Collect 30: another voyage through liturgical translation.

The Sunday just past (Sunday 30 in Ordinary Time), the collect for which will generally be used on ferial days in the coming week, provides yet another example of how theological or motivational shifts affected the translation of the Missal.

The collect (or opening prayer at Mass) for Sunday 30 of the year is another, and ancient, prayer which has been retained from the pre-conciliar liturgy, in which it was found on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost. The Latin text is:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus,
da nobis fidei spei et caritatis augmentum,
et ut mereamur assequi quod promittis,
fac nos amare quod praecipis.

A hasty literal translation, to get the sense of this prayer, might be:

Almighty ever-eternal God,
grant us an increase of faith, hope and charity,
and, that we might merit to attain to what you promise,
make us love what you command.

It is another beautiful and spiritually sound Roman prayer, hallowed and confirmed by centuries of use in our worship. As so often happens in our liturgy, the Church’s corporate worship, it is an ambitious prayer. We ask for an increase in God’s gifts to us of the three things that abide (as St Paul teaches), faith, hope and charity (the theological virtues). Even more, we ask that God might make us worthy to attain to his promises by making us love his commandments. In other words, we dare to ask God to make it easier, as it were, to obey him, because we always find it easier to do what we love, and to serve those whom we love. If we love God’s commandments, we will be more likely to overcome our weakness and obey them. In its spirituality this prayer acknowledges human psychological reality.

Two points of note before heading into the translations. The first is that the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity are gifts from God, not achievements or attributes of our own. This is reflected in the phrasing of the Latin, but not always very clearly in some of the translations to follow. Moreover, “charity” is the precise and appropriate way to translate caritas (employed in the form caritatis in the collect). Though the word has been debased a little in idiomatic usage, being used to refer to giving to the poor and the like, it still captures the essential meaning that giving to the poor is itself an example of: namely, that charity is love in action.

Secondly, and consequently, the concept of our being able to obtain merit in the eyes of God is expressed. The theology of merit is not popular today, not least because protestant Christians often find it offensive (as they understand merit, that is). Yet our ability to merit is another example of God’s fatherly love for us. Out of his gratuitous love for us, he gives us credit for using the grace he has given us towards its proper end.

It is much like when a young boy wants to give his mother a birthday present but, of course, he has no money of his own. So his father gives him some money that he might buy a present for his mother. Now both the father and the mother know that their son has not any means of his own to buy the present. Nevertheless, the mother will give thanks to her son as if the gift was wholly his own, and the father will confirm the credit the boy receives from her. The boy has gained merit. It is the fruit of his parents’ love for him.

So, being an ancient prayer, we can expect to find earlier translations of this collect, not least from the 20th century hand missals that were such a rich fruit of the Liturgical Movement. So let’s proceed as we did for last week’s collect.

In the St Joseph Daily Missal of 1959 the collect is translated as:

Almighty and everlasting God,
give us an increase of Faith, Hope and Charity;
and that we may deserve to obtain what you promise,
make us love what you command.

It is a faithful translation of the original. As we saw last week, the use of “everlasting” is not quite spot on. It is the Duracell or Energizer God that comes to mind, at least to mine. God is beyond time, without beginning or end, and “eternal” best captures that sense of timeless existence. On the other hand, “merit” has been rendered as “deserve”, which is fine as it preserves the truth that our obedience (the gift of grace) is that which makes us deserving of God’s promises.

The Layman’s Missal of 1961 (reprinted 2008) offers this translation:

Almighty and everliving God,
increase our faith, our hope and our charity,
and that we may be able to obtain what you have promised,
make us love your commandments.

The translation here is a little more ‘dynamic’. “Everliving” is somewhat better than everlasting, but not as good as eternal. More significant is the rendering of nobis (lit. “to us”) as “our”, and not just once but thrice. Instead of asking God to give something to us, we ask instead to have something we already possess (thus, “our”) increased. Now theologically this is not wrong necessarily, since when we accept God’s gifts with an open and faithful heart, they live within us and become part of us. However we lose the lovely ambiguity of the original Latin, which balanced the divine origin of the theological virtues with our derived, grace-based possession of them. Indeed the triple mention of “our” seems almost to emphasise our possession of them only. Lastly, some tinkering with verbs has occurred. Promittis has become past tense instead of present tense – the Latin is present tense, and God’s promises are eternal not merely a past phenomenon, so the Latin was better. Praecipis, (lit. “you command”) is now made into a noun, “(your) commandments”. This disrupts the effective and educative coupling of “what you promise” with “what you command”: as God promises, so too he commands what is needed for us to benefit from his promises. In a few memorable, words much theology is contained.

In the New Roman Missal of 1961 our collect is translated:

Almighty and everlasting God,
grant unto us an increase of faith, hope and charity:
and that we may deserve to obtain what Thou dost promise,
make us love what Thou commandest.

We need not refer to “everlasting”. Enough said. Otherwise it is a precise, faithful translation which captures the rhetorical coupling and wholesome ambiguity of the Latin original. In this rendering it is quite easy to perceive that our deserving of heaven is related to our being given grace to obey (and so using that grace). The only significant difference with the other translations so far is that it has a much more elevated register of English, even archaic. It seems appropriate to liturgical prayer but is not something to lose sleep over.

The St Andrew Bible Missal of 1962, of Belgian Benedictine origin, offers this rendering:

O God, almighty and everlasting,
give us more faith, hope and charity.
Make us love your Law
so that we may deserve to gain your promises…

Here is a real attempt to move from a more literal translation to a more (perhaps) idiomatic one. God is still addressed in a more formal way (though with that pesky “everlasting”). The theological virtues are not made ours too prematurely, though the asking of them might seem a little brusque: “give us”, rather than the softer “grant us”. Then again, the original Latin is so bold as to say just that: da – “give”. The first of two syntactical changes is the division of the prayer into two sentences, a procedure followed in the 1975 Missal. I suspect this is an attempt to break the prayer up into shorter, more manageable units, to cater for our diminishing attention spans (rather than God’s). That said, they have a better reason than the 1975 Missal usually has: there are two prayers or petitions here, in a sense. The second change in syntax is the reversal in order of the loving with the deserving. This too is a reasonable massaging of the text. Striking, however, is the replacement of the verbal phrase “what you command” with “your Law”, which (in line with the title of the Missal itself) seems to be introducing a biblical gloss on the prayer.

In the Roman Catholic Daily Missal of 2004, which is effectively a reprint of a 1962 missal, we find this translation:

Almighty and everlasting God,
give to us an increase of Faith, Hope and Charity;
and that we may deserve to obtain what Thou dost promise,
make us love what Thou dost command.

Again another more formal, very faithful translation, though with some variations on the similarly archaically-phrased translation of the New Roman Missal of 1961 above. Though not detectable in the actual speaking of the prayer, the capitalisation of the three virtues enhances the sense that these are divine gifts rather than naturally human virtues. It is a sound translation, and its elevated register of language is quite appropriate to the formal communal act of liturgical worship.

Moving now into the post-conciliar official attempts at translation, we begin with the undated, but pre-1966, unbound inserts from Burns & Oates, which provide this translation of our collect:

Almighty, everlasting God,
grant us increase of faith, hope, and charity;
and fit us to obtain what thou dost promise
by making us love what thou dost command…

Again we find a more formal register of English. The omission of “an” before “increase”, while grammatically possible, does sound awkward, and perhaps would sound slightly less awkward if it were “increase in” rather than “increase of”. The original translation of fac nos as “fit us” is mixed in quality: it keeps clear the truth that it is God who is the origin of our worthiness, but seems to rule out any sense of our possessing this bestowed worthiness as our own. We appear to be only acted upon, rather than also acting. It is, perhaps, a little too brutally theocentric. As English, however, it works well. In last week’s collect this interim translation rendered the same Latin phrase, fac nos, as “so deal with us”, another creative variation.

In the lovely 1965 experimental Missal of the Scottish Bishops, again by Burns & Oates, we find a translation that almost exactly reproduces the previous one:

Almighty, everlasting God,
grant us increase of faith, hope, and charity;
and fit us to obtain what thou dost promise
by making us love what thou commandest:…

The difference is minor: “thou dost command” is here made into “thou commandest”, which has the virtue of being shorter but the vice of being less felicitous to the ear.

The National Liturgical Commission for England and Wales in 1972 offered this interim translation, though the change in the liturgical calendar is reflected in this collect now being placed in its current place on Sunday 30 of the year:

Almighty, eternal God,
help us to grow in faith, hope and charity.
Teach us to love what you command us to do,
so that we might be able to receive what you promise to give.

As this translation gives us something, it takes away something else. At last we find “eternal” used, for which it deserves (merits?) a round of applause. Then it introduces words we saw constantly in the 1975 Missal, “help… grow”. “Help” is far too weak here, and could imply that we have some power of our own to grow in the theological virtues, and that we merely seek some help, some fertiliser, to grow them. It also can be made to imply that these virtues are native to ourselves. But “charity” has been kept. Again, with another harbinger of its successor, this translation has divided the collect into two sentences, though as mentioned above, this has some justification from the content of the collect, which effectively has two petitions in it. Another weakening is that merit has disappeared entirely, to be replaced by the bland, and non-committal, “be able”. Theologically there is no error as such, for to merit something is to be able to receive it, but it is an evasion of a clear statement of the Catholic teaching. Lastly, the translators have embellished the verbs “command” and “promise”, rather tediously spelling out what was clearly implied in the more succinct original.

As with last week’s collect, this translation makes it unchanged into the 1973 Goodliffe Neale Missal authorized for England and Wales.

In 1974, the Divine Office reveals dynamic equivalence in full swing when it gave us this translation of the collect:

Lord God, deepen our faith,
strengthen our hope,
enkindle our love:
and so that we may obtain what you promise
make us love what you command.

It is the first half of the prayer that has felt the hand of change more forcefully. The two adjectives describing God have been ditched in favour of “Lord”, which is not in the Latin, but of course is not wrong theologically. But why the change? “Grant us an increase” has been triply elaborated, divided for each virtue. And for the first time since the Layman’s Missal of 1961 (see above) the virtues are again described as “our”. The effect is very poetic, but the force and theological precision of the original prayer have been sacrificed. Also, is “enkindle” the right word here? Since one assumes we are not asking for the gift of love is not new to us, perhaps “re-kindle” would have been better in this context. Surprisingly it keeps the one-sentence structure, and thereafter fairly faithfully sticks to the Latin original except for its fudging of the issue of merit: “that we may merit” has been watered right down to “we may”. And for the first time, “charity” has been forsaken for the vaguer but warmer “love”.

In the 1975 Missal which we have been using hitherto, the prayer is neutered radically:

Almighty and ever-living God,
strengthen our faith, hope and love.
May we do with loving hearts
what you ask of us
and come to share the life you promise.

The adequate opening line is the best part of this translation; it is all downhill thereafter. “Grant us an increase of” has become “strengthen our”, so that the virtues again appear to be native to us, and in need only of some extra nutrition. Charity has succumbed to “love”. “Love” is near-universal in this Missal, obscuring the finer nuances of the several words it translates. The collect is here also split into two sentences. In the second sentence the damage is even greater. To love what God commands has been diluted to doing with “loving hearts” (a saccharine expression of feeling not found in the original) what God “asks” of us: no commandments now, just requests from God. Lastly we do not seek to merit what God promises any more, but only to “come to share the life” God promises. The addition of the gloss “life” rather restricts the broad horizon offered in the orignal prayer, and it is arguable that “life” is an adequate summation of all that God promises us. This translation has radically changed the collect and diluted its theology significantly.

The 1998 draft Sacramentary from ICEL offered this translation:

God of holiness,
increase within us your gifts of faith, hope, and love,
and enable us to cherish whatever you command,
that we may come to possess all that you promise.

Another exercise in dynamic translation. “God of holiness” is theologically fine, just not in the original, and the change seems to have no real purpose other than to be different. However the first of the two petitions or sub-prayers in this collect is translated very well, with a little licence, true, but at the service of sound theology; in this case making it explicit that the three theological virtues are God’s gifts not our own original possessions. The continued use of “love” for “charity” is unfortunate. The translators have resisted the temptation to form a new sentence for the second petition. This petition begins well, with “cherish” being a clever translation of amare, “to love”. Cherish has a sense of commitment about it which is apt here. Alas, the theology of merit has been dodged, and we ask more weakly only “to come to”. The post-conciliar tendency to downplay merit actually militates against its otherwise sunny view of human nature, which seems to have been sacrificed here to an ecumenically-driven desire not to offend protestants (“seems” – it is not certain, but why else remove the theology of merit?). That said, it is a much better prayer than the 1975 Missal’s.

To finish we have our new translation, which some may have heard this week, but not all:

Almighty ever-living God,
increase our faith, hope and charity,
and make us love what you command,
so that we may merit what you promise.

It is a much better prayer than that we have had until now, but it is not entirely perfect. The good work of 1998 in making explicit the divine origin of the three theological virtues has been undone by a reversion to “our”. As said before, it is not theologically wrong if read correctly, but it has needlessly weakened the happy ambiguity of the Latin original, which allowed the divine origin of these virtues, and our making them our own. Perhaps I am too harsh on this point. Thankfully, “charity” has returned, and welcome it is, though “eternal” still fails to appear. The second petition, no longer separated into a second sentence, faithfully reproduces the meaning and force of the original prayer, including its theology of merit.

Anyway, as we continually discover, almost by definition no translation is perfect, but some are clearly better than others. The tendency in the immediate post-conciliar period to soften the Church’s theology in its liturgical prayer, and to reflect a sunnier view of human nature and destiny, may have had a spiritual cost for the Church. If we do not explicitly pray for certain things we cannot expect to get to them. Closing our eyes to the tougher truths will not make them go away. As a Russian proverb puts it:

Better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie.

(NB – this collect was included in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer of 1662 for the 14th Sunday after Trinity [and probably in earlier Anglican service books]. In that translation our collect is rendered:

Almighty and everlasting God,
give unto us the increase of faith, hope and charity;
and that we may obtain that which thou dost promise,
make us to love that which thou dost command;…

It is a remarkably faithful translation [though merit is side-stepped], and beautiful to boot.)

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