In Conversation with Oonagh Stransky: Part Two

Read part two of an interview with the translator of Pope Francis: also available in Asymptote's Fortnightly Airmail

Our last Fornightly Airmail featured the first part of an interview with writer, translator, and editor Oonagh Stransky, best known for her English translation of The Name of God is Mercy, by Pope Francis and Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli. Here’s Part Two of the conversation Stransky recently had via e-mail with our Interview Features Editor Ryan Mihaly.


Let’s move on to the book itself. Pope Francis recites Bible passages from memory (it seems) several times throughout the book. Did you translate his Italian quotations from the Bible? Or do you know if the original version of the book used passages from a particular version of the Bible?

Great question. In the introduction, Andrea Tornielli, Vatican-watcher and longtime member of the Pope’s entourage of journalists, describes the particulars of the situation well. He mentions that he sent his questions in advance. He also describes how prepared the Pope was for the interview: “Francis was waiting for me sitting at a table with a Bible concordance on it and some quotations from the Church Fathers.” In other words, he didn’t quote all the passages from memory, but came ready to share some key stories both from the Bible and his life.

One of the first questions I asked Random House was which version of the Bible should I use for the quotations. The reply came direct from the Vatican. For the Random House version, which is distributed in North America, South America, and Canada, the New American Version of the Bible was used. This created a few problems for the British version, published by Macmillan Blue Bird, and released in UK, Europe and Rest of World (as I believe Oceania is called), for which the New Revised Standard Version was used. To some degree, the quotations—as with any quotation within a translation—are a legal matter and have little to do with the translator. But what is really interesting here—and this may be one of the reasons that the experience of translating this book was a transformative experience for me—was the way Pope Francis didn’t simply drop quotes from the Bible. No, every quotation was reinforced with his own, simple words, or with an illustrative anecdote. Pope Francis doesn’t use the Bible as an end, but as a beginning of discussion. I really enjoyed that.

For example, in the chapter “Too Much Mercy?” Pope Francis quotes from the Gospel of Luke, which says there would be more joy in heaven over a single repenting sinner than ninety-nine righteous people who do not repent. But read how he explicates it afterwards: “It does not say: and if he should then relapse and go back to his ways and commit more sins, that’s his problem!”

You can hear Francis’s voice talking about the Bible, giving us an example to help us understand what he thinks it is trying to say. He does not raise the message up to a place where it is out of reach; he brings it to us, with a casual but strong comment. And with an exclamation mark! I love the places where there are exclamation marks. It is this back and forth with the sacred text that makes his comments easy to read, easy to understand, and possible to emulate.

One thing I should mention is that the Bull of Indiction that appears at the end of the text was not translated by me. That is an official Vatican translation. Of course, this begs the question, why didn’t they use a Vatican certified translator to do the translation of the whole book? I can only presume that both Editoria Vaticana and Piemme publishers wanted to be able to count on the editorial, legal, marketing, and publicity expertise of international publishers, and that these companies wanted the freedom to choose their own translators.

I want to turn now to a few particular words within the text that surely produced some translation issues or questions. I want to start with the word “nostalgia”, which we see in Chapter VI, “Shepherds, Not Scholars of the Law”. The Pope says, “Sometimes, when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish what the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner when he stands at the threshold, when he starts to feel nostalgia for God.”

Like all of the Pope’s words, this is a profound statement. To me, in this case I imagine the nostalgia for a time when the sinner was closer to God—perhaps pre-birth, close to God as a soul or spirit. When you write “nostalgia”, I immediately think of the Portuguese saudades, a word that is often translated as “nostalgia” but contains many more cultural meanings that are difficult to translate. What is the Italian word in this case, and what are the other meanings of the word?

When I encountered that word, which in Italian remains “nostalgia”, I too thought about saudades, and wondered whether the Pope, whose mother tongue is Spanish and was being interviewed in Italian, might have considered something similar. But I also thought of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, a film that explores spiritual hunger, longing for meaning, and the murky depths of the soul, and which was filmed in my neck of the woods in Tuscany. And here I go back to the subject “what we think about when we think about translating.” It’s important to have time to let thoughts on words—meanings, references, suggestions—pile up so that we can sift through them, so that we can hone in on the meaning that is best suited to the situation, and so that we can make the translation our own. When I think of “nostalgia for God,” I think of a yearning for maternal love and a safe non-judgmental space, both elements that Pope Francis refers to as cornerstones of his Church.

Here, in the passage you point out, I believe you are right that the word nostalgia refers to an abstract pre-birth time. In fact, earlier in this chapter Pope Francis addresses similar notions when he says, “We need to remember and remind ourselves where we come from, what we are, our nothingness.” And then a few lines on: “We must never forget our origins, the mud of which we were made, and this counts above all for those who are ordained.”

So, while he is speaking to us—or at least this is how I read it—and asking us to soften our gaze, accept that we need healing, offer up our sins and let the love of God heal them, he is also firmly addressing the clergy, reminding them that they, too, are sinners, that they have known mercy, and that they need to work on relating this grace in a healthy and gentle way. Yes, Pope Francis recalls certain priests who were important for his spiritual growth, but also repeatedly takes the broader clergy to task. For example, in Chapter 2 he scolds confessors who have “an excess of curiosity, especially in sexual matters,” saying that priests should listen and “offer advice delicately.” In Chapter 4 he clarifies that a priest is “not to cast the first stone,” that “he, too, is a sinner who needs to be forgiven.” In Chapter 5 Pope Francis urges the Church leaders to “go outside and look for people where they live, where they suffer and where they hope” so that they can administer “urgent care” where they are most needed. In Chapter 6 Francis states that homosexual people “should be treated with delicacy and not be marginalized.” He reminds priests not to be narrow-minded and to “overcome prejudice and rigidity.” Basically, one of the things that I took away from the text is that Francis is giving the clergy a message about “what the Church is and what it should never be.” And he very clearly points out that the Church should never display “self-interest, lack of mercy or closed attitudes.”

Francis offers a wonderful anecdote of his grandmother. She would say that, for the corrupt man, “butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.” Francis’ grandmother presumably spoke Spanish, and he translated it into Italian, and now we have it in English. Is this a literal translation of that idiom? And were there other phrases or idioms like this that were difficult to translate?

In Italian the phrase goes like this: Il corrotto ha sempre la faccia di chi dice: «Non sono stato io!». Quella che mia nonna chiamava «faccia da santarellino».

Literally it says that the corrupt person always has a face that says, “it wasn’t me!”—what Francis’ grandmother would call “a little saint’s face.”

It would be interesting to get a copy of the Spanish version and see how it was translated. I imagine the Spanish phrase has something to do with being a “santurrón.” In my first draft, which I was asked to keep as literal as possible under instruction from the editor—so that we could then tweak it where necessary together—I initially used something along the lines of a “goody-two shoes.” When we sat down for a read-through, Will suggested the “butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” phrase. I was amenable to the idea since their goal was to make the translation as readable and accessible as possible.

Another Spanish element came up in the reference to the story of the “abuela” who teaches Francis a lesson in Chapter 2, but in that case Francis defines the term and explains his joke for his readers.

The hardest part about translating the book was the incredibly short amount of time I was given. I like to have enough time to let a draft rest before reading it through again. And then once more. On this job, I submitted a chunk of pages every couple of days, so that our reader could check them… and then we all read them through together, several times. It was a tour de force, all hands on deck type of situation.

Religion is so often misunderstood and misinterpreted, and Francis acknowledges this. But Francis has undeniably been a progressive pope—he advocates for social justice, action against climate change, global abolition of the death penalty. He no doubt has his critics, but Francis is certainly trying to move Christianity forward, away from its tainted reputation. How do you think his message of mercy fits into the current global, political landscape? Who should read this book, and what should they do with it?

I think the message of this book is a deeply personal one for Pope Francis and that it is motivated by his belief in a mothering kind of Catholic Church, a church that seeks to be both understanding and warm. He is much more of a people’s priest and less of a spokesperson for the imposing theocracy of the Holy See, something of a progressive in a den of conservatives. We will see how his message of mercy and acceptance is accepted by the world around him, starting with Italy, where the government is currently debating civil unions. (Italy is the one of the few countries in Europe that does not recognize same-sex unions.) Pope Francis also called for a one-year moratorium on the death penalty during this Holy Year of Mercy. Will he succeed in changing the landscape? I personally am skeptical, but I was not raised a Catholic and therefore have difficulty in accepting some of the other basic tenets of the faith.

This book is directed to people who were raised in the Catholic tradition and who have left the Church for whatever reason—and there are a number of good ones! As Benigni so aptly put it at the presentation, it’s the kind of book that you can pick up and read while you’re waiting for a train, it’s like a one-on-one conversation with the Pope. I think it’s a book that can help you sound out your take on Catholic religion. Curiously, a colleague who read the translation in both English and French said that the French version is more academic, dryer, directed to someone who is already part of the Church, but that the American version is more accessible and engaging, more for someone, like myself perhaps, who keeps asking questions.


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