Translating Bergoglio

Can you believe it's only been about two months since Pope Francis was elected?  We've been getting to know him through his papal homilies, and books about him are starting to appear on the shelves.  Pray For Me: The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis by Robert Moynihan was released a few weeks ago; and as of yesterday, you can pre-order Encountering Christ: Homilies, Letters, and Addresses of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.   Encountering Christ will be released at the end of May.

My sister, Devra Torres, who blogs at The Personalist Project, did one of the many layers of translation and editing for Encountering Christ, so I asked her a few questions about her experience working so closely with the words of Pope Francis.


What does the book cover?

It's a collection of homilies, letters, and addresses.  It's not a retrospective; it's mostly recent stuff.


Did you know anything about Pope Francis before you read his works?

Like almost everybody else, I had never heard of him.  He had only been pope for a few weeks.  I had read little snippets here and there on the internet.  For this book, I was on a tight deadline, the schedule was pretty intense, and I was constantly thinking, "I'm glad it's this interesting!  It's really worth putting into English."

There are two very different kinds of writing here: the homilies addressed to the general public, some of which are almost like pep rallies.  He gets the people engaged, and it's very accessible to everybody.  These were the easiest to edit.  Then I got to the letters addressed to bishops and realized, "Whoa, this is serious theology."  He so well-versed, it got a lot more complicated.

But where he really shines is when he’s addressing his own people, trying to wake people up -- not say nice things and believe the right things, and receive the sacraments when they're supposed to, but to wake up and realize what's demanded by all this talk.


Did anything surprise you about his words?

He gets very specific.  In one address to priests, he encourages them to go out meet the people where they actually are, and not to be preoccupied with how far they are from where they should be.  Not to have low standards or water anything down, but to have a realistic idea of where they are. He was giving this homily to priests in Buenos Aires, and speaking about an area where there are hardly any priests at all, and he said something like, "So I hope some of you will find it in your heart to go there. Maybe God is calling you to help this one particular parish.  Probably when you hear this, you'll think about why it doesn't make sense for you, but don't let those negative thoughts dominate."

He really wants to get people out of the mindset of taking some people seriously and taking others less seriously.  It's not just a cliché about how God loves both the rich and the poor.  Francis sees so much in everybody, it makes you want to see it, too. 

He's so specific and insistent, but affectionate, too.  And he's not going to let you get away with just paying lip service.  He says things like, "So, what about your ageing parents, what about your mother-in-law?  What about your old father in the nursing home, who says the same thing over and over again?  Go visit him this Sunday afternoon."


Now that you're more familiar with his work, have you ever seen the Pope being quoted and thought to yourself, “That doesn’t sound like him.  I bet that’s a bad translation”?

Yes, definitely.  I once read that the Pope said something about how we must tear down the structures that the Church has set up over the centuries..  I thought it sounded funny, so I went and checked the Spanish.  He didn't say anything like that.  He said that we don't want to be preoccupied and imprisoned within the structures of the Church, so that we forget to go out and meet people where they are.  He has no disrespect for tradition. He doesn't emphasize relationships at the expense of tradition.  He doesn't say anything like that, but some people are ready to believe that he does.

No one really expected him, so many translations were done in a rush! The translator's presuppositions can creep into translations unintentionally; they're not necessarily malicious.


Is there any one particular audience that you hope will read this book?

It would be really helpful for people who have preconceptions about this pope.  It would be really helpful for people who have preconceptions about what "social justice Catholics" are.  Or anyone who has preconceptions about South Americans, or Jesuits!  He will sometimes use a language that we in the United States might associate with mushy-mindedeness:  words like "encounter" and "dialogue."  Red flags may go up, but people should keep reading.  He challenges people to pay attention to the poor, and people may have a knee jerk reaction that's he's all about social justice, and doesn't care about doctrine.  But you can't pigeonhole him like that.  For instance, in his message to catechists, he urges them not to water the Faith down.  He tells them not to just 'transmit values to the youth,' as if that's all we can hope for.

It's a radical, alarming call to live the things we say we believe.  But he's not at all severe.  He sees it as an adventure you'll be glad you took on.  He's a little pushy, very practical.  But he's affectionate, and even apologizes.  He says things like, "Forgive me for being insistent; I'm just trying to do what the Holy Spirit wants."

He's very cheerful! He has one lung, he's old enough that he thought he'd to be safe from being made Pope.  But he tells us to accept the adventure.  Who knows what will happen to you?  Do it anyway.  And he's very credible:  he's lived this way.