Has Pope Francis' Message Been Lost in Translation?

Has Pope Francis' Message Been Lost in Translation?

Argentine-born Pope Francis wrote the newly released Evangelii Gadium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) in his native Spanish, which may help to answer some thorny questions being raised about the English translation of the pontiff’s first solo official document (the recent encyclical, Lumen Fidei, or “The Light of Faith,” was largely the work of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).

Evangelii Gaudium (an English PDF can be downloaded here; a Spanish one here) is an Apostolic Exhortation, which is Vatican-speak for an authoritative (but, like an encyclical, NOT infallible) papal letter.

Shortly after the document was released, some political and economic conservatives took exception to the pope’s comments on how economic systems and politicians fail the poor and vulnerable. Some even characterized his words as an all-out attack on capitalism. Of course, on the other end of the political/economic spectrum, there were those thrilled to apparently have a pope on their side.

Subsequently, there began a trickle of questions about the translation of one of the most contentious passages (click here and here and here for initial skepticism, and here for skepticism about the skepticism, which itself was met with some skepticism and has been since updated with a correction).

Most papal documents are released in Latin, which has been the lingua franca of the multilingual Roman Catholic Church for centuries. But it’s not easy to find someone fluent enough in Latin to translate long, complicated documents, laden with religious references and idioms. So, journalists have relied on the Vatican’s own English version.

But in the case of Evangelii Gaudium, trusting that translation may be problematic. That becomes especially evident upon even a cursory examination of blogger Joe Garcia’s first pass at a re-translation. Click here for his efforts, which highlight the changes he makes from the English document and some of the reasons why.

He admits he’s not a publicly acknowledged expert, writing, “The vast majority of my readers have no idea who I am. ‘This could be some lunatic on Babelfish!’ or ‘This idiot went to Chipotle twice in one week and now thinks he’s Cervantes’ are all thoughts you could, quite legitimately, have. You might read of someone who takes exception to my interpretation, maybe even read a vast horde of them. I can swear or affirm that I am a native Spanish speaker with equivalent native fluency in English and who has to, for professional reasons, translate reports, memoranda, etc., on a daily basis.

“And you are not even remotely required to believe a bloody syllable of it. Which is why I am asking you to not take, my, uh, word for it.”

Garcia goes into detail about the issues he has with the translation, writing, “Some of the mistranslations… are perplexingly silly, capricous changes in wording but which don’t really affect much. Some, on the other hand, are subtle and while not changing the strict definition of the passage, give it a different flavor. Then, of course, we have the outrageous stuff… missing phrases, clauses and sentences… outright, wholesale changes in wording that have the unhappy consequences we have seen.”

In addition to economic passages, Garcia has also re-translated some of the expansive document’s other sections, including a paragraph that may not sit well with those in the Church who prefer to let others–governments, for example–get their hands dirty in caring for those in need (bottom of page 163 of the Spanish PDF):

207: Any community within the Church, to the degree it attempts to go its own tranquil way without without creatively making sure [the verb “ocupar” in Spanish mean more “take care of it” or “busying oneself” than “occupy”] of cooperating efficiently [or “effectively”] in helping the poor to live with dignity and including all, also runs the risk of [self-] dissolution, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritually mundane [realm] camouflaged by religious practices, fruitless meetings and empty speeches.”

This is not Garcia’s first encounter with translating a papal document or even Pope Francis.

Garcia recast an Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI from Latin into English in 2007, referring to the Vatican’s English version as “unspeakably bad.” He says he’s also translated “many homilies and essays by then-Cardinal Bergoglio when he was just a no-name cardinal in some Latin American backwater” for the benefit of English-speaking Catholics who don’t know Spanish.

While Garcia–who has degrees in corporate and international finance from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and the University of Miami–will likely not be the last to take a second look at the English-language Evangelii Gaudium, he was one of the first to raise red flags and go on the record with a new translation.

Breitbart News asked him a few questions via email that may offer a starting point for any curious linguists that follow:

What are your full linguistic credentials?

Native-level fluency in both Spanish and English, conversant in Portuguese and Italian. Working knowledge of Latin.

What made you undertake this re-translation?

In THIS case, that I had spotted what I considered to be materially significant discrepancies between the official English translation and the Spanish which we understood to be the original.

What was your gut reaction to seeing how different the versions are?

“Here we go again.”

Do you have a theory on why the English translation appears to be so far off in some places?

While the English-speaking world is a small percentage of the worldwide Catholic population, its influence in economics/popular culture is orders of magnitude greater than its size would suggest. Philip Lawler, of the Catholic Culture site noted that English mistranslations always skew in the same certain ideological direction. (Note: that would generally be leftward.) I think he’s onto something; until I have something more tangible to add, I’ll just leave it at that.

Have you noticed a trend in English translations of major Vatican documents?

English translations invariably exhibit the greatest divergence from the official Latin and/or original language of composition.

Are other translations more faithful to to the original than the English one?

That I have seen, all the other translations are materially more faithful to the original than the English.

What would you suggest to American Catholics struggling with this document and the issues surrounding it?

Read it with charity, trying to put aside the commentary you may have heard from people who are both gleeful or despondent over it. Realize that the main thrust is not money, finance and economics. Read the whole thing, because even with the most problematic translation burying much, essential glimmers of truth are still present. Read it keeping in mind that what a certain term means in American English might have a significantly different meaning in “Vatican-ese” or be used in a different sense by an Argentine who has witnessed a different world that we have.

Expanding on Garcia’s last comment, it is helpful to remember that the pope’s official constituency lives in almost every part of the globe, so U.S. and European interests and practices may not be foremost in his mind every time he speaks or writes.

Furthermore, Pope Francis–while an educated man with a master’s degree in chemistry and further degrees in philosophy and theology–has spent almost all his life before being elected pope in a developing nation with a different experience of poverty, persecution, and oppression (and with a economy hard hit by inflation and at risk of defaulting again on its debt) than in most of North America and Western Europe.

Like his saintly namesake did centuries ago in Italy, Francis has also gotten up close and personal with the poor, in the slums of his hometown of Buenos Aires (click here for a photo essay from children living there).

As author Paul Vallely writes in his biography, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots:

Bergoglio’s visits to the slums brought him into contact with a huge number of ordinary people. One slum priest estimated that over his 18 years as bishop and archbishop, he must have personally talked to at least half the people in the slum. He would just turn up, wander the alleyways, chat to the locals and drink mate herbal tea with them. Fr. Guillermo Marco, his aide for eight years, said, “He doesn’t see the poor as people he can help, but rather as people from whom he can learn.”