Correcting a Correction of Evangelii Gaudium, para 54. UPDATED

It is very annoying for this to be the first thing I say about Pope Francis’ rich and inspiring apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, but this post at Catholic Culture demands it. The post asserts that there is a “key error in translation” in the English version, although the author himself relies on Google translate — hardly an authoritative source for translations.

The author also tips his hand when he parenthetically questions why these errors “always seem to tilt in the same ideological direction,” although there is also the fact that, you guessed it, the “key error” of the 83-page document occurs in paragraph 54, where Francis makes his perhaps most scathing critique of capitalism. In other words, it is highly doubtful that this correction was born out of an interest in the translation itself. The author probably Googled the passage he didn’t like in order to find something he could dismiss it with.

I suspect that there are very few Anglophone commentators who have read the entire letter in the English translation and the Spanish original as I have. Therefore, I feel duty bound to bring a quick end to this distracting conspiratorial nonsense.

The original Spanish passage in question reads as follows:

54. En este contexto, algunos todavía defienden las teorías del « derrame », que suponen que todo crecimiento económico, favorecido por la libertad de mercado, logra provocar por sí mismo mayor equidad e inclusión social en el mundo. 

The official English translation, promulgated by the Vatican, reads as follows:

54. In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.

The author claims that his Google-generated “inexpert” translation is more faithful to the Spanish original if read as follows:

54. In this context, some people still defend “spillover” [“trickle-down”] theories, which suppose that all economic growth, favored by the free market, by itself brings about greater equity and social inclusion in the world.

I think the official English translation is far superior to the hatchet job the author tries to use to render a revisionist account of the original Spanish passage. Here are three reasons why, with some corrective implications:

1. “Teoria del derrame” has a synonymous expression in Spanish — “teoria de goteo” — and both of them mean exactly what the expression “trickle down” conveys in English. ‘Derrame’ and ‘goteo’ both literally describe a slow leakage of liquid, but the literal translation also misses the political history that Pope Francis conveys, one which he is very familiar with within the Latin American context and, more broadly, the global rise of neoliberalism. So trying to call this “spillover theory” not only misses the literal semantic point, it also refuses to see the geopolitical reality that contextualizes it — which seems to be the only point of this defensive revision.

2. The word ‘favorecido’ does not always translate to its English cognate, ‘favored.’ Whereas in vernacular English to “favor” something is normative, ‘favorecido can be, and often is, descriptive. To show favor (favorecer), in this case, indicates a descriptive claim, not a normative one. To push something along  This is, presumably, why the translator chose the term ‘encouraged’ in its bare descriptive sense instead of the term ‘favored.’ The Spanish passage does not say that “the free market favors economic growth;” it says “economic growth, pushed along by the freedom of the market, will succeed…” The claim is aspirational, not matter a fact. If I were to quibble with this passage I would give the more literal translation, which the critic misses, of “free market” — Francis described this in Spanish as “the liberty of the market.” But this would be to quibble with a simpler and intuitive choice by the translator.

3. The clumsy re-translation misses the musicality of the phrase “por si mismo,” and its justifiable omission in English. “Por si mismo” does literally mean “for itself;” but it can also have the role of a “sin embargo” or “por lo cual,” a poetic qualifier added to Spanish phrasing to reinforce the original point and also to bring a layer of rhythm and syncopation. This musicality cannot be translated into a language like English. To add it would be to miss the role of phrasing and import literal meaning that is clearly unintended to the native Spanish ear. So, no, the Spanish version is not giving a radical libertarian straw man view of capitalism, it is actually talking about, yes, some people who continue to defend trickle down theories that assume that economic growth, pushed along by the liberty of the market will actualize in provoking more equity and social inclusion in the world. That was my own translation of the controversy which agrees in spirit with the original English translation of the Vatican.

Lastly, one must not miss the incredible irony and absurdity of this baseless and unqualified accusation. Putting aside the hubris of a non-speaker of a language criticizing its translation, this Googled attempt to discredit the Pope’s original point that there are still some people who continue to defend trickle down theories is only verified and strengthened by the author and his supporters’ defense of trickle down theories via a vis this sophomoric attempt to argue about the translation.

UPDATE — Or, a correction of my correction of a correction of Evangelii Gaudium, para 54.

As Leroy Huizenga noted in comments, and as a careful reader noted on Twitter, my reading of the original post in question was imprecise and misrepresented the extent and nature of the use of Google translate. Some of that imprecision was a result of rather ambiguous prose, but most of it, I admit, was my own haste. In particular, when I wrote “The author claims that his Google-generated “inexpert” translation is more faithful to the Spanish original if read as follows“, I missed the fact that the post seems to indicate that the author did, in fact, do his own translation and counter-checked it with Google, from the Italian. Part of this seems to be because the author is unsure whether the exhortation was originally composed in Italian or Spanish, so he is hedging by using both of them.

Three facts remain, along with my more substantive remarks on the translation:

1. The author may speak some Spanish, but he is not fluent in Spanish. This I infer from the low quality of his own translation. To say otherwise would require me to accuse the author of operating in bad faith and not just linguistic ignorance. I’ll stick to the latter.

2. The author did, in fact, use Google, but not in the (im)precise way that I represented it. Google translate is a minor problem, not the main problem.

3. One should avoid making claims like “a key error in translation” if one doesn’t have at least the level of mastery comparable to the original translators, especially when it is done in a rather desperate attempt to shore up one’s politics.

I thank those who brought this to my attention and apologize for my own poor “translation”. The embarrassing irony is not lost on me.


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