The Language of the Liturgy

This will be a short post, I promise, and it is one I never thought I’d write. I’ve been following in a half-hearted way the debate about the Scottish hierarchy’s approval of the English Standard Version-Catholic Edition (ESV-CE) bible for the publication of its new lectionary. As someone who prays a lengthy monastic Divine Office in Latin and English each day and has, in the past, done a bit of liturgical translation (more from Latin than from Greek and only once from Hebrew), you will understand that I notice liturgical language. I care about language in general but especially the language we use in prayer. I don’t claim to be a good writer myself, but I do try to convey meaning as clearly and effectively as I can. That is why you will occasionally come across a flight of fancy or purple passage that I hope will add something to the words on the page, conveying a nuance or level of meaning, hint at a beauty or truth, that would otherwise not be there. When translating a text, however, more restraint is required. The text is what matters, and it is the translator’s duty to try to convey its meaning as fully as possible, without getting in the way of the original author. Translation, therefore, especially of liturgical texts, requires thought and prayer as well as scholarship. It also requires awareness of how the text will be used and by whom.

This morning I happened upon an online discussion that made me realise, to a degree I never have before, that just as a woman can never know what it is like to be a man, no man can ever know what it is like to be a woman. To have dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ the effect of hearing the scriptures proclaimed in an exclusively masculine voice is something I think only a woman can really understand. I am not, and never have been, one of those who want to force the language of scripture into politically correct channels but I have been saddened by the proposed introduction of gendered language where it is unnecessary and where, for many years, we have been accustomed to a more neutral or inclusive rendering. If you do a google search, you will find there are several articles discussing this matter, all of them illustrated with examples the writer finds telling, on both sides of the debate.

The Scottish bishops have shown that any consideration of the sensitivities of women is not up for discussion, even if that leads to questionable accuracy in translation at times. There is nothing I can do about that. But it does leave me wondering why those praying the Magnificat in English find the old Latin phrase, ancilla Domini, which means ‘handmaid of the Lord’ and is an undeniably feminine form, translated as ‘servant of the Lord’*. That could refer to either sex. Do the sensitivities work in one direction only? If so, perhaps a re-think would be in order. Please.

*In the Roman Liturgy of the Hours, which is not the work of the Scottish bishops, but will be familiar to many.


16 thoughts on “The Language of the Liturgy”

  1. it strikes made that you ARE a good writer and yes, the example of the ancillary domini is telling and surely one of many. I’d say (being of a more combative nature) that these intentional mis translations are fraudulent 🙂

    • I don’t think the translators are to blame, but those authorizing or amending translations should take responsibility for their decisions. I’ve had some of my own translations altered.

  2. I’ve done as you suggest and googled inclusive language in the RC liturgy. Oh dear. There really are some Tyranosaurus Rexes and a few T Reginas out there. And with your previous blog in mind it points out precisely some mindsets. As for the Scottish Bishops, I’d better not say what I think or you’d be reprimanding me. This highly gendered language is beyond inaccurate, it’s hurtful. At best it’s beyond old fashioned. As an example, who now refers to a married woman as ‘Mrs Philip May’? And I am reminded that not until 1909 were the members of IBVM allowed to describe Mary Ward as their foundress. (Interestingly, there has appeared a wavy red line under the word

    It seems from that quick search that Europeans are far more sensible as are those in NZ , lets hope the English Bishops look across La Manche for their inspiration.

    I feel my blood pressure rising every time I hear ‘for us men and for our salvation’ and mumble ‘women’ although no one will notice.

    • I think “men” in the example given is proper…are we gods? No mere mortals, human, carnal realities?

      Just what term – other than women – should we use?

      • I think it can just be removed: “for us and for our salvation.”

        Interestingly, they translated a form of the same Latin word as “people” in the Gloria.

        Incidentally, the Greek is “anthropous,” which is genderless.

  3. I think your writing is exemplary in that, after wise deliberation, you say what you mean and mean what you say. This is sadly very rare in the world today, and very hard to do, so thank you for all your postings. I’m not sure what can be done about the fact that men can’t imagine what it must be like to be a woman (and vice versa, of course!). I hope we all pray for compassion and understanding to be both given and received, and a spirit of forgiveness when that doesn’t happen, but it’s harder to deal with on an institutional scale. And sometimes (often?) the same word means quite different things to different people.

  4. It’s an interesting choice to mention the Ancilla Domini in the context of the Divine office.
    As the Magnificat is said by Our Lady and so on that basis should be feminine, yet as it’s the Church praying the Divine office and many bound to are male Clergy and religious it seems like a way of being inclusive as they pray with Our Blessed Mother the words.
    Could make an argument either way, I’m sure you could tell me which is the most appropriate and why. I tend towards the feminine by instinct but don’t know enough to be certain.
    I think it’s important not to come up with anything too conspiratorial with these sorts of things. I agree with you that accurate translation of the meaning is the key to a worthwhile or good translation of a text and that has to be the determining factor with choice of words for translation but I can’t help wonder if the exclusion of feminine words is tended with that weak-wristed inclusivity thing and the fact that femininity is conflated with things pathetic or weak rather than something good and the complementary to masculinity. It could almost be intended as a backhanded compliment to women.
    My Aunt is an English head of year who does curriculum work and always lamented that the big changes in the curriculum were often geared towards boys getting better grades and the girls suffered for it.
    Interesting to know about this subject, will have to research it. Without knowing specific instances where and why the neutral language with a masculine-bias in various translations have trumped appropriate feminine word use it’s difficult to form a confident opinion.
    Thanks for the food for thought.

    • I deliberately kept my post short, partly because of my experience of doing liturgical translations and partly because of my experience of liturgical rows! Your question is a good one and deserves a proper answer. The Church prayed the Magnificat in Latin for centuries and had no difficulty with ancilla. It may be that using the gender-free and inclusive translation ‘servant’ is, for the reasons you mention, to be preferred to the older rendering ‘handmaid’; but that does rather make me think that if, where it does not do violence to the text, gender-free/inclusive language is an appropriate response to male sensitivities, as here in the Magnificat, female sensitivities ought also to be taken into account in others. We do not use the Roman Office but the intercessions to be found in the Liturgy of the Hours, prayed by many communities of women, are almost all masculine in scope.

  5. Great piece. You write well. The context of the writer has to be appreciated and for ancient texts is different from the context we find ourselves in. We cannot sanitize the past only appreciate the principles and messages that are trying to be conveyed. it is interesting even troubling how our sensitivities to sex, race, gender etc seem often to obscure the message!
    Sorry to go on!

  6. Wholeheartedly sympathise re translation. It is a much underrated art. And I fear will become more so. Language is treated in such a slapdash way now, grammar exists only for the pedant, the richness of the English language in particular is constrained by considerations like „woke“, or politically correct. Bad language is peppered all over the place, mainly because of the lack of good, active vocabulary. I could go on, interminably! You write beautifully. Thanks be to God.

  7. It’s very sad to hear when things move backwards, rather than forwards. As Jewish liturgical/Bible translators we constantly struggle with gender and gender neutrality, as of course the Hebrew always takes one or other grammatical gender. We try to use neutral language wherever we can without sacrificing the dignity of the English (“he or she” rarely works…)

    I see my job as that of a matchmaker or peacemaker – to try to get to the heart of both the text and the reader and to facilitate a deeper connection despite, though without denying, the historical distance. Unlike the text in an academic translation, the liturgy is always ours, in our own mouths, and has to touch the needs and sensitivities of those who are to use it – it’s a very difficult balance to strike with the cooler eye of the researcher. My inspiration is Ruth’s words to Boaz: “you recognize me though I am a stranger.” That to me is “scripture of loving-kindness” and requires a lot of creativity and thought on the part of the translator.

    As always I very much appreciate your words. Warm wishes from Tel Aviv.

    • Thank you. I think we are very much on the same wave-length with regard to translating the scriptures and liturgical texts, but I appreciate the way you have expressed it, which adds another dimension for us all to ponder. For me the key is always reverence. We are dealing with holy things for a holy people. Blessings to you and your family in Tel Aviv.

  8. I am not qualified to talk about Catholic liturgy, but would put in a vote for things being two way, if I had one. One day, a new tall, positive matron said “morning.. how’s god then?”. Unusually, I replied “she’s fine thank you”. Matron laughed
    …. As I got to know her, I discovered her father used to take his clerical collar off as he took off his belt… It was hard for her to relate to a male god, and my light heartedness seemed spirit led…

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