Lost in Translation: Our Baptismal Identity

Today’s post is by Bondings 2.0’s newest  blog contributor Cristina Traina, Professor of Religious Studies, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.  Professor Traina is also a member of New Ways Ministry’s Advisory Board.

About 15 years ago, my family was driving along a Costa Rican highway just after a powerful rainstorm.  East-bound traffic had slowed to a stop and stayed there.  No west-bound traffic was coming through, we could not see ahead, and there seem to be no way to find out what was going on.

Finally, a man and a woman on a bicycle approached from the east, on the driver’s side.  My husband, who was driving, was also the only non-Spanish speaker in the car, so the children and I all confusingly talked over each other to explain what he should ask.  He rolled down the window, waved in a friendly way to the woman, and asked, “¿Qué está pesando?”

This question resulted in surly looks from both bicyclists, a marked increase in pedaling speed, and howls of laughter from the rest of us, because in the change of one vowel “What is happening?” (“¿Qué está pasando?”) had become “How much do you weigh?”

The stakes in this case of mis-translation were pretty low.  The traffic eventually started moving, we had a good laugh, and the couple on the bicycle probably figured out 50 yards later what my husband was trying to say and had a good laugh too.  But as Ron Belgau pointed out this winter, whole theologies can be built on mistranslations.  And then the consequences are significant.

The 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons is still the blueprint for Catholic teaching on the ethics of same sex attraction. As for most other documents before the age of Pope Francis, the letter’s official text is in Latin; versions in other languages are also stamped “official,” but they are derived from the original Latin text.  Belgau noticed that the English translation differs in one really important respect not only from the original Latin, but from most other European-language translations.

To see what difference this makes, try a little experiment:  notice how you feel after reading this sentence from the official English translation:

“Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.” (§16)

There’s gospel good news here:  every one first and foremost a child of God.  But there’s also uncomfortable news:  the Church “refuses” to acknowledge an important dimension of everyone’s identity.  We all, straight and queer, have to check a life-giving, challenging dimension of ourselves at the door before we can put on the white robe of child and heir.  And that’s a little odd even on the document’s own logic, especially for straight people, who are not afflicted with the “objective disorder” of same-sex attraction. (§3)  It’s also disappointing theologically, because salvation is ultimately a matter of grace, and grace does not have conditions.

Now notice how you feel after reading this sentence:

“Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person only as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.” (§16)

That little word “only” appears in the original Latin, as well as in the German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian translations.  And it changes the meaning of the sentence completely. The Church does not reduce anyone to their sexual orientation.  It does not erase their sexual orientation.  It also does not start with their sexual orientation.  Rather, it always begins exactly where it should, with everyone’s primary, fundamental identity as beloved child of God, heir to the promise of eternal life.

God bestows that common, fundamental identity equally on all of us in baptism, a physical sign of grace for our actual, embodied, living selves, with all our histories, bumps, warts, and “tendencies.” Without asking us to check anything at the door, it draws us into the community of Christ, just as we are, and refuses to reduce us to any of the labels we or the world apply.  That’s good theology!

And back to that road in Costa Rica:  when traffic began flowing again, community was manifest.  It turned out that several huge trees had fallen across the road, and residents of the towns along the highway had come out with chainsaws, cut up the trunks, and rolled the pieces to the shoulder.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t ask anyone to give up their politics, national identity, or sexual orientation.  They just acted on the inspiration of our common humanity.  What a great model for our baptismal identity!

Cristina Traina, April 2, 2018

12 replies
  1. Richard Boyle, OSM
    Richard Boyle, OSM says:

    Thanks, Professor, but now you’ve left me with just one huge question…. Why does only the English translation leave out or change the word ONLY, which as you say, fundamentally changes the intent of the original Latin text???

  2. Barry Blackburn
    Barry Blackburn says:

    Cristina Traina’s baptismal reflection left me feeling joyful. The use of story here was the context to affirm that we are all people and never categories. A gem!

    DON E SIEGAL says:

    Lost in Translation Our Baptismal Identity

    Like the author, I agree correcting mistranslation is important for full understanding of official Church documents. However, that correction, no matter how significant it is to good theology, cannot make an innately poorly composed document that does not take into consideration accepted understandings of modern sociology and psychology an acceptable document.

    Such terms as, “an objective disorder” and “intrinsically disordered” are an anathema to the LGBT community. In essence, those terms poison the entire document and make it irrelevant and not worthy of further consideration. This is true even if there is sound pastoral advice in other parts of the document.

    I am a child of God through baptism, made in the image and likeness of God. I happen to be within the small minority of LGBT persons all of whom are within the range of normal sexual orientation and gender identity. God did not make any mistakes when he created us. I will never accept anything less.

  4. Mary Jo Hoag
    Mary Jo Hoag says:

    Cristie, hello and thank you for this wonderful reflection. I see that bad translation can make something mean something else. Why would the church do that? Seems dishonest if it furthers a certain agenda or just very sloppy if it’s just a bad translation. Either way, it’s what we’ve come to expect I guess. Have a great Easter season. And let’s hope for good translation in the future.

  5. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    I greatly appreciate the insight about how the 1986 Halloween letter could have been presented in a much more gracious manner. Another current argument being given by some is that the document is in Church-speak and that “objectively disordered” etc. only means that being homosexual is just not the norm. The problem is the document says what it says. Vatican translations are not casual comments, they are very tightly considered and subsequent source statements have not cast it in a more generous light indeed the witch hunt going after various Church related employees who are in same sex civil marriages would strongly indicate that there is no way to read the statement other than as the hateful screed that it is.

  6. Barbara Marian
    Barbara Marian says:

    Thank you, Christie. Another great article! So helpful and timely.
    You always engender new hope. Onlyonlyonly. Wow.

  7. James Hickey
    James Hickey says:

    As a father of 2 lesbian daughters, I read this with great joy. However I must ask Christina if she could give us the names of one or more scholars of languages that could verify this slight of hand translation? If so, why do they not challenge the bishops with this? My background is a retired experimental flight test engineer, based all conclusions on verifiable facts. That is facts, plural, not singular. I have contacted some of my friends that are students of theology and students of the church also on this. If I get verification, I will ask the bishops myself.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *