Bilingual Mass Never Quite Jives For Me: A Note on Translation

Yesterday’s Spanish debut was a direct response to posts, on Facebook and Twitter, covering the USCCB’s conversation about new media with Catholic bloggers. (Here’s a great recap by Leah Libresco, with links to other posts by Patheos bloggers who attended.)

I wasn’t able to attend, but I gathered that there was some data presented that indicated a disproportionate gap between English and Spanish language Catholic blogs relative to the demographics of the data. My reaction was straightforward: I decided to post a weekly contribution in Spanish, and began writing. You can expect one every week.

I was then advised to post a translation which seemed like a great idea. I’m about to embark on a major translation project, so I figured this would be good exercise. Plus, who wants to exclude anyone, right? It didn’t work out that easily.

That nonexistent translation is what this post was supposed to be.

Instead, my mind wandered to my many years as a music minister in bilingual parishes, mostly in West Texas. Bilingual liturgy is incredibly hard to plan and even harder to execute. Those doing it must be absolutely fluent in both languages. It easily becomes awkward and tense even among the most well-intended. It can get adversarial too. I don’t know why. When there are not so well-intended parties, things can become downright nasty, hostile even.

The only suitable liturgy for a multilingual congregation is a Latin Mass. Period. For Roman Catholics, Latin is our official language. I always wonder why some Catholics in the US are so militant about English when their true mother tongue is (or ought to be) Church Latin.

When it comes to Mass, I don’t care about the linguistic or semiotic element. It’s about aesthetics. Bilingual liturgies strike me as cheap forms of inclusion that often become forced and lose more than they gain. They’re often clunky, sloppy, and ugly.

I know, I know: it is welcoming to be bilingual. Yes. But it can also be VERY patronizing, to either side. Like those awful ecumenical services.

Bilingualism and trilingualism are fine, as long as we’re talking about bulletins and signs and maybe even announcements. But for liturgy, bilingualism never quite works out. Better to have one or the other, regardless of what language the faithful speak. Unless vast majority of the faithful speak both languages. That’s an entirely different situation.

I’d rather have Mass in French or Polish or Basque than have a bilingual English/Spanish Mass. Or Greek, or whatever. Mass in tongues if you please. And of course Catholics should value multilingualism. Think of our pontifical examples, they speak tons of languages. We should emulate that. This is not trying downplay that aspect of things.

For whatever reason (I’m told it’s in the spirit of Vatican II) Catholic liturgy has acquired a toxic democratic sensibility. Everyone needs to have a direct, participatory role. Don’t exclude anybody. Don’t leave anyone alone. No time to pray, we need to DO or SAY or SING something. This is a huge mistake. Worship is not a political process and certainly not a democratic one.

Catholic liturgy is a structured, sacred dance; and good dancing requires total submission to authority. This is why hippies can’t dance. That’s why they flail around, obnoxiously, off the beat.

It is hard to translate what I wrote yesterday, I suppose, because I fear that translation has become a false solution. And I don’t want to contribute to the problem.

If we just had more materials in Spanish. If we only had more Spanish-writing bloggers. If we only had more Spanish-speaking priests. 

First: all Latinos do not necessarily speak Spanish, although many do in the US. Second: the one’s who do speak Spanish do so in dialects that vary to the point of seeming like different languages. Listen to an Argentinian talk to a Puerto-Rican. Crazy different. (Kind of like a Louisianan speaking to a, well, speaking to just about anyone.) Third: what is missing in the US is not so much a common language — we’re missing a common Catholic culture. Fourth: many Latinos are losing this culture, they are losing their religious heritage along with everything else, in exchange for the secular protestantism the of US. Including our often secularized and protestantized Catholic liturgies.

There is no Catholic culture native to the US, it’s all imported. We’re not Mormons. The first Catholic imports to the Americas came in Spanish, from Spain. And, of course, Latin was the tongue of the liturgy then, not Spanish. Nonetheless, when we see our geopolitical situation through a Catholic lens, Hispanic culture is impossible to miss.

Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Fe, Sacramento… all Catholic religious names, in Spanish.

This is what I wrote about yesterday: Latinos have a cultural gift to offer the Catholic Church in the US — the gift of Catholic culture. Sure, there are many others: Irish, Italian, Polish, German, and so on. There are also our Eastern brethren. But Latinos right now have the most immediate, fresh, and obvious folklore available. As I said, in some parts of the country they’ve had it for hundreds of years.

Look closer: English-speaking Catholics just went through a new translation for the Mass. Spanish-speaking Catholics didn’t. Why not? The Spanish etymological roots lie so close to Latin, all the new Anglophone changes are already present in the original Spanish vernacular translation. Y con tu espíritu — And with your Spirit.

As I said before, the Latin mass is the best solution to bilingualism. I’m no traditionalist, but I do appreciate the fact that an incomprehensible Mass allows me to be present and to worship. This gets to the root of my problem with translation: it is impossible sometimes. Or just unnecessary. Not all the time. But today it is.

My series in Spanish may turn out to be another token gesture, a cheap and patronizing quick fix. But let me be clear: I am not trying to fix anything. I don’t really care what language we use to transact communication. I just happen to have two at my disposal. At the exact same time, I love the Spanish language, and all the romance languages, because it is so close to Latin. It has a certain warmth. It sings and moves and is splendidly simple. Tolkien felt a similar affection. He once said that his esteem for Spanish “is more like the appetite for a needed food.” So there. It’s complicated.

Back to the USCCB:

The reason the USCCB should want to reach out to Latinos in the US is not to include them or to be nice to them. And certainly not to use them. (As the donkeys and elephants are trying to do these days.) We should reach out to them from what we, as an Americanized whole, lack: Catholic culture. You don’t need to learn Spanish or attend Posadas during Advent or kiss your crossed thumb and index finger at the end of your Sign of the Cross. What I am more concerned about is the fact that I carry traditions and memories that are Catholic, first and foremost, but manifest themselves in a dark-skinned Virgin — Virgen Morena — and these riches should be shared, especially in Catholic parishes that feel more like country clubs than sanctuaries.

In my Mexican heritage, we say hello and goodbye with a kiss and an embrace, with tenderness. We touch each other. This intimacy is the basis of culture. Proximity. That is what I wrote about yesterday. The best way to translate it would be to go and feel the warmth, and perhaps the nervousness, of greeting someone that way, regardless of their language.

This was all spurred in me by a beautiful old man I met in Chicago. A Byzantine Catholic from Lebanon. As we walked and talked he was constantly holding my arm, using me for support or pressing my arm to emphasize his point. He spoke of how Americans need to learn to be close to each other; how paranoid things are here compared to the Mediterranean. And yesterday, after I posted my essay, I received a reply from a woman in Mexico City, lamenting the same problem there.

Forget bilingual Mass. We need to kiss each other instead.



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  • Petro

    We already regularly pray in three languages (Greek (Kyrie), English, Latin (Sanctus/Agnus Dei) in the English mass. I’m not sure why it’s so bad to have a few hymns or a reading in a fourth language.

    A regular bilingual mass would be silly and unnecessary. Nevertheless, I think it’s important for parishes, particularly parishes with almost equally-sized English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities, to have parish-wide celebrations, such as Parish Feast Days, in which all can attend and not feel as if their way of practicing their faith is a lesser way. I’m not sure what is so confounding about a few hymns in Spanish and a few in English, an opening prayer in English, a reading in Spanish (with English translation sheet in pews), a homily in both languages and a Eucharistic Prayer in one language with the Our Father in the other.

    • srocha

      I was thinking about how a Latin Mass is bilingual (Latin and Greek) this morning. Good point; albeit a bit beside the point.

      I understand the need to have all parish Masses, and I have worked on liturgy committees for planning then and so on. But even at the best bi-lingual Mass, there is a tragic distraction, an awkwardness, and sometimes worse. I think a Latin Mass — even it is totally foreign to both — would be a better route. But at a minor level, a song or two, or a petition or whatever can work pretty well. When I volunteered at Lourdes we would do a multi-lingual rosary and there were all kinds of languages spoken at Masses. That too present other possibilities and problems.

      The core assumption I want to challenge, however, is the sense of entitlement to understand the Mass. This is where things go wrong, on either side.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • S. Murphy

        When I went to Greece for a few weeks as an undergrad, I got to attend a Latin (Novus Ordo) Mass that was attended mostly by tourists. The priest spoke a couple or 3 languages, but English wasn’t one, and he would recruit people to read the Gospel in English and maybe German, and read it himself in, well, I’m not sure, but probably not Greek, because the only Greeks there were the couple who seemd to be caretakers of the chapel. There was a missal that opened so that each pair of facing pages held about a paragraph – Latin, modern Greek, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, (as best I remember – I’m pretty sure it was heptalingual, anyway). It was beautiful and moving because it was was the most practical solution, because it was what Latin is for, and because it brought us together.

      • R Plavo

        In the sixties when we younger Catholics were looking forward to the liturgy being in the vernacular, Bishop John Wright, no flaming liberal, said that the language of the Church was prayer. How wonderful then that we were able to celebrate in the vernacular, and let the words and meaning sink into our consciousness, but alas, now, fifty years later, we are bombarding the people with Latin, Greek, and an English which is certainly not vernacular. How sad for our Church!

  • kalimsaki

    “His is the praise”

    Praise, laudation, and acclaim are proper to Him, are fitting for Him. That is to say, bounties are His; they come from His treasury. And as for the treasury, it is unending. This phrase, therefore, delivers the following good news:
    O man! Do not suffer and sorrow when bounties cease, for the treasury of mercy is inexhaustible. Do not dwell on the fleeting nature of pleasure and cry out with pain, because the fruit of the bounty is the fruit of a boundless mercy. Since its tree is undying, when the fruit finishes it is replaced by more. If you thankfully think of there being within the pleasure of the bounty a merciful favour a hundred times more pleasurable, you will be able to increase the pleasure a hundredfold.
    An apple an august monarch presents to you holds a pleasure superior to that of a hundred, indeed a thousand, apples, for it is he that has bestowed it on you and made you experience the pleasure of a royal favour. In the same way, through the phrase “His is the praise” will be opened to you the door of a spiritual pleasure a thousand times sweeter than the bounty itself.
    For the phrase means to offer praise and thanks; that is to say, to perceive the bestowal of bounty. This in turn means to recognize the Bestower, which is to reflect on the bestowal of bounty, and so finally to ponder over the favour of His compassion and His continuing to bestow bounties.

  • JennE

    I am in the middle of this very thing. We have started Family catechesis and although I am fluent enough in Spanish (Spanish was spoken in the home – that’s about it) I am unable to keep my train of thought. It is exhausting. Also, when mass times changed a few spanish speaking only were in the mass. They looked totally lost. I took out the worship book and prayed next to them showing them they can keep up. Perhaps the homily would be the only plus to keep short and bilingual. :)

  • Ted Seeber

    There is no need for English users of Chrome to have a translation. A little button pops up “This website is in Spanish, translate to English?” that I used. I then proceeded, on my first reply, to go to Google translate and post it in both.

    I think this is a good way to reach out.

  • Ted Seeber

    “In my Mexican heritage, we say hello and goodbye with a kiss and an embrace, with tenderness. We touch each other. This intimacy is the basis of culture. Proximity. ”

    In American culture, this has become extremely dangerous. The flip side of the sexual revolution- of ignoring traditional morality with respect to sex- has been EVERYTHING gets interpreted sexually.

    In the Archdiocese of Portland, in fact, this behavior, without respect to culture, is mentioned as something we should never do- in the context of Called to Protect, the archdiocese-required training for anybody who has access to children.

  • Polish translator

    Bilingual Mass it’s a challenge for an interpreter! This is just my point of view :)

  • Prof Jim

    Rocha and some bloggers need to read Sacrosanctum concilium and related Vatican II documents on the importance of the vernacular to provide for the full participation of the people in Mass. By the way, the Vatican conducts its business in Italian today, not in the Latin of the 1800s, and has a hard time recruiting qualified personnel because they don’t know Italian. So much for Latin as official Church language. I dislike bilingual Mass because I am fluent only in English and cannot fully understand Mass as Vat II wanted when part is in another language. In my bilingual parish most Hispanics must feel similar because they overcrowd the Spanish Mass. (Recently some Hispanic youth asked for bilingual Mass because they know English from school better than Spanish from home.) Bilingual Mass is usually introduced because it is practical in light of priest shortage, not because of some theological meaning.

  • kathy

    I love the mass. I love listening to its words. I love singing the Lord’s praises. I listen and try to understand. If the church wants to have a bilingual mass they should advertise it well in advance so that those of us who are not bilingual will have the opportunity to attend another mass so that we can understand. I am a child of the Sixites and nothing was more beautiful that when the mass switched from that incomprehesible Latin to a language I could understand.