Friday, March 08, 2013

That motto again

Perhaps this is incredibly boring, but I have been running a low-level campaign against the absurd and demeaning mistranslation of Cardinal Manning's motto which is to be found in Westminster Cathedral's 'Treasures of the Cathedral' exhibition. I've taken this campaign up from Fr John Hunwicke, who first picked up the howler.

One exhibit is his rather splendid cope, with his coat of arms and motto on it. The motto is: Malo mori quam foedari. The little information card in the display case tells visitors that this means 'I would rather die than compromise'.

This translation is reminiscent of the 'Dumb Britain' column in Private Eye; after rolling on the floor laughing at the stupidity of the translator, one picks oneself up to say 'er, so what does it actually mean?'

It actually means this: 'I would rather die than be dishonoured'.

'Malo' means 'I prefer'; 'mori' (present infinitive, it looks funny because this is a deponent verb [don't ask]), means 'to die'; 'quam' is used in a comparison, it means 'than'; 'foedari' (passive infinitive), 'to be dishonoured'.

John Browne
Having pointed this out to the Cathedral authorities and not got very far, I was further annoyed to see the mistranslation repeated in Oremus, the Cathedral's magazine, in their January issue this year. To be fair to them, after receiving my howls of protest they printed a correction in the next issue. But what was interesting is that they were quoting a book about the cathedral published in 1995, 'Building of Faith'. It is a fair assumption that the people setting up the exhibition took the translation of the motto from this book - if they were going to come up with head-bangingly bad translation themselves, they probably would have come up with something different. (Maybe: 'I'd rather be dishonoured than go to Trent'). I also suspect that the fact that they got it from a book increases their reluctance to admit that the translation is wrong. (Hey, there it is in print!)

So who is responsible for this book? Step forward John Browne, the first of its two editors, a former Headmaster of the Westminster Choir School. Last weekend's Catholic press reported that, having been Deputy Headmaster of Ampleforth, he will be taking up the post of Headmaster of St Aloysius' College, Glasgow, this Summer.

So here's something for the boys and girls of St Aloysius to consider, as they sweat over their Latin. Their new headmaster can't recognise a passive infinitive, or for that matter use a Latin dictionary. (He has presumably confused 'foedari', a permutation of foedo, foedare, with 'foedus', which means 'league, treaty, compact', and then let his imagination run away with him.)

I'd be more inclined to forgive the error except for the fact that Mr Browne's incompetence in the language of the Church is shared by so many others that his mistake is still being repeated nearly two decades after his book was published. This really is the blind leading the blind.

If you want to break out of the spiral of ignorance, sign up for the LMS Latin Course!


  1. I don't know the politics of John Browne, but perhaps his mistranslation might be better understood as an attempt at providing a more 'relevant' rendering of the motto by using a little dynamic equivalence. It wouldn't be hard to imagine the reaction of the average Catholic bureaucrat today: '"I'd rather die than be dishonoured". Oh that sounds so feudal, so integriste, not at all appealing to the sentiments of modern man. Let's just say "I'd rather die than be untrue to my values" or something like that.' I don't know that this is true, but it doesn't strike me as a wholly implausible interpretation.

    1. Well he could at least have translated it 'I'd rather die than be compromised'.

  2. Dr Shaw's theory about how the bloomer happened is, I'm sure, right. People think they can pick up a Latin Dictionary and somehow cobble together a translation. You can't; not least because 95% of the meaning is in the bits at the end of a word, called inflexions, which the dictionary won't help you with. But the LMS Latin course will!

    The worst offenders are Art Historians, who have blockbuster exhibitions in London and sell expensive glossy books in which there is howler after howler. I suspect they are too ashamed to admit they need help ... like people with certain sorts of medical conditions ... so they just carry on ... but the tell-tale signs give them away ... er ...