Liturgical Translation: What's at Stake? The Example of calix praeclarus

Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis

"One thing I ask of the Lord, one thing I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple" (Ps 26[27]:4). Commenting on this moving psalm verse, Eusebius of Caesarea makes an application directly relevant to the issue of liturgical language, so intensely debated in our day: "Beauty and bliss are to be found in God's House because of the sacred traditions that come to life there, and also because of the beauty of the liturgy's words, in which words God himself is found."

In the past few months my attention has been drawn by several articles and editorials in the Catholic World Report on the subject of liturgical translation. In particular I was interested in the discussion around the Latin phrase calix praeclarus, which appears in the First Eucharistic Prayer (or "Roman Canon") of the Mass. As professional theological translator, specializing in the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar, I must agree wholeheartedly with "Diogenes" (May issue), when he states that "in the case of the Liturgy, the Church has made it clear that the translator's job is to translate literally, not to provide literary context or biblical exegesis or anything of the sort".

It has always been a point of honor with me to render the complex richness of an author such as Balthasar in English with as much fidelity as possible with regard to both content and style, and this task has not always been easy. I am quite certain that neither a serious author nor a conscientious editor nor the reading public would expect any less of me as trustworthy translator. Would it not then be incongruous and downright frivolous of me to turn from Balthasar's texts (which, no matter how sublime, nonetheless contain after all but one individual's opinions) to a text of the Roman Liturgy and suddenly feel "empowered" by some unidentifiable numinous force to render this sacred text, entrusted to me by the Church, in any way I saw fit – that is to say, by cutting or adding phrases, sometimes even by inverting the true meaning, and generally by groping about subjectively for vague "equivalences"?

Who am I to legislate such alleged equivalences for at least a couple of generations of Catholic worshipers all over the world? Would this not be a very destructive sort of "creativity" and, indeed, a work of insidious censorship, blocking rather than facilitating access to the Church's authentic prayer for the reader, listener or worshiper with no Latin? What supernatural charism exactly would I implicitly be claiming to possess in order to guarantee the reliability of such a procedure? I once personally complained to then Cardinal Ratzinger that it would be impossible for anyone to teach an in-depth course on the theology of the liturgy on the basis of the current liturgical texts in English. He agreed.

No, despite the proverb's humor, a traduttore does not necessarily have to be a tradditore, least of all by design. It seems to me that, in the work of liturgical translation, fidelity to the precise meaning and beauty of the sacred text at hand ought to be but the professional application of the Catholic translator's fidelity to the faith of the Church as such, as a service of joyful obedience and already as a profound participation in the Church's most intimate prayer.

It is indeed surprising that Bishop Donald Trautman, chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy, will not distinguish between the related but distinct natures of a biblical and a liturgical text, and that he attributes the apparently untrustworthy agenda of furthering "a sacred vocabulary" to those translators who would simply render into English what the already-renewed editio typica of the Latin text says.

I must further agree with Domenico Bettinelli, Jr. (July issue of CWR), when he writes that the Sacred Liturgy is not a play-like reënactment of the Last Supper that uses the New Testament text slavishly as a kind of untouchable script, but rather that it is a reality "distinct from the New Testament, reflecting the biblical patrimony reshaped by traditions of prayer, worship, and theological reflection – and given a distinct and characteristic ritual form".

Any liturgist is spontaneously aware of the difference between the way biblical texts are used directly by the Liturgy in the readings and the complementary way in which biblically-based compositions have over the centuries developed creatively within the Liturgy with their own specifically liturgical form, flavor and function. Thus, liturgical poetry (hymns, tropes, responsories, sequences) has always been a standard feature of Christian liturgy, and this creativity throughout the ages has always manifested the fact that the Liturgy is a living and organic reality.

The Liturgy is lived Scripture, if you will, and not an antiquarian or scholarly exercise in the preservation of biblical texts. An argument could, in fact, be made that the specifically Catholic understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition comes most alive precisely in the uniqueness of liturgical rites and language, which are the living-out of the Mysteries of Christ, revealed historically and kerygmatically in Scripture but appropriated and lived in a unique manner in the present liturgical celebration.

A systematic application of Bishop Trautman's principles would woefully curtail the Sacred Liturgy's specific function and power by subordinating its proper vitality to a related but quite different dimension of the Catholic Tradition, namely, scriptural exegesis and scholarship. If his historicist logic were to be applied strictly, we would have to do away with stone altars, vestments, and even church buildings, and the Eucharist, to be "authentic", would have to be celebrated in somebody's kitchen.

But let us return to the example of calix praeclarus (or, in context, hunc praeclarum calicem) and its translation for the forthcoming Roman Missal in English: this precious chalice. It is rewarding to study this phrase in some detail, because its provenance illustrates still other and richer issues that, to my knowledge, have not yet been raised. And this particular case may serve to clarify many others like it.

To begin with, Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon defines potêrion, the biblical word for the drinking-vessel that Jesus used at the Last Supper (Mt 26.27, Mk 14.23, Lk 17.22), not simply as a "cup" but as a "drinking-cup, a wine cup", and Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines "chalice" precisely as a "drinking cup" or "goblet, especially the cup used in the sacrament of the Lord's supper".

We must conclude from these two definitions that "chalice", already a very old Middle English word, is not only a more poetic and sacral word than "cup" but also a more exact and vivid one, excellently suited for liturgical usage and already understood as such in the English language. Merriam-Webster's, we suppose, cannot be suspected of furthering any sacred-language "agenda"!

As for Bishop Trautman's preference for non-"ornamental", ordinary usage: I have yet to hear any contemporary priest refer casually to his "ordination cup". Would he not rather say "ordination chalice " without any hesitation? In an odd way, it seems that here it is the more pedestrian term "cup" that is the vehicle of a historicist, literalist bias seeking to mutate and "reform" traditional Catholic English liturgical language by imposing arbitrarily an abstract, scholarly criterion seeking to oust a more spontaneous usage.

Now, we would be mistaken if we thought that calix praeclarus somehow appeared in the Roman Canon out of nowhere, or perhaps out of some medieval cleric's fervently poetic imagination. I am sure that very many priests and religious around the world, who have prayed or still pray the Psalms in Latin, will hear with delight a familiar ring in these two words, so resonant in their internal alliteration and rhyme (cal-/-clar-). It so happens that the phrase in question is an authentic biblical phrase after all. It occurs in the Septuagint and Vulgate versions of Psalm 22(23) at verse 5b: Calix meus inebrians quam praeclarus est, which the Douay translates "My chalice which inebriateth me, how goodly it is!" (The reason this rendering differs from the more familiar "My cup overflows", or something similar, of most modern versions, is that the Jewish-Greek Septuagint, and St. Jerome's Vulgate following it, construe the original Hebrew wording with alternate punctuation, and also interpret the word for "overflow" in its other meaning, "inebriate".)

We must not forget that the Septuagint and Vulgate versions of Sacred Scripture have for nearly 2000 years been the everyday, normative texts of the Bible, respectively, of the Greek and Latin Churches. It was these versions of the Word of God that every Christian bishop, priest, scholar, monk and layperson in both East and West used for meditation and prayer and often even memorized. What we have before us, then, with this issue of biblical and liturgical translation and usage is, in fact, a prime example of the way in which early Christian faith, piety and prayer interpreted and applied the great messianic Psalm 22 not only in general to Christ the Savior as Good Shepherd, but in particular to our Lord's manner of redeeming us, his sheep, through the sacraments of the Church, as a continuation and figural realization of the way God intervened to save Israel throughout the Old Testament.

Psalm 22 was, in the early Church, a powerful tool for the instruction of catechumens in their initiation into the deepest mysteries of the Christian life. Thus, by giving us calix praeclarus as "precious chalice", the translators of the forthcoming version of the Roman Missal are not only rendering faithfully and beautifully the Latin text of the Liturgy that the Church wants to offer us today; they are at the same time transmitting an ancient patristic reading of a prophetic prayer of the Jewish Scriptures that early on became crucial to initiation into the Christian faith. Let me explain what I mean.

In his indispensable book The Bible and the Liturgy, Jean Daniélou writes: "The expression calix praeclarus became so embodied in the eucharistic liturgy as to form part of the Canon of the Roman Mass... The connection between the cup of the psalm and the chalice of the Supper was explicitly made by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his eucharistic catecheses: 'How admirable is your chalice that inebriates. You see that this refers to the chalice which Jesus took in his hands and over which he gave thanks.' In the same way, St. Athanasius interprets this verse as meaning 'sacramental joy.'" For his part, St. Jerome gives this praying commentary on the meaning of the verse that he has himself translated from the Hebrew: "You have inebriated me with the mystical chalice in order that I might confine to oblivion all the concupiscence of my former way of life."

We see eloquently illustrated here, I think, the relevance to deep and intense prayer of precise and integral translation, as a training-ground for thinking and feeling with the mind of the Church. Once we have been thrilled spiritually by such an understanding of the text, it is not likely that we could ever do without it, nor is it likely that such an understanding could have grown out of the bare word "cup".

The whole of DaniÈlou's eleventh chapter, totally devoted to the intimate links between Psalm 22 and the Christian liturgy, makes for fascinating and enlightening reading. Anyone interested in pursuing the living connections between the texts of the Liturgy, on the one hand, and the manner in which the earliest Church's saints and teachers read and prayed the Old and New Testaments, on the other, would do well to study this and other books by one who is without any doubt a great modern "doctor of the Church" and who, as such, was one of those who paved the way directly for the authentic liturgical renewal envisioned by Vatican II.

DaniÈlou concludes his exposition with the following affirmation: "It is this psalm which the Roman Mass still echoes today when it exalts the wonderful chalice containing the Blood of Christ which gives the 'sober inebriation.'" Writing in 1951, DaniÈlou was obviously referring to the Latin text. However, with the new and anxiously anticipated translation of the Missal, these profound and life-giving associations of calix praeclarus will once again resound in our Catholic public prayer.

Many years ago Karl Rahner famously proclaimed that "tomorrow's Christian will either be a mystic or not be at all". Considering the condition of our world at present – the socio-religious effervescence of Africa, the Middle East and Asia alongside the spiritual torpor and vacuity of "Christian" Europe and North America – it does not take a visionary to realize that Rahner's "tomorrow" has long since been today. In the terms of our reflection, Christians will either be spiritually transformed, and help in the transformation of the world, by drinking deeply of the sober inebriation of charity flowing from the precious chalice of Christ's Blood, or the world will be delivered over to the unholy frenzy of ideology and murderous resentment.

We often lose sight of the supreme importance and power of language, and of the fact that, in order to move us interiorly to decisive contemplation, thought and action, the language concerning the mysteries of the faith must in some way be adequate to the reality and contents of that faith. With our "democratic" prejudices that often favor the lowest common denominator in all things, we moderns can sometimes forget that "sacred" and "poetic" refer to categories that, far from being alien to truly living and organic languages and cultures, rather are essential, defining elements of these.

It would appear inglorious, in fact a kind of betrayal, for any Christian to aid and abet contemporary culture, within the very sanctuary of the Church, in its relentless drive toward radical desacralization and banality, no matter how laudable that person's pastoral intent may be to "speak to people in their own language". This would be a boorishly condescending attitude, typical of those who would "dumb-down" our cultural and religious heritage instead of expending educational efforts in order to communicate it integrally.

To take one example: My reaction to the rejection by the American bishops of the word consubstantial in the Nicene Creed, on the grounds that "people wouldn't understand it", was: 'Indeed, it's a revealed truth and so a unique reality and word, as unique as our faith in the Holy Trinity. Who could be expected to "understand" spontaneously? But rather than hide it, let's teach people what it means and why it's so crucial!' The preferred "one in being" is an excellent instance of a so-called "dynamic equivalence" translation that is only apparently simpler and more accessible than the original, but which in actuality is amateurish, ambiguous and, in fact, impenetrable. Are the Father and the Son only apparently different persons but in reality only one? Therein lies the genius of the prefix con- in the word consecrated and entrusted to us by the Council of Nicaea through the precise Latin translation of the Western Church!

I suggest that perhaps what many people need in order to achieve the full life of their soul is, precisely, to learn a new language in the widest sense – the language of the sacred, of image, symbol, allegory, parable, in other words the very language of the Gospel as spoken by our Lord and the evangelists, a language that has for centuries flowed enrichingly to water the roots of our Liturgy, the only language in some way adequate for describing to us the life and being of God and the nature and motivations of his interaction with us.

Arthur Roche, bishop of Leeds in England and current chairman of ICEL, has recently published an article on the forthcoming Roman Missal in English, entitled "Search for Truth and Poetry" (The Tablet, 5 August). In this article Bishop Roche spells out priciples of translation and gives concrete examples that are most encouraging. "Thirty-odd years ago," he writes, "there was a general assumption that, because vernacular liturgy was entirely new to Catholics, it should be easily assimilable. Thus texts were composed with a small vocabulary and a small repertoire of syntactic patternsÖ. But in the long run, texts that transmit as many nuances of the original as possible, and which remain closer to their scriptural and patristic origins, will be more nourishing to the faith and the prayer life of the Church."

And so we ask in conclusion: What is at stake in the issue of liturgical translation? Is it just one more instance of petty wrangling for power and recognition by ecclesiastical busybodies? Or the sterile nit-picking of stuffy academics? If this were so, it would indeed be a scandal for Christians to waste energy in this way in the face of the world's crying needs! But no. What is at stake is whether or not the Catholic Liturgy – with the Word of God and the Sacred Mysteries at its heart – will fully achieve its potential as chief transmitter of Christian faith and prayer, and thus effectively communicate the divine power to transform the world in the image of Christ.

Perhaps the single case of calix praeclarus, so full of salutary lessons, should be remembered as emblematic of the myriad other treasures that lie hidden in the authentic texts of the Sacred Liturgy, awaiting our discovery and use and ultimately redounding to the joy of our hearts. For, as church father Eusebius reminds us, in the beauty of the words of the Sacred Liturgy, whether in Latin or modern English, we ought to be able to encounter God himself and thus experience the bliss for which he created us.

This article is published online with the permission of the author and the international review Communio