Lost in translation – AFP and the Seventh-day Adventists

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Reports on the exorcism trial currently underway in Paris suburb of Essonne cast an interesting light on the internal workings of the French wire service AFP (Agence France Presse). And these gleanings do not do it credit.

A 7 October 2013 story about four people accused of having tortured a woman while they were performing an exorcism, shows gaps between the English and French versions.  The four accused exorcists claim to be members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and were motivated by that church’s teachings when they performed their exorcism. The English-language version reports the four are ex-Adventists. The French branch of the church also states its beliefs do not support amateur exorcisms.

The French version states the four say they were motivated by their Seventh-day Adventist faith — but omits the disclaimers and distancing by the church.

What can we make of this discrepancy? The English language version of the story as published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline “French torture trial opens over ‘exorcism’” opens with:

Four former members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church have gone on trial for torture over a violent, crucifixion-style exorcism carried out on a 19-year-old woman. Three men and a woman are accused of tying up the Cameroonian teenager in the position of Christ on the cross and keeping her bound to a mattress for seven days in the belief that her body had been possessed by the devil.

The four, including the victim’s former boyfriend, were charged with kidnapping, acts of torture and barbarism.

Style note — the proper designation for the church is Seventh-day Adventist, to whit a dash between Seventh and day and a lower case “d” in day.

The French language version as published in Libération under the headline “Ouverture du procès des exorcistes de l’Essonne” has a very different lede.

Le procès de quatre personnes, soupçonnées d’avoir séquestré et torturé une jeune femme pour l’exorciser, s’est ouvert lundi devant la cour d’assises de l’Essonne. Les quatre accusés, qui se réclament d’un mouvement protestant évangélique, comparaissent pour «arrestation, enlèvement et séquestration avec actes de torture ou de barbarie». Ils encourent la prison à perpétuité.

The trial of four people suspected of having kidnapped and tortured a young woman in order to perform an exorcism opened Monday at the Assize Court of Essonne.The four defendants, who claim to be part of an evangelical Protestant movement, have been charged to “false imprisonment, kidnapping with torture or barbarism.”< They face life in prison.

In the English language version the four are identified as being immigrants from the French Caribbean who are “former” members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And AFP reports the French branch of the church states the four have nothing to do with them.

The church says the people involved in the case were all expelled a year before the alleged attack and has stressed that exorcism of this kind cannot be justified by any of its teachings.

We do not see this information in the French language version. On first mention the accused are described as Evangelical Protestants. On second mention the accused say they were motivated by the religious tenets of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Eric, l’initiateur présumé des sévices, était son compagnon à l’époque des faits, qui remontent à mai 2011. Un soir, voyant les symptômes d’une manifestation diabolique chez Antoinette, il avait voulu la «libérer du diable». Les quatre mis en cause, originaires des Antilles, et la victime, Camerounaise, avaient formé depuis plusieurs mois un groupe vivant en autarcie dans le même appartement, devenu une véritable salle de prière.

Le procès s’est ouvert lundi avec l’examen de la personnalité de Lionel, 29 ans, qui se réclame comme les autres accusés de l’Eglise adventiste du septième jour, un mouvement évangélique qui compte de nombreux adeptes aux Antilles. Les accusés ont toujours revendiqué la sincérité et le bien-fondé de cet exorcisme, affirmant que le démon devait être chassé du corps d’Antoinette. Ils nient toute forme de violence. Le procès doit s’achever vendredi.

Eric, the alleged originator of the abuse, was the companion of the victim in May 2011 when the incident occurred. Seeing the symptoms of demonic manifestation in Antoinette one evening, he said he wanted to “liberate the devil.” The four accused are from the Caribbean while the victim is from Cameroon. For several months they had been living together in an apartment as part of a self-sufficient commune, which also served as a a prayer group.

The trial began Monday with the examination of Lionel (29) who claims that with the other defendants he is a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, an evangelical movement that has many followers in the West Indies.The defendants have maintained the sincerity and validity of their belief in exorcism, saying the devil should have been expelled from Antoinette’s body. They deny any form of violence. The trial is scheduled to end Friday.

Why does the French version differ significantly from the English? Newspapers add and subtract material to wire service stories for reason of space and to add local color, content or editorial view. Did Libération make an editorial decision to omit mention of the four being “former” members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church? Why is the statement missing from the church rejecting out of hand the claims Adventist doctrines support self-help exorcisms? Is Libération up to something? Making a statement of some sort about Evangelicals or the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

No, the same language appears in the AFP story published by France24 – the omissions cannot be laid at the door of the newspaper. What then? I have not seen a follow up or corrected story from the French-language wires indicating this story was subsequently updated with the details found in the English-version. My sense is that we had two reporters and two editors at work — the French and the English.

Perhaps we are seeing national stereotypes at work. The French-language team omitted a detail they believed their audience would not find of interest, while the English language team included information that the Anglosphere would want to know. Or is this simply a case of the French team did a poor job in comparison to the English?

What ever the reason, the omission of key details and context leaves readers of the French version ignorant. Not a good outing for AFP I’m afraid.

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  • Zeke

    “The French branch of the church also states its beliefs do not support amateur exorcisms” can only mean one thing – that they support it if done by a pro. So why the big fuss about whether these were active or former members of this church?

    • George Conger

      “Amateur exorcisms” is my line — an authorial indulgence not to be blamed on the Seventh-day Adventists. By that I mean exorcisms are not a parlor game. In my tradition not just any priest can perform an exorcism. One must go to his bishop and seek his counsel — and he will have experts rule out psychiatric, medical and other causes for the observed phenomena before authorizing a priest (specially trained and usually of great experience) address the issue.

      • http://apokalupto.blogspot.com/ David Hamstra

        The Adventist Church doesn’t do “exorcisms” in the sense of a special
        ritual for casting out demons. It does practice anointing with oil along with
        prayer for the sick by the elders of the church for those who need
        healing. This may also be done for those struggling with demonic
        harassment.

        In 2005 the Adventist
        Church clarified its position with respect to demonic forces by adding a
        new section to its statement of fundamental beliefs to the effect that
        Jesus has already triumphed over evil spirits and therefore Christians
        need not fear their power so long as they remain close to Jesus (http://www.adventist.org/beliefs/salvation/growing-in-christ/).

        This
        was done for the benefit of Adventists living in cultures where angry spirits are part of daily experience (80% of Adventist Church membership is in developing countries). The upshot is that when confronting demonic forces, what is needed is not rituals of appeasement or rituals of exorcism but rather to growing closer to Jesus through practices like prayer and meditation on Scripture. In Adventist theology, any person who has an active connection to Jesus has power through the Holy Spirit to deal with evil spirits by simply praying and asking God to remove them.

        The ritual these men attempted is outside the bounds of what is officially sanctioned by the Adventist Church.

        • George Conger

          Thank you for this information — this response is one of the things I like about the new media — the ability to collaborate with readers

  • Zeke

    Meh, your point seems to be that omitting the word “former” is evidence the AFP is unfairly painting this church with crazy beliefs about exorcizing evil spirits. The subsequent church statement “you’re doing it wrong” doesn’t make them seem any less crazy.

  • Julia B

    How does one become a “former” member of Seventh-day Adventism? Who is claiming what about these folks’ membership? Are they still identifying themselves as Seventh-day Adventists? Who decides their status? [I had two at my door yesterday so I'm curious about who speaks for their church]

    • http://apokalupto.blogspot.com/ David Hamstra

      The Adventist Church has a procedure for removing persons from membership by vote of their local church congregation. This is may be done as an expression of disapproval for violating the church’s ethics or holding beliefs contrary to its teachings. Someone who wishes to leave the Adventist Church can request their membership to be dropped, and this is pretty much automatically granted.

      As in every religion, there is a distinction between official and folk varieties. Generally; the pastors, administrators, theologians, and much of the lay leadership holds to the official teachings and practices while the membership has varying degrees of acceptance of those teachings mixed with local religious traditions from outside the church.

      • Julia B

        Thanks for the explanation.

  • http://apokalupto.blogspot.com/ David Hamstra

    “Style note — the proper designation for the church is Seventh-day
    Adventist, to whit a dash between Seventh and day and a lower case ‘d’
    in day.”

    YES! Thank you. You made my “-day.” ;)


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