ICEL Mistranslations: Who’s to Blame?

AN ARTICLE in a recent issue of The Wanderer resurrected the old accusation, often heard in the 1960s and 1970s, that ICEL (the International Committee for English in the Liturgy), bore almost exclusive responsibility for the post-Vatican II mistranslations of the Mass of Paul VI. English-speaking Catholics, we were repeatedly told, never had the opportunity to assist at the real Mass of Paul VI, because the wicked modernists in ICEL had manipulated the English translation in such a way as to undermine what our beloved Holy Father had intended for the new rite.

Il pesce puzza…

The following is a letter to the Editor that I wrote in response to the article.

*     *     *     *     *

Paul Likoudis’s “Liturgy Wars are Over” (The Wanderer, September 16, 2010, p. 4) brought back memories of the anger and outrage we conservatives felt during the ‘60s and ‘70s when ICEL shoved their mistranslations and kindergarten style down the throats of the English-speaking Catholics everywhere. Their work was a particular trial for those of us church musicians who still believed in maintaining a sacred style for music at Catholic worship.

Mr. Likoudis, however, leaves the impression that blame for those mistranslations is to be laid almost exclusively at the feet of ICEL. Most of us certainly believed this during those years after the Council, and we undertook various initiatives to bring the problem to the attention of those who would surely correct it — “If the Pope only knew about this deception,” etc. etc.

However, now that so much documentation about the history of the liturgical reform has become readily available, and so many members of Consilium have written their own accounts about their work, it is clear that ICEL was merely putting into practice principles enunciated in various Roman documents.

Three documents from Consilium (Inter Oecumenici, 1964; “Conventus de Popularibus Interpretationibus Textuum Liturgicorum,” 1965; Aussitôt après, 1967) progressively allowed translators more and more freedom to “adapt” translations.

The final blow to any pretense of accuracy came with the Roman Instruction Comme le Prévoit (25 January 1969). This document (denounced several years ago in The Wanderer, if memory serves) laid down the general principles that would produce the distortions, omissions and outright errors we conservatives complained about in the ICEL translations.

Its probably author, Father Antoine Dumas, wrote a commentary on Comme le Prévoit the following year. (Notitiae 6, 194-213) Here, he amplified the principles laid down in such a way as to further the modernist theological agenda of removing from translations “negative” theology and allusions to doctrines that Protestants could find offensive. (Thus “victim” would disappear from the translation of the Eucharistic Prayer 1.)

Nor, it appears, could one maintain that ICEL and Consilium were operating a cabal (as some of us thought) “to frustrate the will of the Holy Father.”

The real blame, it turns out, rested with Paul VI himself. He carefully examined both the French and Italian drafts of Comme le prévoit; he made 47 notations on the draft in his own handwriting; he made changes both in its style and substance, and he even corrected the printer’s page-proofs. (See Bugnini, La Riforma, 236-7)

So, the awful ICEL mistranslations, it seems, were nothing more than an implementation of official policy handed down from the top.

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Readers can find a more detailed discussion of this issue, including citations, in Chapter 4 of Work of Human Hands.

So, ICEL should not be made the whipping boy for the awful post-Vatican II mistranslations. Ultimately Paul VI laid down the principles that ICEL followed.

If the translations stank, it was because (as the Italians say) Il pesce puzza dalla testa — the fish rots from the head.

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  1. fr steven hartley
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    I think what you are saying about ICEL and Paul VI are correct. Your article confirms my thought.

    Often I have heard novus ordo conservatives say that ICEL, the bishops and others were undermining the direction of Paul VI. As you have made clear in your article, this could never have been the case. Paul VI wanted to modernise the Church and the liturgy because he himself had lost the sense of the Catholic faith.

    There could be no other possible answer. No defender of the Catholic faith would allow such heresy to happen within the Church unless he himself believed it.

    — Fr. Steven Hartley

  2. Tony Roeder
    Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I appreciated your reference in this letter to “kindergarten style”.

    When they first started replacing our missals with the little booklets back in the 1960s, I couldn’t quite come up with an expression for the way they sounded and why they hurt to read them.

    Your expression nails it.

  3. Posted September 30, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I wonder what Card. Ottaviani thought regarding the original ICEL translations?

  4. Posted September 30, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Since he was Italian, and Italians in those days had a reputation for not understanding much English, my guess is that ICEL’s linguistic crimes didn’t even show up on his radar screen. He was also blind and completely retired by the time the full translation of the 1970 Missal appeared.

  5. Ciaran
    Posted October 2, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    On my path of reversion to the Catholic Faith, I had the mixed blessing of going on an Opus Dei retreat.

    On the Sunday of the retreat, Father said a very reverent Novus Ordo in English. At that time, I was inclined to believe that if the Novus Ordo were said reverently, I could live with it. I had begun to read the prayers of the traditional Mass on the Internet, but this was Ireland, and the “Tridentine Mass,” as I then called it, was very difficult to get to.

    Sitting in the pew, I browsed through the Vatican II Missal. It had the prayers of the Mass in both Latin and English. We came to the Gloria and something struck me. Although I was illiterate in Latin et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis — which is practically English — and peace to his people on earth clearly were not identical. It did not take a professional classicist to figure out that and peace to all men of good will and peace to his people on earth , were completely different. At that time I realized that something was rotten in the state of Denmark:

    As if the Novus Ordo wasn’t bad enough, they made it one-hundred times worse with a puerile, politically-correct translation.

  6. Ronald Villegas
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    I am shocked. I heard long ago, but I don’t know if it’s true, that Archbishop Annibale Bugnini was head of ICEL, the liturgical committee that translated the New Mass from Latin into English.

    The liturgical committees, especially ICEL hated anything that was “too Catholic” left in the new Missal.

    I remembered reading the new Rite of Episcopal Consecration in Spanish and English. They were mistranslated deliberately, in my opinion.

    In the Spanish translation, the Novus Ordo-bishop elect is installed to, “atone God’s countenance and offer the gifts of Your holy church” while the ICEL (English version) translation says, “MAY HE [the bishop] ALWAYS OBTAIN YOUR FAVOR, and offer the gifts of Your holy church”. The word “propitiation” was deliberately blurred out since the New Church no longer emphasizes acts of propitiation in the New Mass also hence the disappearance of black vestments and Offertory prayers from St. Pius V’s Missal.

    The Novus Ordo bishop according to the Spanish translation empowers the Novus Ordo bishop to ordain priests with the ambiguous phrase, “to distribute tasks” while the English has, “assign ministries”. I sometimes ask myself, why does the Novus Ordo church free-style their translations because free-styling the translation is as good as not using a correct translation.

  7. Posted October 4, 2010 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Bugnini was not head of ICEL.

  8. Isaac
    Posted October 4, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I believe that Fr. Frederick McManus (who was a close friend of Bugnini’s) was the head of ICEL when the NO Mass translations were produced.

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