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Pope Francis and Meta-Translation

As I begin sharing The Gospel of Love: A Meta-Translation, I am more convinced than ever that this radical approach is something worth exploring for Christianity as a whole. Especially because Christians depend on texts and their interpretations. The recent comment of Pope Francis on a review of the new liturgical translations in the Roman Catholic Church done under his predecessor speaks volumes:

“Fidelity and exactness with respect to the original texts may themselves sometimes require that words already in current usage be employed in new ways, that new words or expressions be coined, that terms in the original text be transliterated.”

His comment contains three perspectives that merit serious consideration.

First: “words already in current usage be employed in new ways.” The most famous case in Christian history of such a re-deployment (or re-employment) of a word in current usage was “hypostasis” by Saint Basil the Great. “Hypostasis” (Greek, ὑπόστασις) means literally “standing under.” In Latin it was translated substantia, hence the English, “substance.” Saint Basil employed hypostasis to mean “person” for each of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity, as opposed to the “ousia” (Greek, οὐσία) – the essence or ‘be-ing’ of God. With this linguistic distinction, Basil accounted for the the individuality of the Divine Persons (Triad) without separation (Monad). It was an ingenious evolution of language, which, due to translations lacking the subtlety of the distinction, unfortunately caused controversies in later thinkers.

Second: “new words or expressions be coined.” This certainly sounds like meta-translation to me. As I write in The Gospel of Love, “Meta-translation goes further, changing words in order to realize meaning.” The principle here is changing the usual or even expected analogue with something new. In The Gospel of Love one word, “Love,” becomes the dominant verbum by which one understands “God,” “Father,” and “Lord.” One could even go so far as to coin a new word to express a concept. Tertullian, an early third century theologian (who died as a heretic), was the first person in the West to use “Trinity” (Latin, Trinitas) to describe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Third: “terms in the original text be transliterated.” Transliteration is a wonderful way to bring the feel of the original text into the new language. In the translation of the Book of Revelation that the late Fr. Philemon Sevastiades and I published in 2003, we chose “Pantokrator” to translate Παντοκράτωρ, which is usually translated as “Almighty” (e.g., Revelation 1:8).

Pope Francis challenges translators to go beyond the usual and often lazy conventions of both word-for-word translation and the tendency toward paraphrase. Finding the root meaning of a text requires more, and especially in this age when texts are twisted to satisfy self-serving agendas, there is truly a need for an awakening to their content, even if that awakening is precipitated by a radical approach.

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