What the Synod Relatio Didn’t Say (And How It Didn’t Say It)

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Once again, the Vatican has tripped over the English language and landed in a heap of trouble.

Late in 2013, I posted a pair of articles at Breitbart.com dealing with issues surrounding the Vatican’s official English-language translation of Pope Francis’ first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”).

Click here and here for them, but in short, the translations weren’t faithful in places to the Spanish original, leaving out words and phrases, adding in other words and phrases, which lent shades of meaning to the text not reflected in the original (or necessarily in the translations into other languages).

My partner in this enterprise was multilingual Florida businessman and entrepreneur Joe Garcia, who’s also a faithful Catholic familiar with Church teachings and terminology He previously translated an encyclical by now-Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI from the Latin (and a recent Pope Francis interview, given in Spanish to an Argentine newspaper, which didn’t do any better putting it in English than the Vatican).

We even made a joint appearance on Michael Voris’ online talk show to discuss the translation issues, in a segment called “The Vatican’s English Translator Should Be Fired!”

Garcia posted his new — and substantially revised — translations of Evangelii Gaudium on his blog, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. It’s now home to a revised English version of the hot-button Relatio post disceptationem, generally referred to as the relatio, the interim working document issued this week from the ongoing Synod on the Family at the Vatican.

Naturally, the news media hops on anything having to do with homosexuality and traditional marriage, and that’s where some of the problems lie when the document was translated from the original Italian. True, it’s an “unofficial” translation of a “work in progress,” but that didn’t stop it setting off the usual firestorm of controversy, requiring some considerable backpedaling.

As Catholic News Agency (CNA) pointed out, in a piece called “How an incorrect translation of the Synod report created chaos,” written by CNA’s “Vatican Observer,” Andrea Gagliarducci:

The point of controversy occurs at paragraph 50 of the relatio. The Italian original, after praising the gifts and talents homosexuals may give to the Christian community, asked: “le nostre comunità sono in grado di esserlo accettando e valutando il loro orientamento sessuale, senza compromettere la dottrina cattolica su famiglia e matrimonio?”

In the English translation provided by the Vatican, this is rendered as: “Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”

The key word “valutando,” which has sparked controversy within the Church, was translated by the Vatican as “valuing.”

Italian’s “valutando” in fact means “evaluating,” and in this context would be better translated with “weighing” or “considering.”

The English translation, in contrast, suggests a valuing of the homosexual orientation, which could at least create confusion to those who are faithful to the teaching of the Church.

The U.K.’s Catholic Herald’s title for an Oct. 14 article by Father Alexander Lucie-Smith was even more explicit:

“The English version of the Synod document is quite frankly a disgrace. Whoever is responsible for it should be ashamed,” with the sub-heading “English is the world’s most important language, or are there some people in the Vatican who have not woken up to this?”

He writes, “Nor is this the first time that the Vatican has produced such substandard work. There are some quite bright lads up at the North American College in Rome who can hold a pen, and, I am sure, could do a lot better, stylistically, than this. Why didn’t someone go up that hill and ask them to lend a hand?”

The priest’s issues don’t end with style, as he writes, “There is truth in this document, but reading the document resembles searching for bits of coal in a huge slagheap.”

After reading articles such as these, and seeing the confusion and panic in my Facebook feed, I returned to Garcia with some email questions about how the Vatican keeps getting what is essentially the lingua franca of the Western world’s media so wrong (questions in bold; answers in italics).

Previously, you’ve pointed out errors in English translations from Spanish originals. Could you start by giving us a sense of your proficiency in Italian, the official language of the Synod?

In my professional work, most of my work is in the Spanish-English spectrum, but the second greatest number of documents, etc., I have are in the Italian-English spectrum. I’ve previously taken a pass at Vatican documents from an Italian original.

In your opinion, what are the most egregious mistranslations, or even mischaracterizations, in the Vatican’s “unofficial” English translation of the Synod’s midterm report?

There are several “flavors.” One is that of transliteration. For example, in the original, you may see the phrase “condiscendenza divina,” which somehow becomes “divine condescension,” when it really means “divine self-emptying.” Or “valutando” as “valuing” instead of “evaluating.” Then there is the “softening.” In the original, we see a lot of “debere” (meaning “ought” or “it is to be”) rendered as “should.”

Finally, there are instances of where words or phrases are changed in the translation without any explanation … not even a bad one. “Cogliere” (literally, “to grasp”) becomes accepting instead of the more equivalent “being cognizant of.”

As a business professional involved in translations where accuracy means a great deal, if you were to advise the Vatican on how to avoid these problems in the future, what would you say?

First, not to underestimate the importance of translations. I think many Vatican functionaries may subconsciously not give these sufficient weight, since “their” translations don’t have a transactional component. That is, it’s not a matter of a contract between two parties where one stands to be very adversely damaged by — and whose professional future is at risk for — and incorrect translation.

Are you detecting an ideological bent to these English documents?

It seems to me these mistranslations seem to skew more toward a modernist direction. As to why that may be the case, I can only surmise.

Since we don’t know exactly whom in the Vatican is responsible for these translations, how should lay people, especially press members, approach the English-language documents?

With a charitable desire to verify the veracity of a translation.

Would it be useful for the Vatican to make available the name or names of the person or persons responsible for the translations?

Inordinately so.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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