Lost In Translation

In my job, people are forever telling me that my approach to the English language is all wrong. I believe that grammar, spelling, and punctuation carry equal importance with the ideas that a writer expresses. They claim that my insistence on correctness is, at best, backward, and, at worst, hateful and possibly racist. They say spelling is obsolete “since we have spell check,” and that grammar and punctuation are unimportant “because there is just so much information out there.”

I maintain that, in the era of BIG DATA, grammar, spelling, and punctuation have become more important than ever before. When only professionals wrote for public consumption, we could feel safe that they possessed the organizational skills and precision of presentation to tell us exactly what they meant. Now, anyone can transmit anything to an audience of indeterminate size. If they do it sloppily, our entire informational existence will become “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There is no electronic shortcut that can tell us what a person is really thinking. That Shakespeare guy really knew a thing or two, didn’t he?

On one end of the spectrum lie the small, careless, ignorant errors: Hot Dog’s $1. I never understood that one. It’s actually more trouble to do it wrong. Or the graffiti on my grammar school walls: Class of “83.” As if it really were some other year. In a recent article from Sky & Telescope on line, Bob King and/or the editorial staff wrote it’s as a possessive. You don’t put an apostrophe in his or hers, do you?

“So what,” you’re asking. “It doesn’t matter as long as everyone knows what you mean.” Well, that’s where the lack of discipline required to produce correct grammar has greater consequences. Consider, if you will, the recent controversy between the Pope and Donald Trump. When asked about Trump’s proposed wall to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing into the United States illegally, Pope Francis made a statement which was translated into English by the Vatican Press Office. It said:

And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

That’s interesting, and not only because Trump call himself Presbyterian, not Catholic.


“All I want is a wall. Is that too much to ask?”

If the translation represents the Pope’s words accurately, then the Holy Father has blundered. His job consists of guiding believers in the areas of faith and morals. This means he acts as Christ’s representative on Earth, telling the world proper beliefs and how to  act on those beliefs. He could certainly say that a person’s actions or words were not Christian. He could recommend someone seek forgiveness for a transgression against another person. But he, as a human being, cannot judge another person. If actions could permanently disqualify a person from God’s grace, the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation would not exist. In addition, many people misunderstand this sacrament itself. The priest in the confessional does not forgive the sin; only God can do that.

So, what if the pundits are correct, and the Pope’s words were mistranslated? John Leo believes that the English version of Latin and Italian thoughts might be inaccurate.


“That’s not what I said!”

He seems to be offering a typical modern excuse for an important theological misstatement. But that’s also quite dangerous. Catholics who do not speak Italian or Latin depend on this translation service to deliver the Pope’s guidance to them. Hiding behind poor translation is sloppy and irresponsible. Some might argue that certain words do not translate exactly from one language to another. Exact translation produces different nuances of meaning. If this is such a case, the Vatican Press Office has a responsibility to tell us what the Pope meant by his words. I have a hard time, though, believing that they could not differentiate between criticism of an statement and judgement of a person.

So let’s all focus and get these things right, shall we?

New Anti-Defamation League Needed?

Over this past summer, two different people showed me articles relating to Pope Francis and his remarks about the Earth’s changing climate. I was initially pleased that both articles appeared supportive of the pontiff, an unusual phenomenon in the American press. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they did so in a way that, at best, showed a misunderstanding of Catholicism and, at worst, perpetuate negative stereotypes of the religion. Let me take you through my thought process.

On June 22nd, NPR.org published an essay by Tania Lombrozo on the need for modern philosophers to help society work through ethical questions raised by advancing science and evolving values. You can read the full article here. The following paragraphs caught my eye:

Issue No. 3: Pope Francis released a statement identifying climate change as a global problem, though one that will disproportionately affect the poor. He urged developed countries to limit the use of nonrenewable energy sources and help other countries on a path to sustainable development.

As Adam Frank pointed out in his 13.7 post last week, when it comes to the origins of climate change, the science is more or less settled. “It’s no longer really about the science,” he writes. Instead: “The leader of one of the world’s major religions is injecting something into the debate that has mostly been missing: the question of values.”

That sounds pretty positive, right? Still, something about it bothered me, although I could not put my finger on exactly what.

Then I read the article entitled “The Pope vs. El Niño & The Nino” on Dr. Christopher Kukk’s site. Here is the link. Dr. Kukk argues that the Pope, in his Laudato Si’ encyclical, uses science to explain the state of the world when he discusses climate change and the evidence of human factors in it. So what’s the problem with that?

The Pope’s job is not to explain the world in a scientific way. Think about the most famous time when that happened, and how Galileo’s astronomical findings unintentionally drove a wedge between science and religion.


Catholic doctrine holds the Pope infallible on matters of faith and morals, not science (or the weather or the lottery, for that matter). When Francis speaks about science, he is speaking as a man, not a religious leader. As Pope, he (properly) directs the conversation toward values, ethics, and consequent behaviors. The point of a papal encyclical is not to settle the debate as to the veracity of scientific findings. The point is to answer the question, “If this is true, how should we behave?”

The real message from Francis: since the world has been entrusted to the care of humans, we have a responsibility not to ruin it. Both Ms. Lombrozo and Dr. Kukk hint at this, but their statements that the Pope has confirmed that humans cause climate change go too far. As  Ross Douthat observed in “Will Pope Francis Break the Church?” (The Atlantic, May 2015), liberal journalists seem overly-eager to read their own values into Francis’ statements. To me, Lombrozo and Kukk are saying, “This must be true. Even the reactionary Catholics have to believe it now.” (Perhaps Francis will get with the program and promote abortion soon?) They should remember that the universe is not under any obligation to listen to public opinion.

I see an even stronger distortion in Dr. Kukk’s comments about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (“The Nino” from his article’s title). He contrasts the Pope’s acknowledgement of science with what he sees as Scalia’s denial of it. Kukk relates excerpts from an address Scalia gave to a high school graduating class. Here is part of the speech:

Class of 2015, you should not leave Stone Ridge High School thinking that you face challenges that are at all, in any important sense, unprecedented. Humanity has been around for at least some 5,000 years or so, and I doubt that the basic challenges as confronted are any worse now, or alas even much different, from what they ever were.

Kukk implies that this was an irresponsible statement since it promoted religious values and denied the fossil evidence for millions of years of primate evolution. He jabs, “I was under the impression that justices were in the habit of weighing all evidence when making decisions.”

See the problem with this? Scalia was not interpreting the Constitution or establishing legal precedent when he spoke. He was giving advice and inspiration to young people leaving school and heading out into the world. I doubt that the most important message a graduation speaker could give would be, “Reject the theory of evolution.”

I propose a scenario in which Scalia’s words are spot-on and highly-appropriate. Homo sapiens sapiens have been around for an extremely long time, on the order of a couple of hundred thousand years. (Dr. Kukk even acknowledges that Catholic doctrine does not promote creationism.) But they spent most of those years as hunter-gatherers in small, nomadic social groups.


(“Hey guys, do you think they’ll ever talk about us at a graduation?”)

Then, about 7,000 years ago, in the midst of a drastic climate change I’m pretty sure was not caused by automobiles and hair spray, droughts forced humans to cluster around rivers as water sources. There, they learned irrigation and planned agriculture. This produced stable population centers where, by 5,000 years ago (where have I heard that figure before?) the first great city-states arose.

I think the lessons learned from living in urban conditions, close to people with selfish desires and opposing viewpoints, would be much more valuable for today’s young people than anything learned in a hundred millennia of hunter-gathering. Scalia’s message: when you go out into the real world, don’t worry; you won’t encounter anything humans have not dealt with before.

When I see Dr. Kukk’s criticism of Justice Scalia juxtaposed with his somewhat-inaccurate praise of Pope Francis, I cannot help but be left with the feeling that he’s saying, “Not even the Catholics are as bad as the conservatives on the Supreme Court!” This reduces Catholic beliefs to nothing more than a benchmark of unacceptability. I guess tolerance does not extend to ideas that differ from mainstream American liberal values.

Remember, the only true diversity is diversity of thought.