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270 Bishops, 13 Languages and One Big Translation Debate!

They may all belong to the same church, uphold the same biblical scripture and follow the same moral code but the 270 catholic bishops meeting at the Vatican this month are divided on several topics. One of the main quarrels is centred on the translation of a document that will be presented to Pope Francis. The 270 bishops are split into 13 different languages which causes issues when final documents have to be translated. The document shares ideas about how the teachings of the Catholic Church can integrate with modern day society and resonate with social feeling.

The final version of the document will be written in the lingua franca of the Catholic Church, which is Italian.   However until recently Latin was the chosen language for the Synod to produce documents.   The Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has brought up the problems this switch has caused.

“One of the difficulties we had, as we looked at the document, was some of the bishops wanted to analyse it word by word. And it isn’t the official document, we have the English translation, which in some ways doesn’t match the Italian”, Chaput passionately explained at a news conference in the Vatican.

Many of the bishops felt that the different unofficial versions were not matching up, causing the overreaching official documents to be inconclusive in their message. Some bishops argued these uncertainties in translation have and will stem ideological repercussions. An example of this was at last year’s synod, where a mistranslation about the churches views on gay and lesbian rights caused a media stir. The Italian word for “to welcome” was translated into “to provide” in the American bishops versions of the document.

The problem may run deeper than just accidental mistranslations and some believe that translations are being manipulated to appease conservative English speaking Bishops.  Faggioli, an expert on Catholic theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota delves further into the issue, “In the previous synods, nobody was complaining about the accurateness, or not, of the translations of the texts, because in the previous synods those texts didn’t matter at all,” Faggioli says. “But now, these texts matter,” Faggioli explains. “Bishops know that if they vote on one text or another that might change the direction of the Catholic Church on some teachings, which was not something anybody was thinking about under Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict.”

Pope Francis is trying to encourage a decentralised church, where bishops are encouraged to speak out and ignite change in relation to issues like gay and lesbian rights, which have previously been brushed under the carpet. Faggiloli explains that for traditional Bishops, including the conservative American contingent, using the language change to Italian is just another tool to fight against a more liberal and open debate system.

Despite this Faggiloi argues that it makes sense for Italian to be the official language of the Catholic Church. After all Latin is a dying language and English is the default language for international business and Western capitalism. Italian is seen as more politically unbiased and thus should resonate with a larger audience.

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