As Pope Francis calls the Church to seek out the poor and marginalized, Argentine writer and translator, Carlos Caso-Rosendi, provides some much needed context.
In “Inherit the Wind, Pentecost and the Breath of God,” a 2011 post for These Stone Walls, I wrote of the account in Acts of the Apostles of how the Church was born amid scandal and chaos. A multitude of people came to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feast of Pentecost, fifty days after the Passover. Acts of the Apostles (2:8) identifies them as Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrygia and Pamphylia, Libyans, Egyptians, Cretens, Arabs, and Romans. In those days, it was only on such rare pilgrimage feasts that a majority of people ever ventured from home to be exposed to cultures and languages other than their own.
In the midst of this multi-lingual chaos in Jerusalem on that day, the Book of Acts (2:2) describes “a mighty wind” that blew through the City. Saint Peter, moved by the Holy Spirit, stood to address a crowd that was stirred against him, accusing the Spirit-inspired Apostles of public drunkenness at 9:00 AM on a major holy feast.
This speech marked the birth of the Catholic Church, and at its birth, a miracle occurred. Despite the multitude of languages, not a word of Peter’s address to the crowd was lost in translation. Every person present heard and understood Peter in his own native tongue. Because of the words and witness of Peter on that Feast of Pentecost, “there were added that day about 3,000 souls” (Acts 2:41).
This account in the Book of Acts serves as a sort of echo in reverse of the Biblical story of the tragedy of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) in which the human family was scattered and divided by a multitude of languages. At the opposite end of the Bible in the Book of Acts, Peter presides over a reuniting of the human family under one language – the language of Christ Crucified, the language of faith. Arising to give voice to the Holy Spirit that day, Peter quoted powerfully from the Prophet Joel:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…” (Acts 2:17 and Joel 2:28)
I have first hand experience of what the City of Jerusalem must have sounded like that day before Peter spoke. The prison I am in is no different from most other U.S. prisons. Minorities, displaced peoples, the poor and marginalized, even the mentally ill, are always far over represented in American prisons. Some of my friends in this prison come from Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, and many from any number of Spanish-speaking countries. But unlike that Pentecost in Jerusalem, none came here for the stated purpose of honoring God, but many now do so with their lives, even in captivity.
How can people thrown together from all these different cultures and backgrounds possibly communicate? They all speak English, some better than others, and I speak only little snippets of their languages. A lot can get lost in translation, but in the language of trust and friendship we understand each other quite well. Cultural and language barriers can be transcended, but not ignored.
THE CONTENT AND CONTEXT OF POPE FRANCIS
This is why literal, word-for-word translations of what is spoken or written in another language are seldom accurate. A literal translation might convey some content, but never context. It is the job of a good translator to convey not only the words spoken, but their deeper meaning for both speaker and listener, writer and reader.
This is the arena of Carlos Caso-Rosendi. Writing from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Carlos has been publishing some astonishing commentary about his countryman, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, known better to the world today as Pope Francis. It was a little jarring at first to read and digest one of Carlos’ recent comments on my post, “Pope Francis Has a Challenge for the Prodigal Son’s Older Brother.” Here is a compelling excerpt from Carlos about the field of the Lord from which this Pope comes to serve the Church:
“Here in Buenos Aires we have seen Padre Bergoglio come out of a van any freezing night at 3 a.m. to set up a table with hot soup and coffee for the prostitutes of Flores, the neighborhood where he was born. Not a word of reproach or a sermon, just a cup of hot soup, a smile. Then someone picks up a cup and whispers in his ear; he walks aside and hears her confession, dries a torrent of tears, whispers something that the penitent assents to, sobbing. I know it seems bizarre…but Someone told us that angels rejoice when something like that happens no matter how bizarre it may look here on Earth. The absolution of the good thief on Calvary was no model of sacramental propriety either, but it worked.” (Carlos Caso-Rosendi, These Stone Walls)
Angels rejoiced when our Lord did these very same things, and I imagine those same angels grimaced when the Pharisees sneered and judged Him by the company he sometimes kept. And as for that “good thief,” well, I wrote of him once in “Dismas, Crucified to the Right: Paradise Lost and Found.” That was each one of us crucified there to the right of Christ, facing clearly in the presence of His sacrifice our dark wood of error, and, in spite of it, the doorway to Glory just then opening for us whose ancestors wandered in sin, banished East of Eden.
That exchange between the Cross of Christ and the cross of Dismas were the latter’s last and only earthly moments with the Lord. Nailed by sin to his own cross, Dismas was moved by grace not to squander those moments in mockery like his fellow traveler in sin on the cross to the left of Christ. Nothing was lost in translation between Christ and Dismas.
No matter how long we live on this Earth, we, too, are living our last earthly moments with the Lord. I will not spend mine in mockery and pride from my own cross, but there are some who insist on doing so. It is time for the Church – for us – to put aside trepidation and listen closely to the Vicar of Christ, not only to his content, but to his context.
This is where Carlos Caso-Rosendi comes in. Pope Francis does not need a translator, but the American news media sure does, and that includes the Catholic press. As a writer, linguist and translator, Carlos is uniquely qualified to translate for the English-speaking world the words and wisdom of Pope Francis without the disaster of the sort of literal translation the news media – even sometimes the Catholic press – seems to employ. Carlos sent a striking example in early October:
“Wandering about the web this morning, I found some pretty hostile comments on the alleged heresy of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now known to the world as Pope Francis. Hearing some of the first controversies about the Pope’s remarks, I wrongly attributed the reaction to his lack of clarity. Many of us Argentines are less than clear when communicating ideas …To make things more complicated, he is the offspring of a Piedmont family, and a first generation Argentine who grew up in Buenos Aires…”
The context that was lost in translation in the example Carlos sent appeared in an article by a well known Catholic apologist in a respected Catholic newspaper. In an October interview, Pope Francis was quoted as saying in his Argentine-influenced Italian,
“II figlio di Dio si e’ incarnato per infondere nell’anima degli uomini il sentimento della fratellanza.”
Carlos pointed out that the Catholic writer’s translation of this was literal, apparently obtained from using a Google translation, and it came out as “The Son of God became incarnate in the souls of men to instill the feeling of brotherhood.” This made the Pope sound as though he were about to co-author a book with Deepak Chopra. The correct translation, Carlos pointed out, should have been, “The Son of God became incarnate to instill in the soul of man the sentiment of brotherhood.” There is nothing at all questionable about such a call to community.
Carlos has sent me a number of examples of how the news media has misinterpreted this Pope, and of how some Catholics have subsequently become confused, and, as I wrote last week, even alarmed. I cannot help but conclude that the media, and the Catholic press especially, would do well to seek out Carlos Caso-Rosendi before publishing translations of the words of this Pope. Literal translations without context are a great disservice to Pope Francis and to all Catholics.
I first mentioned Carlos in my post, “Strike the Shepherd: Behind the Campaign to Smear the Pope.” After the election of Pope Francis, the National Catholic Register published an article by Carlos entitled, “He Walks with Mary and St. Francis,” and I described it in that post. It filled me with hope and joy about this papacy. All that Francis has done and said since, when properly translated with both content and context, has only strengthened that hope.
BEHOLD THE MAN!
After writing some of this post, I received something quite remarkable in the mail, something that both moved me beyond words and confused me beyond comprehension. Carlos Caso-Rosendi has written a powerful article about me. But it was written first in Spanish. My Spanish is both rusty and basic, but no problem! I have friends in this prison from Honduras, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, and I knew they would step up.
Each offered to translate the article for me, but each also struggled to do so. The Argentine-influenced nuances and phrases were just impossible for them to translate into English, so what each of them came up with made little sense. Their translations were literal, and vastly different from each other. This really brought home for me the tragedy of how Pope Francis can become lost in translation for the English-speaking world, and of the great service Carlos Caso-Rosendi could perform for the Church and the news media. Spread that around!
Meanwhile, Carlos translated masterfully his article about me into both English and Portuguese, and it has circulated widely in South America. He republished it in English on October 26. The person who sent it to me wrote that with the exception of “The Trials of Father MacRae” by Dorothy Rabinowitz in The Wall Street Journal last May, this article by Carlos Caso-Rosendi is the clearest and most poignant commentary yet on this story. And lest you think that such a sentiment might slight a good writer like Ryan MacDonald, it was Ryan who wrote those words.
The article is “Behold the Man!” published at CasoRosendi.com. Please read it and share it with others. Carlos reflected on some hard truths about American justice, but he ended his article with a question for the Church. It’s a question that has haunted all 19 years of my imprisonment. More than false witness, more than prison itself in all its dehumanizing brutality, it is the answer to that question that I dread most.
So please read “Behold the Man!” and share it with others in any of the languages in which Carlos Caso-Rosendi wrote it. One TSW reader asked whether Pope Francis might see it. Perhaps he will, but only if it spreads amid the Catholic online world. You could help with that, and with spreading a link to this post. Let’s stop letting a misinformed media translate Pope Francis for us.