Inside baseball, Liturgy of the Hours style — liturgy nerds talk translation, texts, and sacred time

A Pillar interview

During and after the Second Vatican Council, when the Church allowed for the celebration of liturgies and parts of liturgies in vernacular languages, a global need for translations of liturgical texts was born nearly overnight.

But the translating itself couldn’t be done overnight. Good translation takes time. And in many places, the work is ongoing.

For the past few years, many U.S. Catholics have been awaiting a new English translation of the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer book which punctuates daily life for priests, religious, and many lay people.

Central to that work is ICEL, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, headquartered in Washington, DC.

The Pillar talked with Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, executive director of ICEL and a priest of the Oratorian Community in Washington, D.C., about a decade’s work to translate the Liturgy of the Hours.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Monsignor, a new translation of the Roman Missal was promulgated in 2011, after years of preparation. How long has the project to retranslate the Liturgy of the Hours been underway?

Well, given that the Missal was the first major text to be considered under the provisions of Liturgiam authenticam [a 2001 document from the Congregation for Divine Worship on the use of vernacular in the Church’s liturgy], and was, as such, the beginning of a second tranche of translations of the liturgical books, it was envisaged even at the time the Missal was begun that everything else would follow.

It was quite natural that once the Missal was completed, the next big text to look at would be the Liturgy of the Hours. There's obviously a big connection between the Liturgy of the Hours and the Missal, not least of all the fact that all the collects in the Liturgy of the Hours are sourced in the Missal. 

So really, this project has been underway for 10 years, I would say. It was a specific decision of the USCCB that gave a beginning to the project.

That’s because ICEL is a collaborative project between 11 English-speaking bishops’ conferences, and we work to support the bishop in their responsibility of providing liturgical texts in English for their territories. The work we do is somewhat sequenced by the requests they make, so as the conferences ask for something to be done, that determines the priority of the work that we undertake.

The USCCB, soon after the Missal [was finished], made the decision that they were going to have a revised edition of the Liturgy of the Hours. 

Now, not all the texts in the Liturgy of the Hours are ICEL texts. People are sometimes surprised when I say that. That’s because each conference has the possibility of deciding which Scriptural version they’ll use in their books, and that includes the psalter.

Obviously in the Liturgy of the Hours, a vast amount of the material is just straightforward Scripture: The psalms of the four-week psalter, all of the Scriptural texts in the readings. The translation used is the decision of the conference, not ICEL.

So, the USCCB first asked for a complete, unified translation of all of the hymns. They asked for new translations of the antiphons, and in particular the Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons. They also asked for new translations of the intercessions. 

Now, since that initial project was formulated, quite a lot has been added to it. The reason for that is quite logical if you think about it — it’s the interrelation of these various textual elements in the liturgy. 

We have to be very careful that the same text is not translated differently in different places. So, a text that can appear as an antiphon might appear elsewhere in a different form; the same Latin has to be treated in the same way, or if there is a difference, the difference has to be accounted for.

Also added to the docket was a review of the second readings, which is not a retranslation but a thorough review to identify omissions, mistakes, and egregious issues of translation as they’ve been identified by various people. 

We have a lot of commentary from various different people in relation to this, and that was a good basis for that work. That work has been undertaken by two subcommittees of three translators, and what they’ve produced is quite a light revision. 

The new translation is much anticipated, especially for people whose breviaries are in disrepair. Is there an expected date for the release of the new translation?

ICEL doesn’t publish books, so it’s a matter of the decisions and the commitment of individual conferences. The first conference to publish a revised Liturgy of the Hours will be the USCCB. We already know that they are going to publish the hymns ahead of time. 

That edition is at an advanced stage of preparation; it will be a musical edition of all of the hymns, with [both] their plainsong melodies and a metrical melody, a more well-known hymn tune. So, each text will have two tunes. 

We are very near the completion of that work, we’re just looking at issues of layout now. I don’t know, because it won’t be our publication, but perhaps either later this year or in the early part of next year. Then the USCCB presumably will issue a decree that enables these hymns to be used immediately in the Liturgy of the Hours. 

So, what work on the Liturgy of the Hours still needs to be completed?

The review of the second readings, and some of the rubrical and introductory material, decrees, things like that. But we’ve really already completed the greater part of our contribution, which is the liturgical texts. I would imagine that we will have completed all of our work within the next 12 months. 

Did the pandemic slow things down at all?

Not at all, in fact, we’ve probably produced more during the time of the pandemic than we had in the previous year. And that’s because a lot of our working is based on distance- work anyway. 

We have translators in different countries, and it’s quite possible to have a committee of three people, all of them in different countries, who are meeting on Zoom. So, we’ve been unimpaired in terms of the rhythm of our work during this time. 

Share

New translations means a new printing. Is there anything that might be done differently in terms of printing the new texts?

Well, I think it’s true to say that with the new edition of the Missal, there seems to have been a recovery of the culture of the liturgical book as something beautiful in itself, and well-suited to its purpose. 

I think that’s very much evidenced in the different editions of the Roman Missal that have been published. There seems to be a desire on the part of people to have books which are not only practical in size and in layout, but also beautiful.

On the other hand, one of the biggest changes in this culture has been the move towards digital versions of the text. We absolutely understand that people are just as likely to be praying the Office from their phone or their tablet as they are having a book. But, for the public celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, the norm is that the book should be used. 

A lot of this translation has been working on the hymnody, the bulk of which, as you say, has not been translated into English before. 

What is that hymnody? And what’s gone into producing a translation?

Each of the liturgical hours has in its introductory part a hymn, and that hymn, if you will, crystallizes the thought or the character of that particular hour. 

So, if it’s an office which of its character is in the morning, it will speak of the morning. If it’s in the evening, it speaks of the evening. If it’s during the night, it speaks of the night. The Office of Readings often has two hymns: one for when that office is celebrated during the night, and one when it is celebrated during the day. And that, as a basic principle, is true of all of the hymnody. 

The saints are interesting, because that is the section of the Liturgy of the Hours that has received the largest number of newly composed hymns. So, these are hymns that were composed specifically for the Liturgy of the Hours. 

The largest number of them are the work of a Benedictine, Anselmo Lentini, who had general responsibility for the whole corpus of the hymnody, and is a very fine scholar. He composed a number of hymns, particularly hymns for the saints, that are in many ways based on classical models.

There is a hymn proper to every office, so the hymnody is a significant element of the ascribed text. So, in the Liturgy of the Hours, it’s not just, “here be a hymn.” There is for each office a hymn prescribed. 

Share

The decision of the USCCB to offer the whole corpus of hymnody in their liturgical book is a monumental decision, because no English Liturgy of the Hours currently has all of the hymns. 

So, this is something which we’ve waited for for a long time in English. We’re talking about 294 hymns, and within that, you’ve basically got hymns of the second millennium alongside classic hymns which have been in the Liturgy of the Hours for a long time: hymns of St. Gregory the Great for days of the week, hymns of St. Ambrose, Prudentius, these venerable texts that the Church has used in her daily worship for centuries.

You’ve got those texts, you’ve got a whole body of later texts that have been added to the liturgy, particularly as a result of the canonization of saints, and then you’ve got this body of new texts as well. 

All of the liturgical seasons have their own hymns, and within the seasons there are subdivisions. There are Advent hymns for the first part of Advent, then there are Advent hymns for the later part of Advent. There are hymns for Lent, and then there are hymns for Passiontide as you move toward Holy Week.

So really in one sense, there is a subtlety of expression, and also considerable content when it comes to dogmatic truth expressed in these texts, with a density that perhaps people aren’t particularly used to, if they’re used to more modern hymnody. 

These texts, particularly the older hymns, are profoundly theological in their formulations. The recovery of these texts for an English-language liturgical book is something of major importance, and is a very positive development. 

Give a gift subscription

Hymns are poetry. Translating poetry is notoriously difficult in terms of communicating both the meaning and style of the text.

What was the method for translating the hymns into English, many for the first time? What choices were made? 

The translations of the hymns, unlike many of the Latin originals, do not rhyme. We thought that if we decided everything should be rhyming, that would require a lot of inversions in the syntax of the English. 

We wanted of be aware that although hymns of their nature are to be sung, just as psalms of their nature are to be sung, a lot of hymns are prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours by people who won’t be singing them, just as a lot of psalms are prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours by people who won’t be singing them. And so, it was thought that inversions of syntax would be continually annoying if the hymns weren’t being sung.

Also, we looked very carefully at a large number of existing translations that rhymed, and we felt overall that a rhyming translation almost always comes at the expense of the meaning of the text. 

Sometimes there’s a word that isn’t particularly accounted for, there may be half a line that’s not accounted for; it can’t be incorporated into the rhyme scheme. One of our principal considerations in producing these translations is that the greatest content of meaning of the original should be expressed in English.

The decision was made to maintain the same meter as in the Latin text, with the same pattern of accentuation, and with the break in the line in the same place. This was done so that the existing melodies to which the hymns are set in the Solesmes Liber Hymnarius could be easily adapted for singing the English texts.

The work of the adaptation of the chant melodies was undertaken by a corresponding international group of three chant experts who have now produced chant settings and a metrical hymn tune alternative for each hymn. Both text and melodies will soon be published in an edition which has been produced in collaboration with the USCCB.

The draft text was the work of a single base translator (a woman religious) who was assisted in her task by two existing translations of the corpus of hymns: one, the collaborative work of Carmelite and Poor Clare communities in the U.S., and a second, the work of a diocesan priest who trialled his texts with parish and seminary communities. The base translator was assisted in her work by two other translators who, like her, have a strong background in music.

Share

I’ve heard rumors about a commentary on this hymnody being eventually published by ICEL. Is there truth to that rumor?

We are hoping to publish a commentary on the Latin text of the hymns that brings to a wider readership those things that we have discovered ourselves in the process of making the translations.

When you spend seven years working on hymns, you learn a lot about them, and you have to get inside them in order to be able to start to render them in English. And we thought that as there is nothing currently available on this corpus of texts in this present form — there are older commentaries on the hymns of the breviary and there are older commentaries on certain portions of the hymnody — we thought it would be a good moment to provide a reasonably critical commentary in terms of its depth and detail based on the Latin text, but obviously we will be using our translation as an explanation of those texts. That work is already underway. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, I hope not too long.

It’s also something of a pious hope on our part that this might be the beginning of a series of such commentaries on different elements of the liturgical texts. 

Share The Pillar

Have there been any challenges in translating the Hours that ICEL did not expect when the commission began this project? How have you worked through those?

Yes. 

The biggest challenge in translating these liturgical texts is that the euchology — by that I mean the way of praying — of these texts, which are often texts the Church has been praying with for hundreds and hundreds of years, has to be presented in a way that can be used now. That aspect of translation work is always going to present the greatest challenge, because sensibilities change. 

The bishops of the commission were very keen to see a body of hymnody that in its style and character went well with the rest of the text. And that’s an important consideration when you think that often, when we’re singing older hymns in English, we’re singing in an archaic form of English. [In the new translations] although the hymns have an elevated register, they aren’t, in terms of their general character, archaic. 

Some people might identify particular words that we don’t use in everyday speech, but hymns belong to the realm of poetry, and there are lots of words that would be used now even in contemporary poetry that aren’t particular to everyday speech.

 But in general, the character of the hymnody harmonizes with the rest of the liturgical text, which is English of an elevated register, but of a contemporary style. 


If you’ve read this far, face it: you’re a liturgy nerd. And you probably know that interviews like this are pretty rare. But at The Pillar, we love liturgy nerds like you. So maybe it’s time to become a paying subscriber:

Yes, I'm a liturgy nerd


The liturgical texts sometimes contain repeated words, with different meanings in different contexts — they can be difficult to render in translation by with the same English word in each place. How does a translator deal with that?

We often have to have a conversation about how we’re going to render a particular word. Anybody who has any knowledge of Latin more widely will understand that. An obvious word that comes a lot in the euchology of the hymns is pietas. So, you have to look at the context in which it appears and try to come to some judgement as to what is being communicated. 

The truth is that the liturgical use of Latin covers quite a range, really. That’s why it’s important to know how a particular term would be used by someone like St. Ambrose in a way that it’s not going to be used by someone like Anselmo Lentini writing in the middle of the 20th century. But that’s a broader feature of liturgical translation. 

Of course, an important aspect of that is recognizing that the Latin we encounter in the liturgical books is not the same Latin we encounter in the Latin classics. The hymnody is evidence of that. The Latin hymns of the Liturgia Horarum [the Latin text of the Liturgy of the Hours] have attempted to return to the earlier forms of some of the hymns, sort of ironing out some of the reforms of Urban VIII [in the 1600s, which re-wrote many hymns in a more classical style].

Share

The ICEL team has spent 10 years deeply immersed in the public prayer of the Church. What have been the spiritual benefits?

Well, the first thing is the renewed realization that essential to our concept of the Liturgy of the Hours is the sanctification of time. 

Time is the first thing that God declares to be holy. 

At the end of the creation account in the Book of Genesis, we read, “God saw all that he had made, and it was good.” The first time the adjective “holy” is used in the Bible is when God sets apart the sabbath day and calls it holy. So the first thing to be declared holy in the Bible is time — not a place, not a person. The consecration of people and of places are subsequent to the consecration of time, and the designation that time is itself holy. 

The Liturgy of the Hours is the way in which the Church raises her voice in the midst of every day, in the reality of everyday life. 

We feel that it has been a great privilege to have an opportunity for the detailed study of these texts. To come to a greater realization of how the sanctification of our time is a major part in God’s will for the way in which we ourselves are sanctified. We are to consecrate our day, our time, to God, and in the process of doing that, we ourselves become holy. 

These texts lie at the heart of the Church, and so something very fundamental about what it means to be a Christian is expressed in these texts. And you can’t engage in that process and remain impassive. You are going to be changed as a consequence of doing this. I myself was part of the core group for the hymns, which means that two days a week for seven years, I got to study these hymns. That’s quite a lot of time. It affords you the possibility of a familiarity with those texts that you wouldn't have in any other way. 

In the general, wider conversation, people talk a lot about mindfulness. Well, the Liturgy of the Hours is the Church’s exercise of mindfulness. It’s so that no time passes us by, but in all times we have the opportunity of raising our hearts and minds to God. I suppose we always have the temptation of thinking that these things are great and recent insights, but of course, oftentimes they’re nothing more than the rediscovery of a very ancient insight.

After the new translation of the Hours, what comes next for ICEL?

The only texts that are still untranslated for a second time are the Rite of Christian Funerals, the Ceremonial of Bishops, and the Book of Blessings. It’s likely that in relation to Christian Funerals, there might be a translation of the original liturgical book, and that will be offered to the conferences to make the basis of their own revision. The Ceremonial of Bishops has to be the last text translated because it’s full of citations from all of the liturgical books, and obviously you can’t do that until those texts have been settled. 

There seems to be something of a conversation, quite widely, about The Book of Blessings and whether that is in need of some revision. One of the ideas that’s part of that conversation is the question of whether you bless things in themselves, or you bless people in their use of things. 

So, that’s all that remains in the full suite of liturgical books in terms of a second round of translations. 

Share

You can read about the USCCB’s role in the Liturgy of the Hours translation process here.

A guest post by
Joe Slama is a freelance reporter and a graduate student in Greek & Latin. He is based in Washington, D.C.