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Actually to publish the mistranslated Italian version of Youcat was unpardonably sloppy and amateurish

Why, by now, haven’t we learned the huge importance of accurate translation?

By on Friday, 15 April 2011

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn at the launch of YouCat on St Peter's Square (AP Photos)

Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn at the launch of YouCat on St Peter's Square (AP Photos)

The pulping of a large number of copies of the Italian edition of Youcat—and I’m sorry, I know I’m an old grouch, but I really think that’s an awful, wince-inducing title: “Youcat”, indeed—raises a number of questions. First, what precisely WAS the problem with the Italian version? According to Zenit it was “found in question 420, which asks: “Può una coppia cristiana fare ricorso ai metodi anticoncezionali?” (May a Christian couple resort to contraceptive methods?)

“The official English-language translation of the same question asks: “May a Christian married couple regulate the number of children they have?”

Both catechisms answer “yes” to the question, and the text of the answer is the same, citing the circumstances that would make adding another child to a family a “big, almost superhuman challenge for the couple.”

“The text in both translations adds, however, that ‘there are clear criteria that the married couple must observe: Regulating births, in the first place, must not mean that the couple is avoiding conception as a matter of principle. Second, it must not mean avoiding children for selfish reasons. Third, it must not mean that external coercion is involved (if, for example, the State were to decide how many children a couple could have). Fourth, it must not mean that any and every means may be used’.”

What precisely the problem was in translating the original German text accurately, so that it didn’t provide the secular press with yet another series of Catholicism/contraception headlines, is worth dwelling on a little. After all, the Catholic Church is a global organisation: we really need to be able to cope with the business of how to translate accurately at all times, especially when, as in this case, a passage has something to do with such a notoriously controversial teaching. You’d think by now that we’d be good at accurate translation. But whether it’s translating accurately from Latin texts (not just liturgy, but Vatican documents, which are nearly always translated into English so dire that they are almost impossible to plough one’s way through).

The main priority, you would have thought, is accuracy. If something goes wrong, we need to understand what it was. The Catholic News Agency (or “CathNews”, wince, wince) reported the Ignatius Press Founding Editor, Fr Joseph Fessio (one of my own publishers, and a genuine good egg) as saying that “the Italian version incorrectly translates the German word “Empfängnisregelung.” Although the term literally means “birth regulation,” in a general sense that can signify natural family planning, it is also sometimes used to refer to “birth control” through contraceptive means. According to the Catholic News Agency, however, the Italian version of YouCat doesn’t translate the term according to what Fr Fessio says is its literal meaning. Instead, it renders the German word as as “metodi anticoncezionali,” meaning “contraceptive methods.”

It wasn’t just the Guardian and other secular media outlets who enjoyed the story; it was the “more Catholic than the pope” brigade, what you might call the “alternative magisterium”, some of whom, when the story first broke, immediately jumped to the conclusion that this was all the fault of Cardinal Schoenborn (whom they hate), assuming that the error was in the German original which he supervised.

So: whose fault was all this? According to the credit pages in the book, the Italian edition was translated by Pietro Podolak (who is, I discover, author of that old chick-lit favourite “Soranos von Ephesos, Peri psyches: Sammlung der Testimonien, Kommentar und Einleitung”). Translation revisions were overseen by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, who doesn’t seem to have done his overseeing to any very effective extent. But there were many points at which this error could have been corrected. Why wasn’t it spotted at the copy-editing stage? Or the proof-reading stage? Anyone who has ever seen a book through the Press knows how many stages there are in the publication of a book at which corrections can be made: the simple fact is that this should never have happened: it was sloppy and it was amateurish that it did.

The damage can of course be, to a certain extent, put right; but when this kind of thing happens, there’s always a certain loss of credibility which is never entirely regained. My final grumble is the decision that was taken to pulp the Italian edition and reprint it at iconsiderable expense, rather than to adopt the original solution, which was to insert a correction slip at the appropriate page. Why not stick with that decision? After all, to read the wrong translation, then the right one, would have been an instructive process: first, here’s what the Church doesn’t believe, then, here’s what it does .

Ah, but then, the embarrassment to those who allowed this to happen in the first place would have been enshrined forever, never quite to fade. Well, why not? As a penance for their sloppiness and lack of professionalism, that strikes me as entirely appropriate.

  • Londiniensis

    All true, but shouldn’t the Italian translator, presumably a Catholic, have known that what he had written was definitely not Catholic teaching?

  • Jason Clifford

    While it is true that retaining the original translation with a correction would have served as both instructive for the reader and some form of penance for those who were responsible for allowing the error to come to print it would have been a coercive form of penance unless they themselves chose to take that route.

  • Rory K

    It really is a shame because the book is a wonderful initiative, but bad translations have been the source of Vatican nightmares for a long time…
    Yet again, the hardest working man in the world, Pope Benedict, gets a bomb for a birthday present.

  • W Oddie

    Well, you would have thought so.

  • Anthony Murphy

    Yes, you are right Will. That this got to such a point is sloppy.

  • Jeannine

    “My final grumble is the decision that was taken to pulp the Italian edition and reprint it at iconsiderable expense, rather than to adopt the original solution, which was to insert a correction slip at the appropriate page.”

    I think you forgot what it was like to be a teenager or college student. That correction slip would be torn, mutilated, lost, soiled, doodled on, or written over within 30 minutes after the youngster receives the book. Where will that correction slip be when the young adult finally sits down & seriously reads YouCat in a couple of yrs?

  • CatholicBlogger

    Perhaps the translator knew EXACTLY what he was doing

  • Petrus

    I agree, William. I find the whole thing quite sinister.

  • Duga

    Is Youcat a Catechism or not?, if so, why it is not available free in the Vatican Web with others?; if it is not a Catechism, why is called Catechism for Youth ?. Where there is not distiction there is confusion.

    If it is a Catechims… in the XXI century it is imperative that, such an important document, as it is any kind of Catechism of the Catholic Church, before print, be online, of public access, and under the direct control of the Holy See, thus avoiding even the remote risk that go to the street incorrect paper editions

  • Duga

    From the article: “Sometimes translators get a meaning wrong or editing mistakes are made, Cardinal Schonborn said, and for that reason “we need a second or third edition” that gets reviewed.”

    His Eminence: what about publish first the text in electronic format in the Net, and aft…er, go to the print paper when this text has been reviewed enough ? face to carry safe Doctrine quickly to a great number of young people, should not this method be cheaper and more effective ? and also, perhaps with this method, some quantity of trees could be greatful ?

  • hartwood

    And still, the Catholic Church survives schisms, heretic bishops and now, incompetent if not malicious translators!

  • W Oddie

    Well, even if that cynical view is correct, there were others in the process of publication who failed to spot the fact.

  • W Oddie

    No, not sinister, just incompetent. Only sinister if you’re paranoid. In many ways,that’s very much worse.

  • W Oddie

    You’re probably right.

  • Petrus

    I disagree. I think it’s more than incompetence. How can a complete reversal of what the Church teaches be down to a “mistake” by an incompetent translator? Doesn’t make sense.

  • Profideboostore

    Dr. Oddie, unless I have misunderstood Fr. Finignag and the Roratge Caeli, it would seem that there is another mistranslation further down: ” 421 Why are all methods of preventing the conception of a child not equally good?

    The Church recommends the refined methods of self-observation and natural family planning (NFP) as methods of deliberately regulating conception. These are in keeping with the dignity of man and woman; they respect the innate laws of the female body; they demand mutual affection and consideration and therefore are a school of love. [2370–2372, 2399]

  • Profideboostore

    You are right. It would be naive to say merely incompetence, but ….we must be diplomatic, and count on readers’ capability to read between the lines.

  • AgingPapist

    Translation revisions were overseen by Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice, who doesn’t seem to have done his overseeing to any very effective extent.
    This doesn’t appear to be out of the ordinary for cardinals these days. Maybe we should scrap this House of Jesters in Scarlet, simplify Church procedures, and permit the lower clergy and laity to select their own pastors and bishops. Can the people do a worse job than the pope’s hand-picked bishops today?.

  • Charles Martel

    Yes, Youcat is a rubbish title. Yes, the publishers were irresponsible and the translation was execrable. Yes, Dr Oddie, it is possible to be more Catholic than the Pope. The Pope is a human being. He is a member of the Church. So am I. In his private beliefs he has no guarantee of infallibility and may very well hold heterodox or heretical positions. If I hold to orthodox Catholic teachings on these matters, I am more Catholic than the Pope in those matters. That does not make me the judge of the Pope or his superior in the governance of the Church; neither does it gve me any infallibility when I teach formally on matters of faith or morals. Catholic teaching on papal infallibility and authority is nuanced and much misunderstood. Let’s not take refuge from the prevailing sickness in the Church in an extreme ultramontanism which will ultimately backfire.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe the blunder went un-noticed for lack of a competent proof-reader ? Some bizarre mistakes are made these days, such as “sybilant” for “sibilant” (from a book in English published in the US). The 1979 Neo-Vulgate misprints “arcus” as “acrus” in one of the Prophetic books; which is unconscionable in a Bible – but it is by no means alone in this.

    Since Cardinal Scola’s first language is not English, one should perhaps not be too surprised. It doesn’t help that the general quality of translations of Vatican documents is sloppy compared to what it was 50 years ago these days: trying to read the “General Directory for Catechesis” is like wading through suet, it is so jargon-packed. Cloth ears & insensitivity to shades of meaning seems to be quite commoplace: as in the regular confusion of clerical celibacy with clrerical continence, by people who should know better than to confuse them.

    Perhaps it would be better to leave Latin texts in Latin, until the clergy learn to write proper.

  • Jamie

    William, I hate the waste of pulping and I like the idea of the formative instruction in reading a correction, but you can’t rely on a correction slip remaining with the book. Once that gets lost or simply not referred to, then you have something which is manifestly wrong and dangerous for formation purposes. My solution would be to actually glue a correction slip on to the relevant page, but perhaps that is more time-consuming and costly than a reprint.

  • Mr Grumpy

    To be absolutely precise, “Empfängnisregelung” means “regulation of conception” (rather than birth). But it is certainly NOT a normal term for contraception, and it does not convey the sense of being “anti”-conception.

    I’m afraid you’re dead right about the quality of Vatican translations.

  • Anonymous

    To misquote Mark Twain ( “Be careful about reading catechisms, you may be condemned to hell for all eternity due to a mistranslation”

  • Anonymous

    Exactly! There must be a pretty big albatross on the roof of the Vatican!

  • Ratbag

    Surely, it would have been cheaper to delay the publication of YouCat (yes, it is a dumb title – it reminds me of felines) and employ a proof-reader/top translator to make absoloutely sure that the translations were watertight and in accordance with the Magisterium?

    Rush, rush, rush, rush, rush! More haste, less speed…

    In Ireland, there is a saying – when God made time, he made plenty of it…

  • Virginia

    There’s no reading between the lines here. Anything that is published and goes against Church teaching cannot be anything but an unintentioned error. The Pope does not have personal beliefs contrary to Church teaching. He follows Jesus’ teaching like the rest of us who are not trying to change Christ’s teaching to suit our personal agendas. In Christ’s earthly existence we have read the statement “It’s a hard saying.” This was in regards to the Eucharist. We have heard those words spoken throughout the ages, even today by those who do not want to follow Jesus as He has spoken. Only nowadays, we don’t just walk away because we do not like what we have heard. We spend our energies trying to change the truth or His Church. How unfortunate for everyone.