healed with a direct plan and with a mind toward unity. The alternative offers us little hope for getting MR4 right.

  5. Brendan Kelleher SVD says:

    I’ve just received my copy of “The Tablet”, containing Dom Cuthbert Johnson’s article today – June 5th issue, arrived June 14th. His name is one I am not familiar with in the context of post-Vatican II liturgical reform, certainly his name never came up along with that of Mgr James Crichton, Englands premier pastoral liturgist in the 60’s and 70’s. Mgr. Crichton’s series of commentaries on the revised liturgical books, eg. “Christian Celebration: The Mass”, was considered essential reading when I was in formation 1969-1976. His reservations about the 1972 Roman Missal translation were also fairly well known. Given the pastoral focus of his work, and the fact that he was actively involved in the life of his beloved parish of Pershore in Worcestershire till well past retirement age, however, I wonder whether he would have welcomed the new translation with its exalted language. He was one of the first PP’s in the Archdocese of Birmingham to adapt his parish church to the post-conciliar norms, and in its original design had anticipated some of them. It was a striking structure to say the least, though I need to cast my memory back almost some fifty years to when I actually visited it. The other name mentioned, Canon John McHugh, has me puzzled, since the only faculty member at Ushaw with he same name that I am aware of was a NT scholar.
    All in all though Dom Cuthbert’s article bears the marks of his personal preferences and the fact that he is an advisor to the Vox Clara committee. If other commenters are not yet aware of it though, I would like to suggest that they also take a look at the link to a very relevant chapter in Bishop Maurice Taylor’s book, “It’s the Eucharist, Thank God”, provided on the Pray Tell blog site
    It provides food for thought, but also rather sad and painful reading. He is as ignorant, kept in the dark, as the rest of us as to who were the voices that Rome was responding to when it produced Liturgicam Authenticam.
    As a final comment, given that my part-time “pastoral” ministry sees me celebrate the Eucharist for a congregation,here in Japan, who speak a variety of Englishes – both Asian and African, I am not looking forward to having to celebrate the Eucharist using the new translation: my congregation will definitely need a glossary or some similar aid.

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