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A Reflection on the Translation of the Synod

Nov 2014

Language|Translation ,


Last month the Vatican published the final document from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. The document was published both in its original Italian and in English.

The document would have ordinarily have elicited little media attention save for a particularly glaring omission that came at the end of the final document’s introduction. The two versions are as follows:


“Alla luce dello stesso discorso abbiamo raccolto i risultati delle nostre riflessioni e dei nostri dialoghi nelle seguenti tre parti: l’ascolto, per guardare alla realtà della famiglia oggi, nella complessità delle sue luci e delle sue ombre; lo sguardo fisso sul Cristo per ripensare con rinnovata freschezza ed entusiasmo quanto la rivelazione, trasmessa nella fede della Chiesa, ci dice sulla bellezza, sul ruolo e sulla dignità della famiglia; il confronto alla luce del Signore Gesù per discernere le vie con cui rinnovare la Chiesa e la società nel loro impegno per la famiglia fondata sul matrimonio tra uomo e donna.”


“With these words in mind, we have gathered together the results of our reflections and our discussions in the following three parts: listening, looking at the situation of the family today in all its complexities, both lights and shadows; looking, our gaze is fixed on Christ to re-evaluate, with renewed freshness and enthusiasm, what revelation, transmitted in the Church’s faith, tells us about the beauty and dignity of the family; and facing the situation, with an eye on the Lord Jesus, to discern how the Church and society can renew their commitment to the family.”

Even without fluency in Italian, you can notice discrepancies between the two versions. The final part of original Italian roughly translates to “…in their commitment to the family based on marriage between a man and a woman.” The bolded phrases is entirely omitted from the English translation.

The Vatican insists this was merely a mistranslation. However, this explanation is hard to take seriously. Omitting a phrase of that significance is hardly matter of delicate implication and inference but rather of wholesale change.

A Strained Relationship

In the days before the publication of the final document in the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis adopted a significantly more welcoming tone, speaking publicly of the “gifts and qualities” that homosexuals may have to offer. While this is hardly liberal in a general sense it is significant when taken in the context of the Church’s strict conservatism.

Internally the Synod has presumably been a fractious affair with progressive bishops pushing for greater inclusion and conservative bishops resolutely sticking to the traditional Vatican lines. While the majority of these discussions take place in private, the publication of these documents provides a glimpse into the inner workings of the Catholic Church.

And this newest omission follows a very public rewording of an earlier document. A passage in the original Italian reads: “Accogliere le persone omosessuali” – literally, “to welcome homosexual persons”. The translation elicited a particularly vocal response from bishops and the wording of the English version was changed to: “Providing for homosexual persons”.

The original Italian remained unchanged.

A Battlefield of Language

There seems to be two explanations for this spate of recent mistranslations: one, translators are human and do make mistakes; or two, that Vatican politics adopted translation as a tool.

Catholic author Robert Royal believes the latter to be the preferable explation. He said: “Among the current uncertainties in the Church, the ‘mistranslations’ have all leaned in the last two years in the direction of progressive views. That certainly tells us something.”

Are these mistranslations simply errors or do they represent a more politicised role for translation in religious politicking?

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