Indian Catholic News

Letter from Rome

The Vatican's constant struggle with timely translations.

By Robert Mickens
Vatican city: 

It is well known that Pope Francis has a limited facility with spoken languages. He openly confesses that he has a "speech impediment" that affects even the way he converses in his native Spanish. And he's known to fudge the grammar and pronunciation at times when using Italian, the language of his immigrant parents and the only other language he's comfortable speaking in.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. In fact, it's laudable that the Argentine pope makes no pretentions of knowing other tongues. Sometimes he will begin with a few words in a foreign language to show respect for his listeners, only to have an aide then translate for him.

But it took a while for some people to get used to the non-polyglot Francis after living 35 years with his two multi-lingual predecessors.

St. John Paul II, after all, enjoyed a widespread (yet not totally merited) reputation for speaking a dozen or so languages fluently. He was actually conversant in only a handful of them, which is already quite an impressive feat.

But as a trained stage actor with a natural flare for the dramatic the Polish pope was also extremely capable in reading speeches in languages he did not know well or even at all. Often they were written out in phonetic transcription to help him get the pronunciation right.

After delivering the "Urbi et Orbi" message every Easter and Christmas on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, John Paul would always, with a magnificent sense of self-assuredness, offer holiday greetings in some 60 languages.

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