home events current issue resources
  around the church archive marketplace subscribe
    Exsultemus: Rejoicing with God in the Hymns of the Roman Breviary  
    reviewed by Anthony Ruff, OSB

    Buy The Spirit of the Liturgy

Currently, there is controversy about how to translate Latin liturgical texts into vernacular. The missal is being retranslated, as demanded by the Roman instruction Liturgiam authenticam (2001), which called for greater literal accuracy than had the earlier instruction Comme le prevoit (1969). In this context, one reads this book with great interest. The author presents every hymn in the post-conciliar Liturgy of the Hours in his original translation (although unfortunately the English and Latin strophes are not always printed directly opposite each other). The translations are not intended for singing, but for reflection and prayerful reading. It is the author’s goal to be “as reverent, accurate, and dignified” as possible (xi), and I think he succeeds at this goal.

Hymns present special difficulties to the translator. It is not possible to preserve the meter and be literally accurate. One must take liberties with the original text in order to create a poem in meter, or forgo the limitations of a fixed syllable pattern in order to translate each word and line accurately. Matthew Britt, osb, provided both types of translation for the pre – Vatican II liturgy in The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal: his literal translation, often with an explanation of difficulties in grammar and vocabulary, and also a freer, high-quality poetic version of each hymn from master poets.

O'Keefe takes a different and original approach, partway between the options of Britt, and calls it free verse. He employs as many words as needed, without concern for rhyme or meter, to convey the full meaning of the Latin original. (Very often, iambic patterns result.) O'Keefe is expansive, erring in the direction of interpretative surplus. For example, Christ removes not just our "death" (mortem), but the "death that we have earned" (307). This provides a fuller sense of the original meaning. For the student needing help comprehending the Latin original, O'Keefe's free approach will not always be clear. For this, Britt remains a useful resource, but this is limited since the Latin hymn texts have now been restored to a more original form (as called for in Sacrosanctum concilium, #93), and many new Latin hymns have been added to the post-conciliar Liturgy of the Hours.

As the author notes in his preface, we lack English translations of the Office hymns useable for the liturgy, and so the treasury of Latin hymns is unjustly neglected. May this work of O'Keefe help to foster greater interest in Latin and vernacular hymns of the post-conciliar Liturgy of the Hours.

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

Anthony Ruff, osb,
is a monk and priest of Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and a professor of theology and liturgical music at Saint John's University.
© Copyright 2006-2023
privacy  contact us  www.LTP.org