The Roman Missal: How Should We Translate?

Last week, we were discussing some of the changes present in our new translation of the Missal, but one of the biggest for us will be the language we use.  So let’s take a look…

Earlier this week, I was visiting Mr. Schaberg’s sixth grade classroom, and I asked the students what they had done the previous week.  I got the usual responses: “Nothing”, and “I dunno”.  They told me they had read part of the Bible, and talked about Abraham, and Sarah, and a few more figures from the Bible, and that they had “drawn some lines.”  So then I asked Mr. Schaberg if this was true, and he explained that they had been talking about the book of Genesis, and that they had made a diagram to speak about the different Patriarchs and their families.  They were talking about the same thing, but describing it in much different ways.  In translation of texts, this is called dynamic equivalence and formal equivalence.

Dynamic equivalence is how the sixth graders described their day at school.  It has the same basic effect of the original, but it’s not verbatim what Mr. Schaberg said.  In translation, dynamic equivalence uses more everyday language, which is good because it makes it easier to understand.  But the problem with this form of translation is that it doesn’t cover the whole picture, and may be missing some important elements of the original.  This is what we find in the current translation of Mass.  Formal equivalence, on the other hand, is a much more literal translation, much as Mr. Schaberg’s description of the day was much closer to what actually happened, and is the approach we’re taking in the new Missal.  Sometimes this method can use terminology that is unusual or uncommon, as we’ll see in the Missal, but that same elevated and unusual language reminds us of what we’re really doing.  We’re not sitting on the couch chatting with each other; we’re praising Almighty God!  It also allows us to use and learn about some important vocabulary from our faith (such as in the new translation of the Creed).  If we think about the new translation in this way, I think we can see that although it might sound strange at first, it is a much-improved translation of the original.  Tune in again next week, and we’ll see some examples!