Rorate Caeli

Deus caritas est - a few important mistranslations

The first Encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI was released today, thankfully with the typical Latin edition also available. In a very fast reading of three of the translations, I caught at least two serious mistranslations.

The first one is seen in the English-language translation (9):

The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God's passion for his people using boldly erotic images.

But the Latin text does not say "erotic", it says love. Considering that the whole text is very technical in the uses of agape, eros, philia, and amor (love), the passage should have read "bold love images" or "boldly amorous images" ("audaces amatorias imagines").

The second one is seen in the Spanish-language translation (28):

El Estado no puede imponer la religión, pero tiene que garantizar su libertad y la paz entre los seguidores de las diversas religiones.

The English translation of this portion is correct ("The State may not impose religion"), while the Spanish words mean CANNOT (or also "must not"), a clear mistranslation of the Latin "non DEBET", which should have been translated as "no debe" ("may not" or "should not"). This grave mistranslation is also repeated in other languages, including Italian (should be "non deve"), French (should be "ne doit" or "ne doit pas"), and Portuguese.

Please, report any other mistranslation you may see in the comments below. Is it a case of bad translators? Do they translate from the Italian and only occasionally take a look at the Latin typical text?


  1. The first one isn't an error because in par.4 he said: "delevit revera christiana religio amorem-eros". it means that we have to read: amor-eros, caritas-agape.

    But what do you think about a Pope that says: "sic est: studet eros attollere nos "in exstasi" versus divinum, extra nos perducere nos ipsos"? it's really incredible and seems to be a very eretical (gnostic) way to see the sex!


  2. Oh, I certainly disagree, because he identified the kind of "amor" as eros in par. 4; but "audaces amatorias imagines" could never have been translated in such a technical text as "boldly erotic", but only if "erotica" had been expressly used ("audaces eroticas imagines").

    It is not that "amatorius" can never be translated as "erotic" (it may be, but in VERY RARE AND LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES), but that in this case it must not be translated thus, or the whole text is distorted.

    Who writes things as "boldly erotic images", anyway? Thank God that is not what the Latin text says, because it sounds pathetic in English.

  3. Regarding your other observation, I would certainly not see it as "heretical", but it certainly is curious. "Quae videtur corporis esse honoratio cito transire potest in odium naturae corporalis" seems a clear example of what Romano Amerio used to call "circiterism"

  4. I think that a great source for the Pope was Aug. Sermo 349.
    St. Augustinus says that there is a human caritas and a divin caritas. And also that the human one is divided in two kinds of caritas, licita and illicita. The illicita caritas is also named amor! In classical latin amor is as eros as philia (ovid's ars amandi is more like an "erotic art" than an "art of love"). I think that just to underline the biblical erotic love and not the simple love they translate "erotic".

    Augustinus says also: "Duae ante te sunt caritates; cum qua istarum vis manere? Qui eligit manere cum illa humana licita, cum illa humana illicita non manet. Nemo sibi dicat: Ambas habeo."

    It's true that he means for licita the caritas between coniuges but eros is, as the Pope writes, like an impersonal mystic power.
    (isn't it a semi-tantric theory?)


  5. A cardinal rule of translations is that a generic word or expression must not be translated as a specific word or expression. In the current case, this was very clear for the use of "eros" throughout the Latin text and of "amor" as a generic word, which should always be translated as "love" -- and so the words derived from "amor".

    The passage could not have contained "erotic" under any circumstances; it is a direct mistranslation which will be used for unseemly purposes, I am sure.

    Thank you for your comments, Francesco.

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  7. At first, it was not clear to me what you meant, since "may not" and "should not" do not really seem to mean the same! Am I wrong?

    Plus, in Latin languages, "no puede" and "no debe" are usually used to say the same thing.

    But, giving it a little further thought, I think I finally understand your point.

    The difference between them would be that "no debe" is a little ambiguous, and might also be taken to mean "is not obliged/forced to", which would save the sentence from Liberalism. Even though this is clearly not the first meaning that comes to mind.

    Is that what you mean?

    Then the English translation would really be correct, in the sense of preserving the ambiguity of the Latin original. Because "may not impose" (like "non debet") is an ambiguous formulation, which might be taken to mean two things:

    1. "may impose or not impose" (orthodox meaning);
    2. "has no right to impose"
    (unorthodox meaning).

    Am I right? Is that what you mean? Have I missed something? Have I gone too far? Please enlighten me (English is not my native tongue).

    About the other question, surely the Ecclesiastes employs erotic images to portray the relationship between God and the soul. That's why Saint Bernard teaches that it cannot be read by those who are not consolidated in chastity and purity (that is, a large portion of the Catholic world, who struggles to keep this virtue). All that to say that this expression (erotic images) is not a priori unnaceptable.

  8. Yes, Felipe, that is exactly what I meant regarding "potest" and "debet" (and their respective derivations in the Romance languages). The typical text uses "debet" and that is the word that should have been used. The use of "potest" significantly changes the meaning of the text.

    Thank you for your comments.

  9. How do you say '"being there for" others' in Latin? THAT hideous and popular expression is in the English.

  10. Jeff, it is quite "informal Latin", too, but it is a fine translation of "pro altero se esse" (quite an unusual expression).

  11. On the "boldly erotic images", I'm afraid the original text, that is the German, does indeed have "mit kühnen erotischen Bildern". The Latin, like the English, will have been based on this phrase. But if the whole purpose of the Encyclical is to "rehabilitate eros" (my expression!), are we not in fact missing the point if we take offence at the idea of "boldly erotic images" in the Bible?

  12. I disagree, Ecclesiastes. The German must not be regarded as "the original" -- there was a reason the Latin text suffered numerous revisions, and it is the standard to which the translations (including the German version) are to be held. The German is irrelevant.

    The Latin text could easily have used "eroticas", a word ("eroticus") widely used in scholarly Latin, but it did not; hence, the term should be avoided. It must be noted that the adjective "eroticus" (and its variations) were not used in any part of the text.

    This is all a result of the despicable translation problems of this text. Since the Latin typical edition was finished only in January 16, it is doubtful that the various translations were accurately compared to the edition before being sent to the presses.

  13. HOW can the German be "irrelevant" to a translation of the Latin? It's the one that was actually WRITTEN by the Pope. It may not be the original, but as guidance for how the original is to be interpreted and translated, there can be no higher authority, it seems to me.

    I.e., would you complain about the incompetence of the German translators to the Pope, who authored the "translation" himself?

  14. 1. The official language of the Encyclical may be Latin, but the original language of the Encyclical is German, like it or not. The Pope wrote "erotisch", and did not emend his text.
    2. "Eroticus" may be used in later scholarly Latin, but, to the best of my knowledge, this word is not found in classical authors; at least, it is not a standard classical word (not in Lewis and Short). The translator, Fr Reginald Foster, a stickler for classical vocabulary, picked the best translation of "erotisch" which classical Latin offers: "amatorius".
    3. "Amatorius" has definite erotic connotations! Cf Ovid's "Ars Amatoria", which got him banished.
    4. Wouldn't life be easier for us all if the Pope wrote his letters in Latin? But no, he writes in German, as that wretched "be there for"/"pro altero esse" shows: what the Pope wrote was "da sein für", totally natural in German.
    5. Let's just accept that "erotic" is not "sexual". The Pope wants to redefine the word as commonly used; let's help him.

  15. 1. I refuse to use a German text as an official interpretative guide. Tell me when Polish was used for the same purpose during the last Pontificate -- and Pope John Paul did indeed author much of his texts.

    2. The text he signed -- the one and only official text -- is the Latin one. Period.

    3. Emile Chatelain accepted "eroticus" in 1896. Now we have to find out who was the author of the Latin text of the encyclical and what he MIGHT have chosen as the best "classical Latin" option? This is ridiculous! This is not Ovid, this is 21st century academic Christian Latin, written in a way which Cicero and Ovid would both abhor. The word is amatorius, and erotic is at best a specific translation of a generic Latin word.

    4.Finally: this is not the most important of the mistranslations I pointed out. The second one, which involves POTEST and DEBET, is much more important.

    5. Now, why don't you try to find more Latin mistranslations? You may have realized by now that we will not agree on this.

  16. Catholice nove, credo te in statu negationis, ut dicunt, versari! Sed, sicut dixisti, sit huic disputationi finis, novae verum investigationi initium.

  17. In sentiment I agree with New Catholic; I don't like the way the word is used.

    But my mind tells me that Ecclesiastes is clearly right and wins all the debating points. I think this one is what is known as a 'fausse idee claire'; an idea which is transparently 'true', but nevertheless wrong.

  18. No, dear friend, no denial. There is a reason a "Latin typical edition" is released: it is not to brighten the libraries of Latin scholars or to make us all content that "the Church still uses Latin"; it is the only standard of our thoughts and minds, the bulwark of the magisterium. No reasonable Catholic should ever accept the need to use of German as a hermeneutical tool for reading an Ecclesiastical Latin text. We are Catholics, not Lutherans! This is a Pope, not Melanchton!

    Now, have you found other mistranslations?

  19. Jeff, with all due respect, Ecclesiastes should rather have been looking for other mistranslations (I am positive there are numerous). I GRANTED in the post itself that it was a POSSIBLE translation (read it again), but that it is not technical, considering the several words used for love in the text. Now, which is the official text, the Latin or the German? The German text IS irrelevant, and it shall remain so, till the Pope moves his court to Aachen and the language of the Church is Luther's New High German...

  20. I was most impressed by this discussion. Indeed, it's too bad that we have to have it: if the pontiff would only take the time to draft his encyclical in Latin, these little quibbles would disappear.

    Someone remarked that Reggie is the author of the Latin version. This isn't quite true. I've been reading through the Latin today, slowly, I haven't read the English yet, and I can see that Reggie's hand wasn't definitely in it in places (or so I've guessed). There are certain words he likes which he taught our class this past summer.

    But Reggie is only one of a committee of Latin scribes at the Secretariat of State, and he isn't even the head of that group. I suspect that we don't know the other guys because they aren't American and they aren't characters like Reggie. On a day to day basis, with small work, like bulls for the appointment of new bishops, a single Latin secretary does the work on his own. In fact, he doesn't translate, but just drafts it himself in Latin, and then the Cardinal Secretary has to sign off on it before it goes to the pope's desk. For bigger work, like an encyclical, they work on it together.

  21. I would only point out, Iosephus, that the Pope certainly knows his Latin and that the whole waiting period of the encyclical was due to the fact that the Latin text had to be considered satisfactory by the pope (which took several months). This is not an irresponsible man and we can be pretty sure that he examined the Latin text quite carefully and authored much of it himself.

    And, anyway, I still believe the most important mistranslation is the potest/debet one, which involves a much more important issue (Catholicism and the State) and includes the translations in all Romance languages.

    Your comments on the composition of the Latin writing teams in the Holy See were most appropriate.

    Thank you all for your comments and for visiting this weblog.

  22. Back to the more important mistranslation then, a further thought.

    Even with the "no puede" (a wrong translation, as you've cleverly shown), the sentence is still liable to two interpretations.
    For "not to impose" might mean both that:

    1. no one must be forced to become Catholic, which is correct;

    2. no State may have Catholicism as its official religion, which is heresy.

    I wonder whether such ambiguities are good for the Church. Wouldn't it be easier to just say that we cannot possibly have a Catholic State in the present circumstances, even though this would be the ideal situation? The SSPX would surely be placated by such an innocent statement. Would Freemansonry become too infuriated? Is that what the Pope wants to avoid? Just wondering.

  23. Oops, looking back at my comments, I meant to say that I thought Reggie's hand was in the document.

    About Benedict, New Catholic, I certainly didn't meant to suggest that Benedict didn't spend time with the Latin text: I'm sure that he did!

    Judging by the various news things I read, I thought the problem was the vernacular translations, not the Latin text, which had been done first.

    Now this also sorta surprised me: I was under the impression (I don't know why) that in the recent past, when the stuff was drafted in Italian, as most of John Paul's encyclicals were, that the Latin version was just another one of the translations, albeit the official version. I mean, so that the other modern language translations all came from the Italian, rather than from the Latin.

    And doesn't this make sense? Why would they work off a Latin draft which was only a translation of what was written down in the first place? I'm not saying that this is a good thing; I at least as much as anyone think that the drafting should happen in Latin.

    Consider the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The CCC was available and in use by the public long (about five years) before the Latin typical edition was ratified by the Apostolic Letter "Laetamur magnopere". He even says (though he almost certainly didn't write this letter himself) that we could all rejoice at the great favor enjoyed by the Catechism since its promulgation with the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum.