ROME – A new uproar has occurred over the translation of Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical on human fraternity.
Fratelli Tutti has been literally translated from the Italian into “All Brothers” in English, with some arguing that the phrase is exclusive of women. However, one person who has worked on translating Vatican and papal documents has said the choice of the title has little to do with sensitivities but is the result of standard Vatican protocol.
The person didn’t work on Fratelli Tutti, but is familiar with the process of translating an encyclical.
Speaking to Crux on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the press, the Vatican translator said, “the title is in the context, it’s not like you’re writing something and then choose the title of your book. They always go with the first two or three words, three if it’s an article or a conjunction.”
Pointing to past examples, this person cited Pope Francis’s 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, texts from the Second Vatican Council such as Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium, and Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, noting that in each case, the title came from the first words of the document.
“They’re not going to edit or change that practice,” the person said, adding that in the context of the new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, “they are far less likely to change the words of Francis of Assisi,” who is the namesake of Pope Francis.
What will likely happen, they said, is that “they will say these are the words of St. Francis of Assisi, but it’s certainly not intended to be anti-feminist by any stretch of the imagination.”
Although this person has not seen the English version of Fratelli Tutti, they said their understanding of the document “is quite the opposite, that this is supposed to be about human solidarity, and I think it’s going to be a bookend to Laudato Si.”
It was announced on Sept. 5 that the new encyclical would be signed by Pope Francis during an Oct. 3 visit to Assisi, the eve of the saint’s feast. It is expected that the encyclical will be published in the days immediately after the pope signs it.
The title of the encyclical appears in a passage in the Admonitions of St. Francis, under number six, which reads: “Let us all, brothers, look to the Good Shepherd who suffered the passion of the Cross to save his sheep.”
“The sheep of the Lord followed him in tribulation and persecution, in insult and hunger, in infirmity and temptation, and in everything else and they have received everlasting life from the Lord because of these things,” the passage continues. “Therefore, it is a great shame for us, servants of God, that while the saints (actually) did such things, we wish to receive glory and honor by [merely] recounting their deeds.”
Immediately after the announcement, there was an uproar among certain church camps who argued that the title “All Brothers” was exclusive, pointing to it as another example of the Catholic Church’s misogynistic attitude toward women.
However, in terms of being chosen for the title of a papal document, the person who has done translations said that when looking at the original Italian text of Francis of Assisi’s admonitions, “in that context it’s clear that what Francis is talking about is the Friars minor as a microcosm of the Church.”
The translator noted that in Italian, the plural word fratelli is “inclusive,” and is implies both “brothers and sisters.” However, the translator also noted it has become common practice for the pope to greet pilgrims by saying, “cari fratelli e sorelle,” meaning, “dear brothers and sisters,” implying that he understands the sensitivity.
In the context of the quote in the encyclical, the person said the critical aspect in translating the phrase comes from its context, and in this case, St. Francis was speaking to his brother friars.
“There are other documents in which Francis addresses both the friars and the sisters, but in this one he’s really just admonishing the guys, it’s a, ‘this is how you’re to live life when I’m gone,’ sort of thing,” the person said.
The person also noted it is also common practice to use pre-existing translations when translating quotes, rather than come up with an original version.
“It’s an archaic use” of the phrase, this person said, “but as the Holy Father has for his entire pontificate, of course he means both men and women in this.”
Pointing to Laudato Si as an example, this person noted that the first line of the English version opened with the Italian phrase, Laudato Si, mi Signore, and then the translated phrase, “Praise be to you, my Lord,” afterward.
“My guess would be that they’ll quote correctly from the document and my hope would be that there would be a footnote saying that this is the context. There probably will be,” the person said, adding, “I don’t think they’re going to change the words of St. Francis of Assisi … they’re not going to change the words of a saint.”
No matter what happens, “they won’t leave that brothers and sisters part out,” the person said, noting that there is an extensive vetting process for high-profile documents such as an encyclical, meaning that if there was something in a translation that could potentially be problematic, it would be caught.
“There are different standards for different things around the Vatican. Some of them are very closely paid attention to, like an encyclical, because it’s the highest level and they are very, very careful,” the person said, noting that both the Vatican’s Secretariat of State and the authoritative Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will look at the translations before they are published.
This person said that when they have been asked to do translations, they are typically part of a committee that has been assigned to the task, meaning there are several translators working on different parts of the document, which is done in part to prevent leaks, and also to speed up the process. Someone then reads over the final version to ensure continuity.
Those who are asked to do translations “generally have some theological sophistication,” the person said, meaning the translators have usually completed at least a first-level theology degree and are also fluent in Italian as well as the language they are translating into.
An important aspect of Pope Francis’s encyclicals, this person said, is that while most papal documents are titled in Latin, the pope’s encyclicals thus far have all been titled in Italian, apart from his first, Lumen Fidei, published in 2013 but which was a project of retired Pope Benedict XVI that Francis finished after his predecessor’s resignation.
Rather than the question of inclusivity and women, the far more interesting question regarding this encyclical, this person said, is why Pope Francis made the decision to again name it after a quotation from St. Francis of Assisi, and why he is choosing to keep the titles in Italian, rather than in Latin: Laudato Si coming from the saint’s “Canticle of the Sun” prayer, and Fratelli Tutti coming from his Admonitions.
Pope Francis, this person said, is “clearly tying these two things together, that’s very important.”
Pointing to the fact that both Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti are social encyclicals, this person said another question the translation of these poses is whether the practice of translating social encyclicals, which are addressed to the outside world, into Italian rather than Latin will become a new standard moving forward.
Returning to the current debate about the title of Fratelli Tutti and its potential English translation, the translator insisted that, “The idea that the title is somehow meant to be provocative is not the case.”
“Look at Laudato Si as the example for how this will be done, and there will probably be nothing in there that will be misogynistic,” they said, adding, “there are good people who have seen it and will make sure that it’s not that way. Francis has appointed some incredible women theologians to the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith], so somebody will look at this and if it’s a problem, say stop.”
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