God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

A Culture of Convolution

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops started their semi-annual meeting today, and among the topics up for vote is the new English text of the Missal. (Bishop Trautman has been vocal about the shortcomings of the new translation, as summarized here and critiqued here.)

So I took a look at some of the proposed changes. They include:

  • “accept this oblation of our service” (instead of “accept this offering”) — the choice of “oblation” has been criticized on the grounds that people won’t know what it means.
  • “order our days in your peace” (I think instead of “grant us your peace in this life”) — I have to admit that I don’t know what “order our days” means.
  • “chalice of my blood” (was “cup of my blood”)
  • “Mary ever-Virgin” (was “Mary, ever virgin,”) — though I understand the point, I don’t think English capitalization works this way.
  • “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.” (was “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”) — the punctuation needs fixing, and I wonder about “behold him who….”

All of these seem to be moving away from standard English syntax, vocabulary, and rules of punctuation and capitalization. (There is an exception. The change from “we celebrate this eucharist” to “we celebrate these mysteries,” though it seems odd to me, is a move toward understandable English.) This pattern is particularly surprising in light of Article 21 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which demands words that “express more clearly the holy things which they signify.” What we see here is a (probably deliberate) move away from that Vatican II position.

At any rate, in this context we can hardly be surprised that Bible translations, too, end up in non-English English — and that some people can’t even tell the difference. (“My Bible sounds just like my liturgy.”)

I think we also have to ask: at what point do we call all of this “non-English English” a separate but valid English dialect?

[Update: Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman has some thoughts on The Catholic Liturgical Controversy and Why We All Have a Stake in It (April 21, 2011)]

[Update 2: I just participated in a symposium about the Missal at Fordham University (“Letting Us Pray: A Symposium on Language in Liturgy”). There’s a participant’s review here. (April 18, 2012)]


November 16, 2009 - Posted by | Off Topic, translation theory | , , ,


  1. I’d call it Latish or Englatin 😉

    Comment by Doug Chaplin | November 16, 2009

  2. I agree that “Mary ever-Virgin” is awkward capitalization, but if we’re going to have an ever-virgin Mary, she should probably always have a hyphen.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 20, 2009

  3. Oh, and the link you posted isn’t working. It’s examples.shtml, not .html. Just looked.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 20, 2009

  4. Thanks, Gary. I fixed the link.

    As for the hyphen, English punctuation rules generally require a hyphen only where a string of words would otherwise be ambiguous. The “ever virgin Mary” could be someone who’s always been the virgin Mary or Mary who’s always been a virgin, so a hyphen is called for. But “Mary ever virgin” doesn’t need one (though they still threw one in). Maybe someday it will follow “everlasting” and become one word.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 20, 2009

  5. More about the hyphen comes from this gem of a comic, courtesy of Jim Getz.

    Comment by Joel H. | November 24, 2009

  6. That’s great a good comic! When I said “Mary should always have a hyphen,” I was actually making a bad pun concerning virginity.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 25, 2009

    • Ha! I like to tell people, “I used to be involved with the theater, but I left because so many of the men were gay, and ALL the women were thespians!”

      Comment by bibleshockers | December 9, 2011

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