If you live in the English-speaking world, you have two choices in dealing with Pope Francis, who normally speaks in Italian and writes in Spanish: either translate him yourself or rely on the official Vatican translations.
However, it’s become increasingly apparent in recent weeks that the English translations shouldn’t be taken at face value, especially if they deal with hot-button subjects.
About a month ago, Breitbart News ran a piece looking at issues with the Vatican’s English version of Pope Francis’ first solo written document, the Apostolic Exhortation titled Evangelii Gaudium, or “The Joy of the Gospel.” Helping in this was Joe Garcia, a bilingual Catholic businessman in Florida, who has degrees in corporate and international finance.
As has previously happened with an Apostolic Exhortation from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Garcia became frustrated with the poor quality of the English translation and undertook a new one of his own from the Spanish original. He was on a bit of a translation hiatus for the holidays, but you can track his progress here.
But Garcia has come to some conclusions, including that the most egregious translation errors apparently always come in the most controversial sections of documents and that they inevitably alter the language in a leftward direction. He’s so confident in this that he issues a challenge:
I would defy anyone to show me where a controversial translation has leaned toward the political right or toward theological traditionalism. I would like to have somebody show that to me, where in the last 40 years, a papal document or papal remark has gotten misinterpreted to the favor of those who are more traditionally disposed or who are more politically rightward-disposed.
If the issue were just poor language skills, one might expect errors to tilt as much in one direction as the other. According to Garcia, they don’t. “It’s the dog that doesn’t bark,” says Garcia.
And those translation errors–if they are indeed errors–find their way into the American media and blogosphere, which has an impact that is out of proportion to the actual number of Catholics worldwide who speak English as a first language. At the same time, on the Church’s scale of countries with staggering social problems, Western nations, especially English-speaking ones, hardly rank at the top.
It’s benign neglect in a Vatican that happens to be focused on the poor and the outcast, etc. I perceive they see the Anglosphere as an oasis of prosperity in a world that has a lot of misery and oppression. So I think they tend not to pay attention to what goes in the Anglosphere, in particular the U.S.
I honestly don’t really think that the U.S. Catholic population is particularly on the Vatican radar.
The Vatican, though, is in Western Europe, which has been on a steady march for decades to the political left. It would be naive to assume that this influence hasn’t reached into the Vatican. The voices of politically liberal Catholics–who focus on the Church’s social-justice message while cherry-picking its moral and theological teachings–are very loud in the U.S., and there’s every reason to think they have like-minded allies within the Holy See.
While Pope Francis may have changed the Church’s tone and emphasis in dealing with moral issues, he hasn’t backed away from any Church doctrine. He’s also spoken strongly on such uncomfortable (for moral relativists) subjects like abortion, sin, and the influence of Satan.
Garcia thinks its likely that people in the Vatican whose sympathies lean left have been massaging the English translations where possible to both soften the pope’s moral imperatives and sharpen his social-justice concerns.
In the case of Evangelii Gaudium, the flashpoints are economic. Garcia has finished translating those sections, which have caused several right-wing commentators and pundits–including radio giant Rush Limbaugh–to become very upset at Francis’ apparent criticism of things like “trickle-down economics” and “unfettered capitalism.”
As it turns out, the first troublesome phrase is the result of an inaccurate translation and a misunderstanding of Francis’ frame of reference as an Argentine; and the second phrase never appears in Evangelii Gaudium at all, but instead is “unfettered consumerism,” an entirely different thing.
Here’s a sample of what Garcia’s re-translation looks like:
54. In this context,
some people continue todefend trickle-down“spillover” theories which assumesuppose that all economic growth, encouraged by a free market, for which a free market is [most] favorable, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusivenessby itself brings about greater equity and social inclusion in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wieldingconfidence in the generosity of those [people] who wield economic power and in the sacralized workingsmechanisms of that ruling the prevailingeconomic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfishegotistical ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without warning [i.e. practically] being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poorfor others,[of] weeping for other people’s painat the anguish of others, and feeling a need to help themand [we end up] being disinterested in helping care for them, as though all this were someone else’san alien responsibility and not our ownwhich does not concern us. The culture of prosperity deadenswell-being anesthetizes us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchasewe lose our composure [literally, “lose our calm”]if the market offers something we have not yet purchased; and in the meantime all those lives stuntedtruncated for lack of opportunity[economic] possibilities seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move uswhich in no way alters us.
Not only have translation discrepancies and either willful or ignorant media misinterpretations infuriated the right, they’ve often made the left positively giddy. For the left, no matter which direction Francis is spun, it’s a win.
Mark Twain used to say that a lie travels halfway around the world by the time the truth puts on its shoes. And that is an excellent strategic vision that people have on the other side.
They know that by the time a fool like me can sit there and translate 224 pages of Vaticanese, the meme of “capitalism is bad, and rich people are worse,” has already spun around the world three or four times. They’re counting on it either way.
And it’s not just about economics.
If Francis is portrayed as a liberal who rejects Church dogma–which Time magazine originally claimed in its Man of the Year story, until it didn’t–the left wins. Better yet is if that spin yields praise from those who normally are foes of the Church.
Says Garcia, “The people whose following of Pope Francis is strictly through the mainstream media, as conservative as they may be, they hate it that people with whom we vehemently disagree on many important issues are speaking charitably of the pope.” He adds, “If NARAL is speaking kindly of Pope Francis, obviously the guy has to have horns and a pitchfork.”
If Francis is portrayed as an out-of-touch fool who’s suddenly “shocked” at the notion of gay couples adopting children and prompted a bishop to preach against it, the left wins. Forget the fact that the adoption issue came up in heavily Catholic Malta, nearly the last place Francis would have expected it to be raised. The pope had already confronted same-sex marriage and adoption in Argentina; only the venue was surprising to him this time.
And what can be better than atheist editor Eugenio Scalfari (the 89-year-old who didn’t record or take notes of his interview with Francis and wrote it up from memory, imagination, or both, causing a media convulsion) of Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper stating the pope has “abolished sin”?
Thankfully, the Vatican quashed that one quickly.
Evangelii Gaudium was pulled down briefly from the Vatican homepage and re-posted with a few cosmetic changes. Garcia says he also has noticed an incremental improvement in newer English translations. These are baby steps in the right direction, but they’ll only continue if the heat stays on.
“If feet can be held to the fire,” says Garcia, “and the world is watching, and the world says, ‘By the way, we’re watching, and we’re not going to stop,’ then, at some point, we’re going to find out exactly where we have a problem.”