Father John Zuhlsdorf, who blogs at What Does the Prayer Really Say, republished a column ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2006
Once upon a time, papal documents were composed in Latin. The Pope would either write them himself or provide points which his Latin secretaries would then draft and polish. For example, when Leo XIII (+1903) wrote his milestone Rerum novarum (1891) the composition was entirely in Latin. The notebooks from its composition reveal great care to create a clear and elegant text. Nearly everything, with notable exceptions like Pius XI’s Mit brennender Sorge (1937), was composed in Latin until the time of Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council when tremendous pressure was placed on the Holy See to produce translations in various languages. It was necessary to correct the slapdash versions issued by journalists and others who were at times engaging in misinformation. The speed at which the texts were expected forced a shift from composition in Latin to the vernacular. It is easier to write in one’s native tongue, obviously, and so documents got longer – and not always clearer. Under the pressure to get the texts out, the quality of texts and translations diminished. The exponentially increasing speed of the media creates problems. In this light, Pope Benedict in this year’s Message for World Day for Social Communication said, “Daily we are reminded that immediacy of communication does not necessarily translate into the building of cooperation and communion in society” (emphasis mine).
Accurate translations are difficult to produce. They are extremely hard to produce with both accuracy and speed. Translation was a factor in the delayed release of the Pope Benedict’s first encyclical Deus caritas est (DCE). While it was downplayed in the 25 January press conference for the release of the encyclical, Pope Benedict himself had stated during a general audience with a wistful “finally” that, in part, translation difficulties delayed its publication. Holy Father wrote in German, working probably with the collaboration of others at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence, from September onward. While the first part is vintage Ratzinger, some think the second part was based on an unfinished work of the late Pope John Paul II. The Latin translators in the Secretariat of State would have preferred to work directly from the German original (which sure makes sense) but they were instead constrained use an Italian translation. However, the Italian text was in some ways not up to par and so a redrafting was necessary. In addition, there were those in the halls of power who made observations about content. Thus, the encyclical itself went through a revision and there were delays.
Here is another thorny problem with translations. The final, official version of any document of the Holy See must be in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the authoritative instrument of promulgation. When a document is initially released in its various language versions, Latin in the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and usually also English, German, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese, it is then subject to reaction and feedback from the world. When the official version, the second Latin version appears in the Acta the Latin is usually different from the first version. However, nobody ever retranslates the previously released vernacular versions! So, usually when people are quoting a text, they are quoting something issued long before the real text is issued in the Acta after changes were made. The Latin version of Deus caritas est (DCE) is available on the Vatican’s website and L’Osservatore published it on its front page even though on the night before, on the L’Osservatore website, the preview of the front page showed it in Italian. Someone must have made some phones calls! As far as I know, the Latin won’t be published in booklet form, that is, until the Acta.
What about the English translation of DCE? One odd phrase got my attention. In DCE 3: “… doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” Ehem… “Blow the whistle?” At first we might think this is sports imagery. The Italian says “innalza forse cartelli di divieto… raise perhaps forbidden signs…” which to the incautious might sound like a reference to a soccer referee holding up a penalty card. But the referee’s card is a “cartellino”, not a “cartello” of a certain color, not a “cartello di divieto”. Is it traffic imagery? In German, which is what Benedict wrote in, we read, “Stellt sie nicht gerade da Verbotstafeln auf… Doesn’t she put up forbidden signs precisely there…”. A “Verbotstafel” could be a traffic sign, a non-smoking sign or other indication. It’s generic. In Latin we have the same thing, “Nonne fortasse nuntios prohibitionis attollit Ecclesia ibi omnino…” You might have expected here a neuter plural nuntia prohibitionis, since a nuntius is usually the bearer of the news. However, nuntius, -i can also mean, “command, order, injunction”. So, “blow the whistle”? I wonder where those ICEL translators wound up after all. [....Snip] W.D.T.P.R.S.