The New Motu Proprio on Liturgical Translations: Some Thoughts from “the East”


This piece, as well as the accompanying post from Dr. Michael Attridge, launch the new Faculty of Theology blog, a chance to hear from the experts on the topics of the day. Fr. Peter Galadza, PhD, is Professor of Liturgy and Director of the Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies, Faculty of Theology, University of St. Michael’s College


Having an Eastern Catholic comment on Roman-Rite realities is not always a good idea. As a member of a church such as the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic, I am less likely to know the nuances of ecclesial life in another church sui iuris. I say this on the basis of my experience – seeing how Roman Rite Catholics frequently don’t understand our Eastern Catholic realities.


However, I’ve been asked to comment on Magnum Principium, and as someone who has worked in the area of Eastern Christian liturgical translations, I cautiously offer the following reflections.


In principle, the papal document reflects a sound intuition: native speakers, working in the countries where the translations will be used – and directed by authorities in those countries – should control the lion’s share of the translation process. In the case of the 2011 revisions, this apparently did not consistently happen. This seems to explain why a number of the 2011 presidential prayers are simply “clunky” English – especially when read, as opposed to sung. (Notice the tentative nature of my assertions, as I am reluctant to be too categorical for the reason stated above.) The infelicity of some of the 2011 translations was the collateral damage caused by the legitimate desire to correct ICEL’s wildly paraphrastic renderings.


However, throughout the 1990s, ICEL itself had been doing yeoman’s work to re-do these translations. Members of ICEL understood that they needed to revise the earlier translations in order to bring out the inter-textuality with other Christian writings, and provide clearer access to the original. I recall reading more than a decade ago an article in Studia Liturgica by the noted Jesuit liturgist, John Baldovin, who was reporting on ICEL’s commendable efforts in this area. In parallel columns, he placed three texts: the original Latin, the old ICEL translation, and a new translation that had been proposed by ICEL. It was obvious how flawed the old ICEL translation was, and – now that we have been exposed to the 2011 renderings – how much more felicitous the proposed ICEL revisions of the 1990s would have been – had they not been sidelined in favour of the 2011 texts.


Turning now from sound intuition to possible unexpected consequences, the one thing I hope can be avoided in the Roman Rite– especially as a member of an Eastern Catholic Church where total chaos reigns in the area of translations – is that the “decentralization” signalled by this Motu Proprio will not lead to an unintended disregard for official renderings. As we know: what people think you are doing is almost as important as what you actually are doing. Thus, if the perception develops that translating liturgy – and receiving the translation – is a more fluid process than it should be, Roman Catholics could end up hearing, for example, six different English translations of just the rites of Initiation – and in North America alone. This is the situation in my own Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church. It could happen not because any authorities had actually promulgated a variety of translations, but because of the perception that “decentralization” means “deregulation” – and a deleterious one at that.


Fortunately, Roman Catholicism has been known for its ability to co-ordinate and unify different constituencies within its ranks. May this always remain so. Ex oriente lux – sed non semper.