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Magnum Principium: oneness not sameness

Pope Francis has shifted the bulk of the power in matters pertaining to translations from the Vatican to bishop’s conferences. Lawrence Ndlovu looks at what this means for the local Church.

In the form of a motu proprio, “Magnum Principium” Pope Francis has shifted the bulk of the power in matters pertaining to translations (especially liturgical translations) from the Vatican to bishop’s conferences.

This does not mean that bishop’s conferences can go on a wild tangent and change translations and meanings as they please; the motu proprio has not taken the Holy See out of the process entirely because the Holy See still retains the right agree or disagree to the proposed translations. Fidelity to Latin texts and their spirit should always be taken into serious consideration and so it follows that if there was a decline of a proposed translation it would be for serious reasons like ambiguities, fidelity to Latin and the spirit of the liturgy.

There are some who view this initiative as part of Francis’ deconstruction of the Church as it has been for centuries. There are others who view it as a part of what they think is Francis’ progressive agenda which moves power away from Rome. For Francis however, this is part of what was envisioned in Vatican II – the strengthening of collegiality and the encouragement of the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy.

This initiative is not unreasonable. For example, Rome cannot claim to have a better grasp of a particular language more than the people who use that language. It would be a joke if Rome had reservations about the Zulu translation which it knows nothing about. The real motivation of this amendment is more about those languages that are used by more than one conference territory like Kiswahili, English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. In fact, this amendment is a learning from the experience that the English-speaking Church went through when their translation was changed. This is a good sign because it means the Church saw and felt the malaise that was caused by the untidy process that led to the changes of the English translation.

The amendments are also a recognition of the richness that can be found in different languages and their idiomatic expressions. There is always going to be a tension between literal translation, which is the almost word for word, and dynamic equivalence. Dynamic equivalence takes into consideration the spirit of the meaning of a language. For this reason, dynamic equivalence enriches without making the language (being translated to) dry. There is a challenge when it comes to languages that are global because it might happen that there could be variations of dialects thereby resulting in one language having different variations of translations in different countries. For example, the Spanish used in Latin America and the Spanish used in Spain has certain differences.

Another serious facet to this conversation that must be taken into consideration is what I call “linguistic equivalence”. This is important in a country like South Africa where there are eleven official languages. In such cases, the issue of fidelity to the Latin translation becomes the measure which makes all these translations retain a kind of sameness. The translation of one language, including an international language, should always take into consideration that it cannot be different or too divorced from other translations in use in that particular country. For example, in South Africa, the Zulu translation was translated from Latin and retained all the expressions found in the Latin translation. The Sesotho translation, on the other hand, was translated from the English translation which has now been changed leaving the Sesotho behind. Linguistic equivalence means that that translations must all be from one common language and must also be aware of the how the different translations are eventually translated.

Within the same conversation the Church in Southern Africa and the entire continent has to be deeply aware of the growing concerns from many young people especially around the issue of decolonisation. There is a growing movement for the decolonisation of the academic syllabus and other forms of education and communication.

The issue of language is one such area which has in recent years caused a great deal tensions. The subordination of indigenous languages in the life of the Church has caused some sections of the Church to feel left out. Although Pope Francis’ drive for the localisation of the processes dealing with languages is mostly pertaining to liturgy, there are also many other issues pertaining to translations of many other texts like the Catechism, encyclicals, pastoral letters and other documents.  This “healthy decentralisation” of translations can also be an opportunity for conferences to initiate the intentional process towards a truly post-missionary and post-colonial identity. This point should not be treated as a footnote, especially in Africa, because for the Church to be truly entrenched, for it to lose the colonial character, which it has carried for so long, it has to be awake to ever-growing issues of identity that are championed especially by the young intelligentsia.

As a consequence of Magnum Principium conference territories can no longer treat issues of translations as mere voluntary language region initiatives. Translation work should be part of the important structure of each conference’s daily work. Translations or linguistic departments will have to be started with some kind of permanent personnel in order to see through the ongoing task of translations starting at least with the documents of Vatican II. The emphasis of Vatican II as a starting point stems out of the fact that Francis’s Magnum Principium is trying to see through the movement of collegiality as envisioned by Vatican II. Interestingly, the constitutions of Vatican II were themselves never translated into indigenous languages. It is difficult to appraise the faithful in the local church about a council which many of them know through its consequences and not its reasoning.

This amendment should not be politicised but should be seen an acknowledgement that the Church is truly global and diverse. It is a desire to maximise the reach and appreciation of the Church’s liturgical life. It is not a simple decision, but one that is layered in such a way that if it is embraced properly can lead to catechesis and engagement of all people in all places. The goal has never been about sameness but rather oneness. SA.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.