What was wrong with the old ICEL translation?

Every once in a while someone might ask you:

What’s wrong with the translation we have?  Why do we need a new one?

Fr. Finigan, to whom I fraternally tip my biretta  o{]:¬)  reminded us in one of his recent posts of a good example of why we needed a new translation:

    Latin text
    accipens et hunc praeclarum calicem in sanctas ac venerabiles manus suas

    Old ICEL
    he took the cup

    he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands

There are many, many other examples of the disservice done by the translation which we have had to use for several decades.


Remember, friends…

It wasn’t that the early ICEL translators didn’t know Latin well-enough to do the job properly.  They certainly did know what the Latin prayers say!  They knew the Latin content and they didn’t like it.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. TJerome says:

    old ICEL, pathetic, condescending and vacuous.

  2. SimonDodd says:

    This is a splendid illustration of what Anthony Ruff at Pray Tell Blog said earlier today: “There are many respectable theories on how to do translation.” And that’s true, right? But I think it’s fair to say that the most respectable translation theory of all, and the one adhered to by the corrected translation, is known as “actually translate what it says.” The principal competing theory on how to do translation, favored by Anthony and ICEL but otherwise somewhat less respected, is known as “make up whatever you like so long as it’s in the ballpark.” Perhaps if ICEL had done its job right in the first place, this supposedly divisive exercise (quoth its opponents) would be unnecessary.

  3. Traductora says:

    They knew the Latin content and they didn’t like it.

    That is exactly the truth. None of this was a product of ignorance or accident.

  4. Luke says:


    Your comment prompted me to visit your blog. I’m fairly certain I would read anything you write just because I love the way your write it!


    Excellent point father. Thank you for pointing us to Fr. Finigan so that we can spike his stats!

  5. catholicmidwest says:

    I hope nobody asks me this. I’ll have a real problem keeping a straight face if they do. The old translation is awful. The music that goes with it is awful. The pseudo-theology it has spawned is awful. I’m having trouble waiting til November 27, 2011.

  6. HighMass says:


    Hits the nail on the head! Still have the first english “reponse/prayer” guide from the 1960’s….the new responses are quit if not exactly similar. Expect the Gloria, were the liberals had kittens “Peace to men of will”

  7. One of those TNCs says:

    Father Z, but WHY?? “They knew the Latin content and they didn’t like it.”
    WHY didn’t they like it? As good Catholics, what possible objection could they have had to “…He took this precious chalice in His holy and venerable hands…”?
    Yes, the translations were mutilated and botched. I am so happy that the Church is finally correcting the disaster.
    But it still boggles my mind that those in charge of the Latin-to-English translations purposely chose to denude the prayers of their beauty and majesty. We’re talking about the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass here, not “just” some pious prayers. Can anyone tell me the reasoning behind this deliberate (or was it?) stripping of the Mass of its rightful glory to God?

  8. catholicmidwest says:

    Political fears. At the time, Europe was looking at Communism and the US was feeling the first stirrings of huge social change. The church didn’t want to be on the wrong side of these huge movements, AND they trusted themselves rather than everything they SHOULD have trusted.

    None of their fears came to pass as they imagined them. However, now, great damage is being done by those changes that were made. Luckily, we have PBXVI who is willing to trust God and tradition rather than himself with what comes next. And so we have another set of changes which will look to many like steps back to where we were.

    But they are really not steps back. We are going full bore into the future for the first time in many years, following the thread of tradition forward where it takes us.

    We must pray that the church is not taken over by another crowd of fearful weaklings who would clutch their fears and disrupt our progress with their anxieties and pet projects. We simply can’t do that again. The last time was bad enough.

  9. Why didn’t they like it? Lots of reasons, alas.

    Because those prayers and ideas were old, and they were New and Improved Mighty Modern Men, unlike all others who had come before, rapidly evolving to the Omega Point. New fresh prayers with new streamlined simplicity were demanded by the fast-paced, enlightened modern world!

    Or they wanted to be hip for the sake of evangelizing the kids.

    Or they didn’t believe that religion stuff, so they didn’t want to say it — or at least, only say the parts of that stuff they did believe in.

  10. catholicmidwest says:

    What amazes me is that so many people just sort of assumed that the translation of 1970 was the only translation we would ever have. No where does it say that!

  11. asophist says:

    To “One of those TNCs”:
    I was a young adult with and understood the ethos of the “new order” when it happened. I didn’t like it, but I knew people involved and understood their motives. As was told to me, their thinking were as follows: 1) Everything must be made modern to suit modern man. After all, we have jet airplanes now, atomic bombs and TV. We are not like people in the middle ages who bowed and scraped to kings. We have grown up. All this fancy “precious” and “venerable” stuff smacks of monarchy and the old order. Nothing is really “precious” except human life. And nothing, whatsoever, is “venerable” – that smacks of kowtowing, which we moderns find disgusting. Modern also means everything should be streamlined. Nothing should take more time that it absolutely has to. Nothing should be decorative (and only nature can be beautiful, man-made beauty is a deception); like all things truly modern, everything should be should be plain, clean, shiny and new. Clear out the cobwebs. Antiquity is past, get over it! And so, I wept when our new liturgist – who said these things to me – instructed me to take all those exquisite chasubles to the incinerator to make way for the New Age “vestments” that made the priest look like a Druid.

  12. catholicmidwest says:

    And why do you think they said all that, asophist? What brought them around to that point of view?

  13. asophist says:

    TV, mostly, I expect. It had by then a decade to do its dirty work. Just a thought.

  14. “They knew the Latin content and they didn’t like it.”

    Not the whole truth, I think; I was once talking to Denis McNamara (of Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy fame — great book) and he remarked to me that the ICEL back in the day actually, and deliberately, and with (academic) integrity, at least, employed the theories of Noam Chomsky. That’s problematic, but they did have a sophisticated theory operating. The problem is looking *outside* the bounds of Catholic faith and philosophy for one’s theories. If we’re gonna plunder the Egyptians, as it were, we also have to make sure we keep the good and reject the bad.

  15. pforrester says:

    Thanks Fr. Z. That was a beautiful example. I would love to find a list of all the changes. Is there such a thing online?

  16. Roland de Chanson says:

    ICEL is ICEL.

    The morons still can’t master schoolboy Latin.

  17. SimonDodd says:

    Luke, thankyou, that’s nice to hear. :) The balance over at SF has leant more toward political and Catholic than legal lately, but those are the three issues that typically get covered.

  18. Fr Matthew says:

    I am SO looking forward to using this new CORRECTED translation to celebrate Mass!

  19. I did some judicious editing. None of this is about me or other bloggers. Let’s stick to issues and not make ad hominem comments. Please?

  20. robtbrown says:

    This text is an apt demonstration that the previous version was a flop–even according to their own standard of putting the liturgy in the language of the people.

    He took the cup

    What comes to the American mind when the word “cup” is heard? A coffee cup. A styrofoam or cardboard cup from a convenience or fast food store with a soft drink. Or a plastic stadium cup with the name and logo of a sports team.

  21. Panterina says:

    I too would like to know the reasons behind certain translation choices–possibly from the actual translators that worked on those versions at the time. Anyone know who they were? The example quoted by Father Finigan is quite intriguing from a translation standpoint.

    But here’s another thought: ICEL produced this translation, but let’s not forget that it was approved by the English-speaking Bishops, and then ratified by Rome. In other words, plenty of opportunities to veto it and have it redone. Therefore, I have a hard time placing all this blame on the ICEL alone.

  22. PaterAugustinus says:

    For “One of those TNC’s:”

    I think the reason they interfered like this, even when nothing important seemed to be at stake, was because they specifically wanted to eliminate the “vertical” distance between man and God. There was too much obedience, submission, “slavery,” under the old customs and prayers. Every hint of man falling short of the divine or the holy, was an affront to their immanentism and self-satisfaction. Everything had to be horizontal.

    I first noticed this by accident, during a conversation with some Mexican women at my bookstore. We were discussing Mexican traditions surrounding the mass and weddings, etc., and I was remarking about how similar they were to some of our Western Rite customs. They were surprised that such customs used to be common with English Catholics, because they thought they were uniquely Mexican. This got us talking about how American Catholics had lost a lot of their pious customs in the wake of “the spirit of Vatican II.” And this led to a disccusion of the changes in piety and even in the letter of the mass texts after Vatican II. They didn’t understand what I meant, thinking that the ICEL they knew was a straightforward translation of the Latin text.

    I went and got a Latin Missal and an ICEL Missal, and I turned to the Canon and began to translate from the Latin and compare it to the ICEL. They were fluent Spanish speakers, and so they were often able to follow my explanation of the Latin by analogy to Spanish words. I had never systematically gone through it like that myself, but knew from my knowledge of the Latin text, that the ICEL was just an awful paraphrase of loose ideas therein. I knew I would easily find major errors… but, I wasn’t expecting the seemingly systematic program in the ommissions in the translation of the Canon.

    What we most marked about the difference between a more literal translation of the Latin, and the ICEL Eucharistic Prayer I, was the reduction of God’s greatness, the frequent downplaying of the sacredness of various holy things, and the total elimination of any sentiment of man’s subservience to God. The Canon is full of rich descriptors of holy things and divine attributes, often with flourishes of rhetorical repetition (which the “dynamic equivalence” seemed not to be competent to handle), all nullified or re-worked in the ICEL; the Canon is also replete with self-deprecatory references to men as God’s “famuli” and “servi” (slaves and servants), which I seem to remember being omitted in *every instance* of the ICEL; the Canon is also constantly entreating God and making all its requests with words like “quaesumus,” “rogamus,” “petimus,” (we beseech, we pray, we request), but the ICEL simply bosses God around. In the Latin, so far as I remember, whenever God is “commanded” to do anything, it is the imperative of “dignare.” I.e., even when the Latin “bosses” God around, it is saying “deign, O God…” – about as obsequious a “command” as one can imagine!

    Take the “Hanc Igitur.” A more or less accurate translation would start:

    This oblation, therefore, or our servitude, not to mention that of Thine entire household, we beseech Thee, O God, to receive as One well-pleased…

    The ICEL is positively cheeky and unimpressed: “Father, accept this offering from your whole family.”

    The next “prayer” is more of the same. A literal translation would be:

    Which oblation, O God, we beseech that Thou wouldst deign to render in all wise blessed, duly-reckoned, certified, reasonable and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of Thy most beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    The ICEL: “Bless and approve our offering; make it acceptable to you, an offering in spirit and in truth. Let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord.”

    More bossiness: “bless it; make it; let it.” The “spirit and truth” phrase is nowhere in the original, but was doubtlessly considered “more easily understandable” (i.e., carefully divested of all shades of meaning) when compared with all those phrases implying that God had to, as it were, “tally and reckon our sacrifice, write it up in the book as approved and proper, and deign to accept it.” That would imply that God is somehow a Lord giving His official approval to our spiritual labors in His service! ::Gasp!:: We can sing a new Church into being without His red tape! We value feminist models of decentralized collaboration in our anarcho-syndicalist church community, rather than Patriarchal notions of the Godhead’s anti-worker, Theocratic State (i.e, the undemocratic Kingdom of Heaven). Down with altar and throne! In with the dinner table and the prayer circle!”

    As an afterthought, Jesus is also demoted from “most-beloved” Son.

    Anyway, that’s the most striking thing I noticed about the ICEL, just from contrasting Eucharistic Prayer I with a word-for-word rendition of the Latin Canon. God is dethroned; we are no longer servants offering a Pure Victim, an Holy Victim, an Unblemished Victim unto God’s most illustrious majesty, which we beg of Him to accept with a serene countenance. Rather, we are “ministers,” bossing God around like fussy matrons in an hurry, so unimpressed with the sacred that we tend not to qualify anything with superlatives or ennobling adjectives.

    Even where such adjectives are used, something seems amiss. It may seem small, but I think there is a big difference between offering a Pure Victim, an Holy Victim, an Unstained Victim *unto* the Most Illustrious Majesty of God, and offering a sacrifice to the God *of* glory and majesty… just like there is a difference between Jesus’ “glorious Ascension into the heavens,” and Jesus “ascending into glory” (whatever that means). I.e., in subtle ways, even in the places where positive adjectives are used of God’s actions or attributes, the phrasing is usually reworked so that any sense of subordination to the Divine Attributes, or awe of the loftiness of the divine actions, is replaced by a simple acknowledgment that God happens to be great. It’s almost as if it were saying, “I’m not offering this *unto* Your Majesty, I’m offering it to You, Who happen to be majestic… but, don’t expect me to trip over myself in adulation just because You happen to be majestic. After all, I am Church; I am child of God; I am God. Lord, I *am* worthy that You should come under my roof. Because You said the word, I have no further need of You.”

    In short, I think that is why they eliminated all the “majestic” and “noble” sentiments of the Canon, even in places where seemingly no pet project of the liberal agenda was involved. It may seem like there was nothing to be gained from demoting “This All-Illustrious and Venerable Chalice” to “the cup.” But, if you detest any hint of men fawning before an Holiness transcendent of their limitations, you especially can’t bear for a mere “cup” to capture man’s awe and devotion.

  23. AM says:

    Lord, I am worthy that You should come under my roof. Because You said the word, I have no further need of You.

    I was enjoying the ironic style of the above post by PaterAugustinus .. but when I got to the above, I stopped short.. .yikes, what an insight! brr… I am convicted.

  24. Thank you, PaterAugustinus.

    Re: pious customs — There’s actually a lot of similarity, that’s not pan-Catholic, between Spanish and Sarum Rite/English customs — because the Goths in Spain and the Saxons weren’t too far apart, and had similar ideas about legal marriage ceremonies. Reading stuff about marriage in Charlemagne’s day among the Franks and Lombards (also similar, though along a spectrum with plenty of cultural differences about family/marital values!) is also illuminating.

    And of course, thanks to the Hapsburgs, a lot of Austrian/German devotions are also Spanish devotions, and came to Hispanic areas of the New World too. I think a lot of German-American Catholics don’t realize how familiar certain Hispanic customs would strike them; the language barriers or the slightly different iconography stands in the way. But when one of the German churches downtown was serving as the local Spanish-language parish, it worked really well aesthetically.

  25. robtbrown says:

    But here’s another thought: ICEL produced this translation, but let’s not forget that it was approved by the English-speaking Bishops, and then ratified by Rome. In other words, plenty of opportunities to veto it and have it redone. Therefore, I have a hard time placing all this blame on the ICEL alone.
    Comment by Panterina

    It is well known that liberals gained control of the Consilium for the reform of the liturgy and turned a reform into a revolution. Msgr Bugnini was Secretary of the Consilium, then was named Sec of the Cong of Sacraments and Worship. The revolutionary work of the ICEL, therefore, was fully in line with the desire pg Vatican officials to vernacularize the liturgy and localize the Church.

  26. TJerome says:

    If the Mass had been “reformed” in the 1950s we probably would have had a Mass more in keeping with the mandate of Sacrosanctum Concilium. If it had occured in the mid-1970s, it would have been a less progressive reform. But the 1960s could not have been a more deadly time with all of the revolutionary forces spreading throughout society in general, government, education, etc. to have undertaken this reform. I could pick a decade out of a hat that would have been better than the 1960s, a decade, I would like to forget.

  27. AnAmericanMother says:


    Nail. Head.

  28. Sam Schmitt says:

    “There are many respectable theories on how to do translation.”

    Theoretically this is true – you would translate a novel differently than you would a legal text, and a simultaneous translation of a news conference has different standards than one of classical poetry. Having said this, the only translations which have stood the test of time are either painstakingly accurate or, while not following every nuance of the original, are of high literary value in themselves. Sometimes, you get lucky and get both these qualities.

    The old ICEL had neither.

  29. Henry Edwards says:

    Panterina: ICEL produced this translation, but let’s not forget that it was approved by the English-speaking Bishops, and then ratified by Rome. In other words, plenty of opportunities to veto it and have it redone.

    Nowadays, proposed translations are carefully considered and debated back and forth between Rome and national bishops conferences. However, the dynamics around 1970 were very different, and no similar systematic monitoring occurred. Whereas our bishops have now gone through three successive of the new (corrected) translation, I suspect (from what I’ve heard informally) that the typical U.S. bishop did not examine a complete final copy in 1973 until it was printed for use. And thus had no meaningful opportunity to approve or disapprove it in advance.

  30. Sam Schmitt says:

    “They knew the Latin content and they didn’t like it.”

    A number of early ICELers didn’t like the Roman Canon in particular, one predicting: “the Roman Canon will not compete very successfully with these new anaphoras and that in some regions at least it is destined to early oblivion.”


    Very interesting and revealing article.

  31. Henry Edwards says:

    Sam, of course they were right about that “early oblivion” in some areas, where I understand that only EP II is ordinarily heard.

    Though I’m fortunate to have heard the Roman Canon at OF Mass every morning this week (by a priest who never uses EP II). Actually, I’ve heard that Msgr. Bugnini recommended that the Roman Canon be deleted but (to his credit) Pope Paul VI rejected at least this recommendation, as well as the recommendation that the Orate, fratres … (“Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice ….”) also be deleted, presumably because they wanted to excise the word “sacrifice”.

  32. Supertradmum says:

    A monsignor in our diocese told me that his generation of priests(he is 78)wanted to the Mass to “appeal to Protestants” and that in seminary when he went, in the 1940s and early 50s, St. Ambrose in Davenport, Iowa, there was an open philosophy of “protestantizing” the Church in doctrine and in language, as well as in architecture, to cause ecumenism. The monsignor stated that these topics were discussed openly in class and encouraged. So, a generation of priests wanted to avoid the Latin, change the words to what is really Cramner’s Mass, and have some type of syncretic, Christian Church. This was on purpose and desired by those priests who did not see the danger this would cause the Catholic Church. But, then, they wanted that change.

    Did not quite work out that way, but almost….

  33. Supertradmum says:

    PS in my former church in Missouri, the priest reads the Mass out of a binder with pages from who knows where. Frequently, the readings were taken from some type of binder. He is a Benedictine monk. We always paid attention to the Words of Consecration to make sure the Eucharist was valid.

  34. Supertradmum says:


    I always like your comments, but do not blame the sixties. These changes were in the air and on paper before that time. See my note above.

  35. pelerin says:

    The use of the word ‘cup’ instead of ‘chalice’ was a big mistake. I am so glad that this is being rectified. For children especially as their view of a cup is nothing like a chalice. In one of the major London museums where early chalices are displayed, they are in fact referred to as CHALICES and there is no need for explanation for the public.

    Supertradmum mentions being told about the wish to ‘protestantize’ the church in the 50s. It does seem strange that one of the big differences today between certainly the Anglican (protestant) church and the Catholic church is that Anglicans receive Holy Communion whilst kneeling at their altar rails whereas we receive mainly standing up having lost our altar rails in the vast majority of churches. So much for wanting to copy the Protestants!

  36. TJerome says:

    Supertradmum, I know you and I are sympatico, but the 60s was a highly charged revolutionary time. Winds of change were blowing through ALL institutions, not just the Church. I remember it well. I have always been counter-cultural in my thinking (perhaps because as a Catholic I know that is when the Church is the strongest) and was deeply pained by many changes that occurred then in all aspects of life. It was the perfect storm for the radical elements in the Church to seize the momentum aided and abetted by an anti-Catholic secular media. I recognize there were elements in the Church at the time that were in favor of radical change (think Bugnini) and I don’t doubt your story about St. Ambrose in Iowa but I would submit they were an insular minority. But for the winds of change in the 1960s I doubt they would have been able to achieve as radical result as they did with the Liturgy. The good news, is that in their dotage, they are seeing much of their “work” rejected by the younger clergy and Catholics. Best, Tom

  37. Paul Jackson says:

    In my home country of South Africa we started using revised translations since November 2008 (see http://www.scross.co.za/2008/11/new-words-at-mass/). There is still confusion with some people refusing to use the new responses and this leads to many mumbled words. It is so beautiful that the texts are being rendered more correctly. Does anyone have thoughts on how to get people properly engaged in the use of the corrected translation? I am currently residing in London and hope that they can take some lessons from South Africa’s early adoption attempt. There were of course some other problems as the translations had not been finalised when we adopted them (see http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0901004.htm).
    It is such an exciting move in the Church and I know the Spirit will guide people to fruitful debate and spiritual growth.

  38. Henry Edwards says:

    Paul: Here in the U.S., it appears that our bishops are gearing up with a massive year-long preparation for use of the new translation starting on Nov. 27, 2010, with all kinds of workshops and resources (www.usccb.org/romanmissal/) to get both priests, people, and musicians ready in advance for the big event.

    I wonder if any such systematic preparation took place in South Africa before diving in. If now, I’d think the results you mention are predictable, especially without strong episcopal support.

  39. Henry Edwards says:

    Paul: Here in the U.S., it appears that our bishops are gearing up with a massive year-long preparation for use of the new translation starting on Nov. 27, 2010, with all kinds of workshops and resources ( http://www.usccb.org/romanmissal/ ) to get both priests, people, and musicians ready in advance for the big event.

    I wonder if any such systematic preparation took place in South Africa before diving in. If not, I’d think the results you mention are predictable, especially without strong episcopal support.

  40. catholicmidwest says:

    Not the same ICEL. It was gutted and reconstituted in the late 90s. And then another organization, Vox Clara, was created to police it.

  41. Laura R. says:

    Pelerin, as a recent convert from Anglicanism I am very aware of the irony that in most Episcopal churches (at least all the ones I have known) the norm is still to receive communion kneeling at an altar rail, with the paten being administered by a priest or a deacon. Of course, that priest or deacon is not at all unlikely to be a woman.

    I’ve lived through 40+ years of liturgical revision in the Episcopal Church, and now find it amusing to be happily anticipating a new Catholic liturgy. Wish it were this Advent instead of 2011!

  42. AnAmericanMother says:

    Laura R.,

    Me too, me too!

    Do you think that the ’79 and the lame-duck ICEL translation had a common origin? I have no proof, but they sound so awfully similar. . . .

    And is there any chance of the Anglican Rite catching on in your neighborhood? Unfortunately the ECUSA diocese here is traditionally very low, except for a few high church ‘ghettos’ which were decimated or worse by GC 2003. We’re refugees from one of those. There’s been an AU club or layman’s organization here ever since the AU Rite was first promulgated, but if it even still exists (it’s no longer on the Anglican Use Society’s links) it’s gone nowhere.

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