Lost in Translation


By John Wilkins

Forty years ago this month, the Second Vatican Council concluded its work in Rome. The first document it promulgated was the constitution on the liturgy. It was a trailblazer for what followed, harbinger of a new era for the church. The draft text lifted the spirits of one member of the council’s central preparatory commission, the late Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, when he took it out of his briefcase during a journey from Rome to South Africa and started to read it.

He had been discouraged by the other material that he had seen; this was different. “For the first time,” he testified, “I felt able to say: this council is going to mean something in the life of the church.”

Archbishop Hurley, a prominent progressive at Vatican II who died last year at the age of eighty-eight, was later to play an important part in the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), set up by bishops of the English-speaking world to translate into the vernacular the Latin liturgical books as reformed by the council. It is a tragic and disturbing story. As editor from 1982 to 2003 of the Catholic weekly the Tablet in London, I had a rule of thumb to apply to the stream of instructions coming out of the Roman curia. If the curial congregations became concerned about an issue, it should always be assumed that they had good reason. But the methods they used and their answers could be wrong. This twin-track assessment fits the ICEL case all too well. The early translations were done under great pressure and they contained many inadequacies. When ICEL itself set out to remedy these, its work foundered on Vatican distrust.

This is an excerpt of an article from Commonweal. Click here to read the entire article. The article is © 2011 Commonweal Foundation.