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

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.


Cover for web