Lost in Translation: Pope Misquoted in ‘Angel of Peace’ Comment to Abbas

Alberto Pizzoli/AP

A recent misquote of Pope Francis’ words to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shows that the devil—or the angel—is often in the details. In this case, a subtle difference between the indicative and the subjunctive tenses changed the Pope’s words from an invitation to be an angel of peace into high praise—as if the Palestinian leader already were that angel.

A quick glimpse around international reports on the encounter between the two men reveals how much media outlets rely on one another and the predominance that the English language carries in the media world. Most French and English-language media as well as some German media outlets reported the Pope’s words to President Abbas in the indicative: “You are an angel of peace.” The Italian media, on the other hand, which happened to be reporting in the language the Pope actually used, almost universally got it right: “May you be an angel of peace.”

Pope Francis, in fact, gives a medallion with the image of an angel of peace to nearly every politician who visits him, and always asks of that person to be an angel—or a “messenger,” as the word means—of peace for the world. The encounter with Abbas was no different.

It didn’t help, of course, that the Pope was speaking off the cuff, and that no official text of his comments was offered by the Vatican, other than that included in one report by Vatican Radio—which confirmed that the Pope was speaking in the subjunctive: “May you be an angel of peace.”

In an email sent to Breitbart, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi ruled out the idea that the Pope had been calling Abbas an angel of peace, and said that the sense of the Pope’s gift of the medallion to Abbas was clearly that of “encouraging a commitment to peace” and that Francis gave it to him “with this sole intention” as he had given it to many other heads of state before him.

Whether the erroneous reporting of the Pope’s words was actually an intentional lie, as some have alleged, or merely the result of sloppy journalism, the fact remains that the Pope did not declare President Abbas to be an angel of peace, but merely expressed his heartfelt wish that he would become one.

For all those who were having trouble reconciling the Pope’s supposed encomium with the Palestinian’s spotty record on the peace front, there is one less puzzle to solve.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome