Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Another tendentious translation: Veterum Sapientia

Bl. Pope John XXIII
The more I use the Vatican website, the more I am aware of its limitations. It has, of course, a vast number of documents, in a range of languages, but the inconsistencies and omissions are frustrating. And then, perhaps it's just paranoia, but I begin to wonder if some of these omissions are deliberate. At least, that there is an attitude among some people working on these things that certain documents, which for example promote the use of Latin, needn't be translated, or that certain key passages needn't be translated accurately.

I've already noted that the English version of the Code of Canon Law softens the Latin requirement on seminarians: instead of being 'very skilled in' ('bene calleant'), they are only required to 'understand it well'. 'Calleo' does not, and cannot, mean 'understand'.

In the same post I also noted that Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter 'Sacrificium Laudis' is on the website only in Latin, and, er, Italian. This heartfelt plea for the retention of Latin in the Office, addressed to the Superiors of Religious Orders, was completely ignored, with exactly the disastrous results for vocations which the document itself predicted. You'll have to go the LMS website to read it.

Astonishingly, the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum still has no official English translation; if you look at the list of documents, it is available only in Latin and, er, Hungarian. The only semi-official English version is the one produced by the Vatican Information Service, whose deficiencies (some now corrected) were the subject of much discussion at the time of its promulgation.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing of all is that Bl. Pope John XXIII's Apostolic Constitution 'Veterum Sapientia' of 1962, promoting the use of Latin, is not available in English, but only Latin and, er, Spanish. Among different categories of papal document (Motu Proprios, Instructions, Apostolic Letters, Encyclical Letters, Apostolic Constitutions) this type has the highest solemnity and importance. As well (in this case) as having a teaching function addressed to the whole world, it has a legislative function. In the case, it contains specific, numbered commands to bishops and others. A recent Apostolic Constitution we are all familiar with is 'Anglicanorum Coetibus'.

It is not as though English translations are not available. One was produced shortly after its promulgation by the CTS, by a certain Rev H.E. Winstone, M.A., and as far as I can see this is the one on the  Adoremus and Papal Encylcicals Online websites. At least I think so, because this version has the same howlingly awful translation of a key passage (I haven't compared the whole thing line by line).

The Latin:

Suae enim sponte naturae lingua Latina ad provehendum apud populos quoslibet omnem humanitatis cultum est peraccommodata: cum invidiam non commoveat, singulis gentibus se aequabilem praestet, nullius partibus faveat, omnibus postremo sit grata et amica

The Winstone translation gives this as:

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every form of culture among peoples. It gives rise to no jealousies. It does not favor any one nation, but presents itself with equal impartiality to all and is equally acceptable to all.

Really? Does 'grata et amica' mean 'acceptable'? You don't have to be an Olympic Latinist to see something odd is going on here. Furthermore, where does 'equally' come from? It seems to have been left over from 'aequabilem praestet' two clauses earlier. ('Postremo' just means 'finally', 'to sum up'.)

Another website presents a much better translation (though wrongly saying that the document is an encyclical).

Of its very nature Latin is most suitable for promoting every culture among diverse peoples, for it gives no rise to jealousies, it does not favor any one group, but presents itself with equal impartiality, gracious and friendly to all. 

Why was Winstone so reluctant to translate what Bl Pope John actually said? The importance of Latin does not boil down to some tedious practical consideration, that it is 'equally acceptable to all', like, I suppose, Esperanto (one might think: and also equally unacceptable!) No: Latin is gracious and friendly, it is part of our universal Catholic culture, it is its beauty, majesty, and sacred dignity which raises it above other languages for our attention.

Come to the LMS Latin course to experience it for yourself! July 23-29.


  1. Why on earth would you see Esperanto as unacceptable. Esperanto may not be perfect, but I've used it successfully in Africa, South America and Europe, and it does the job.

  2. I didn't. Read it again.

    If you are talking about having the liturgy in artificial languages, that's a question I don't broach.

    1. I have read and re-read your words,and, whether you intended it, like it or not, you are saying that Esperanto is unacceptable. Please forgive me if I am guilty of misinterpretation.

      Incidentally, I don't see Esperanto and Latin as rivals. How could they be? They operate in different domains.

      I acknowledge that you raise an important point here about the importance of translations from Latin being available and not being made in a tendentious way.

    2. It says: 'The importance of Latin does not boil down to some tedious practical consideration, that it is 'equally acceptable to all', like, I suppose, Esperanto (one might think: and also equally unacceptable!) '

      I think your misunderstanding derives from imagining that 'one might add, equally unacceptable' applies only to Esperanto, not also to Latin. There is no reason, as far as I can see, in Logic or grammar why this should be so. My point is that an 'equally acceptable' language could equally be described as an 'equally unacceptable' language: it would be a language which is no more difficult for each of a number of different parties. Like a meeting place which is 'mutually convenient' - or 'mutually inconvenient'.

  3. You say that Esperanto is "equally unacceptable" but you do not say why.

    I am glad however that the Pope does not dismiss the language.

    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sahiIBTUcC4&context=C4712375ADvjVQa1PpcFPexqXF5OxfBX3jYLo2JoSBjO2AyJ6PEis=

  4. Joe has made a very important point about the way certain Vatican documents might be being selectively edited and translated. It is a discovery that has important ramifications for all concerned with the restoration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and the promotion of Latin in the liturgy. With all due respect, the merits of Esperanto have really nothing to do with it!

  5. Joseph, may I ask what prior knowledge of Latin is needed by those who may wish to attend the LMS course? I cannot see anything about this on the website. I realise this is perhaps an odd place to post such a request for information, but I thank you for your help!

  6. None! Students will be divided into 'Beginners' and non-beginners: basically those with some Latin already. The Beginners group is usually the larger one.