Lost in Translation (from Latin)?

Pope Benedict XVI sent out his first tweet in Latin today. Lessons in Latin now follow.

The Pope finally sent out his first tweet in Latin from his Twitter account @Pontifex_ln on Sunday, January 20, 2013: “Unitati christifidelium integre studentes quid iubet Dominus? Orare semper, iustitiam factitare, amare probitatem, humiles Secum ambulare.”

The Pope immediately followed it up with translations into the languages of his other Twitter accounts. He translated the Latin via his English language account @Pontifex this way: “What does the Lord ask of us as we work for Christian unity? To pray constantly, do justice, love goodness, and walk humbly with Him.”

But the news service Reuters performed a valuable service by quoting the University of Cambridge scholar Tamer Nawar, who teased out a more nuanced translation of the Latin: “What does the Lord command to those wholly eager for the unity of those following Christ? To always pray, to continually do justice, to love uprightness, to walk humbly with Him.”

True, Nawar’s translation sounds more clunky in English than the Pope’s English tweet. But it certainly exhibits an appreciation of all the subtlety packed into the Latin tweet. For me, it demonstrates why knowledge of Latin is indispensable. Namely, that it can help one become attuned to subtleties and nuances of thought that would otherwise be missed.

Perhaps my favorite part of the Pope’s inaugural Latin tweet is his use of the verb “factitare” in relation to “justice”, since “factitare” has the connotation of “to make or do frequently; to be wont to make or do; to practice.”

Indeed, I’m very happy with the Pope’s first Latin tweet, but I was in a bit of a sour mood because of the press coverage leading up to it. That coverage had me wishing for the impossible, that the Pope’s first Latin tweet would be a sarcastic: “ROMANES EUNT DOMUS”.

If you don’t get the joke, then Google the phrase and watch Monty Python’s famous Latin lesson, in which a Roman soldier corrects the graffiti of an empire rebel. 

Generations of unfortunate Latin students have been traumatized by the sort of bad pedagogy satirized in that scene from Monty Python. Which is a real shame, since Latin is a glorious language.

Bad teachers have a lot to answer for, especially in this realm of failing to pass on linguistic and cultural treasures. One famous example of a suffering student is St. Augustine of Hippo. Although he was a master of the Latin language, St. Augustine was so traumatized by an abusive Greek teacher that he gave up on that language and never went on to learn it. What a loss for humanity, that a genius of that caliber would willfully deny himself direct access to such a great literary heritage!

Unfortunately, the sad state of linguistic education was multiplied across the Internet as people anticipated the Pope’s first Latin tweet. And it was multiplied by the sort of narcotic laziness on the part of reporters and bloggers that is induced by new media technologies.

I discussed on an earlier occasion the stranger aspects of the media buzz accompanying the Pope’s first English tweets. Certainly, the hype continued during the run-up to the Pope’s first Sunday tweet in Latin. Unfortunately, the reporters mangled Latin along the way. Shall we dispatch the Romans to set them straight?

Take the UK’s Guardian newspaper. It is responsible for propagating an erroneous Latin phrase in its reporting on the Pope’s Latin Twitter account. Lizzy Davies in Rome wrote this paragraph for the Guardian, misquoting Roberto Spataro (secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin Studies, which Benedict XVI founded last year) and attributing the quote to L’Osservatore Romano:

“Twitter is a tool which requires rapid communication. In English you say ‘the corruption of the best one is horrible’; in Latin, three words suffice: ‘corrupt optima pessima. It is a language which helps to think with precision and sobriety. And it has produced an exceptional heritage of science, knowledge and faith.”

Whoa! Wait a minute: “corrupt optima pessima”?

That should be: “corruptio optimi pessima.”

The corruption of Latin is the worst!

I notice that once bad Latin like this is entered on a news site, it is propagated endlessly by bloggers who cut and paste the juicy quote onto their own web logs. So now we have had to endure people who should know better—various Catholic bloggers, for example—celebrating the Latin of their Church but yet not knowing enough Latin to be able to correct an elementary Latin error like this.

It’d be interesting to know how Lizzy Davies dropped the ball on this one. (Did she introduce the error, as I suspect? Or did the Italian edition of L’Osservatore Romano indeed have an incorrect Latin phrase? A search of the English language edition online shows that the error didn’t originate there.)

I have some sympathy with the human being who may be blamed with the error. I myself have had to endure being autocorrected by annoying computers when I type. I am sure many others also suffer silently in this same way.

One of my pet peeves is when I type a phrase like “corruptio optimi pessima” and the computer autocorrects it to “corruption optimi pessima”. (No, thank you! I do not need that extra “n”! Backspace, backspace, backspace, delete!)

In addition to zealous bloggers, the incorrect Latin phrase also has been propagated by numerous sources, including The Huffington Post and NewsMax. Thankfully, by the time The Telegraph reported on the Pope’s first Latin tweet, the mistake had been corrected and reporter Tom Kington’s piece got it right.

But a sloppy error like “corrupt” for “corruptio” is multiplied very quickly over the Internet. Thus, someone who doesn’t know any better can quickly do a Google search and, seeing the proliferation of the phrase, wrongly conclude that there is safety in numbers and take the erroneous phrase as conventional wisdom.

I noted an example earlier this week, in which a certain phrase has been attributed to G.K. Chesterton (a phrase often accompanied even with a seemingly credible reference), but which seems to be almost certainly bogus. Yet, because there is no protest to counter the mimetic multiplication of the alleged Chesterton quote, it has become a dubiously conventional attribution.

It’s this sort of thoughtlessly mimetic multiplication that is the main reason why the corruption of “corruptio optimi pessima” bothers me. In this electric day and digital age, there is just no excuse for that kind of error. Why? Because anyone who doesn’t know Latin could simply take two seconds and type three words into Google.

Try it. If you enter “corrupt optimi pessima”, then Google will ask you: “Did you mean: ‘“corruptio optimi pessima”’?”

It’s simply outrageous that news editors are so lazy that they can’t even do even the simplest steps of Latin-checking, like trying dumb old Google. (True, Google delivers the goods in this instance, but I do not recommend its Latin translator, which is badly unreliable, especially when going from English to Latin.)

To be fair, I should also note that I found a mistake this week even on the Vatican news site. But thankfully this one was not in Latin. On January 18, the Vatican news agency at news.va incorrectly described the Pope’s “first tweet” as “Tuus adventus in paginam publicam Summi Pontificis Benedicti XVI breviloquentis optatissimus est.”

Not true. That Latin sentence is in fact the identifying description found on the Pope’s Twitter page for @Pontifex_ln. It is not his first tweet. The first tweet didn’t go out until today.

The Twitter page, which is simply a chronological archive of the Pope’s tweets, is what is described in that Latin sentence. It can be translated thus: “Your arrival at the public page of the tweeting of the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI is most welcome.”

Beautiful! Thanks to the Pope’s excellent Latin skills, as the Pope uses Twitter, Romans everywhere can feel very much right at home.

Some of the sources consulted in writing this article:

 “Pope to Tweet in Latin”, Vatican news agency.

• “New journalism program launched amid Pope’s Twitter success”, Catholic News Agency.

“Veni, vidi, vici. Now the Pope is to Tweet in Latin”, Lizzy Davies in Rome, guardian.co.uk.

• “Pope Benedict XVI To Tweet In Latin”, Andres Jauregui, The Huffington Post.

“The Pope Plans to Tweet Followers in Latin”, Bill Hoffmann, NewsMax.

• “Pope tweets in Latin for first time”, Tom Kington, The Telegraph.

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About Christopher S. Morrissey 34 Articles
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. He is a managing editor of The American Journal of Semiotics. His poetry book, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.