Whose line is it anyway?

What I’d like to do now is begin looking at some of the parts of the Ordinary of the Mass, the parts of the Mass that do not usually change from week to week (except for those in which we are given the choice between multiple options, or special considerations for liturgical seasons such as Lent or Advent). And I want to look at the old and the new translation together with the Latin original. Let me emphasize one thing here. The Latin I will be giving you is not from the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. It is taken from the edition of the Roman Missal currently in use. This, I think, will underscore the fact that most of the changes we will notice with the new Missal won’t necessarily be due to the fact that it is a newer and more updated edition, but will due to the fact that we are now receiving a better and more accurate translation of the Latin, which is after all the definitive and official text.

So let’s look first at the Penitential Act, Form B.

Current translation
Priest: Lord, we have sinned against you: Lord, have mercy.
People: Lord, have mercy.
Priest: Show us your mercy and love.
People: And grant us your salvation. 

Latin Original
Priest: Miserére nostri, Dómine.
People: Quia peccávimus tibi.
Priest: Osténde nobis, Dómine, misrericórdiam tuam.
People: Et salutáre tuum nobis. 

New translation
Priest: Have mercy on us, O Lord.
People: For we have sinned against you.
Priest: Show us, O Lord, your mercy.
People: And grant us your salvation

Let’s focus on the original Latin and see what we can make of it. I don’t think you have to be a Latin scholar to recognize at least some of the words. I’m certainly no expert, but I’m familiar with some of the Latin we use in the Church, largely through singing chant. Since Latin is the official language of the Church, I think it behooves us, as Catholics, to be familiar with at least some common Latin words and phrases that we use in our prayers.

For example, I recognize the word Miserére as meaning “have mercy” because we sing that in the Lamb of God. We sing miserere nobis, which means “have mercy on us.” And Dómine I recognize as the word for “Lord” from any number of prayers. So I can tell in the first line that the priest says “Have Mercy on us, Lord.” And that’s confirmed by what we see in the new translation below it.

But if we look at our current translation, the priest is saying more than that. In addition, he is saying, “Lord, we have sinned against you.” Where is that in the original text?

Let’s keep looking at the Latin. In the original, the people respond by saying Quia peccavimus tibi. So maybe our Latin is not so hot and we don’t know what that means. But we know in the current translation, in we say “Lord, have mercy.” Well, we just looked at the words for “Lord” and “mercy.” Neither words are in the part we are supposed to be saying in Latin. So what does that Latin mean?

Again, I’m no Latin scholar, but the word peccávimus here looks familiar. I’ve sung the Hail Mary in Latin enough times to be familiar with the word pecatoribus. In the Hail Mary in Latin, we pray ora pro nobis peccatoribus, which means “pray for us sinners.” So I can guess that peccávimus might have something to do with sin. And tibi I recognize as some form of “you.”

Let’s see how this is translated in the new third edition. We respond with “For we have sinned against you.” Based on our rudimentary guesses above we came pretty close. And now we see where that phrase from the priest’s part in the current translation came from. The past translators took that phrase from the people and gave it to the priest.

But isn’t that rather a fundamental change, beyond what simple translation calls for? Doesn’t that seem like editorial decisions were being made about the text that went beyond the scope of translation? It would be like translating Shakespeare’s plays into Spanish but along the way giving some of Hamlet’s lines to Ophelia!
This underscores why it was so important that the new translation, which goes into effect this Advent, was made according to strict guidelines. How many of the faithful would have guessed that words which the Church originally intended them to say during this Penitential Rite had been taken from their mouths by a committee of translators and placed into the mouth of the priest?

The new Third Edition of the Roman Missal corrects this, and addresses many other aspects of the former translation that have been seen by many as less than ideal. We’ll continue to look at the new translation in detail as we continue.