Thursday 14 March 2013

ineptness in Rome

I was not impressed yesterday evening by BBC TV’s live coverage of the long-awaited announcement from St Peter’s Square. Wouldn’t they have done better to send a commentator with at least just a very elementary knowledge of Latin, so that he would have been able to tell us, live, that the new pope had chosen the name Francis? And wouldn’t it have been better to have chosen as our commentator’s Italian interpreter someone who at least knew the words of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary in English, rather than one who had to stumble through them as if he was hearing them for the first time?

I’m not usually a fan of the Daily Mail, but this time they’re right. (Thanks, Alex Rotatori.)

The radio arm of the BBC, on the other hand, had excellent coverage with an informed commentator.


  1. Normally interpreters interpret into their native language, but this clearly wasn't the case here. Are there really no interpreters available whose native language is English and who can interpret from both Italian and simple Latin?

    1. I think the problem on this occasion was not that the interpreter was not a native English speaker. A slight accent is no obstacle to understanding. The problem was that he didn't know the right words of those two prayers in English. He said something approximate,which in fact translated the Latin words he was hearing, but (judging by the tweets and e-mails and newspaper headlines) the English-speaking audience expected the old familiar formula. and nothing else would do. It was more of a documentation disaster than anything else.

  2. Hasn't this always been standard practice? If the rest of the world can't put their strange utterings into something a monolingual Englishman can comprehend, they cant be all that important. When London commentators complain they can't understand politicians from Scotland, how on earth are they going to understand what's going on in strange places like Italy or the Yemen?

  3. If the commentator was English and not a Catholic, it's highly likely that he'd never heard that pronunciation of Franciscum with rather than s or k.

    Come to think of it, How much Latin has the average young Catholic layman heard nowadays?

  4. There was a lot if ineptness to go around. On English Al-Jazeera, they had an interpreter who was apparently a native speaker of Italian with excellent English, so they got through the prayers more or less unscathed. But even though they had two clergymen in the studio, the anchor was ignorant of the name the new pope chose for a couple of minutes there and had to get it from Vatican Radio or some such.

    1. Useful multilingual resources for anyone interpreting in or for the Vatican, where, as Ellen Kozisek rightly points out, Latin is the official language in which the new Pope can be confident that his flock worldwide will understand him as he leads them in the Lord's Prayer:

      The Order of Mass, bilingual versions combining Spanish with 14 other languages

      The Bible, bilingual versions in several languages

  5. I've now seen and heard the broadcast and I think John and the Mail were grossly unfair and rather misleading.

    The English voice is clearly not what we normally understand by the word commentator. He's an interpreter and obviously not a native English speaker, as Thomas observed. I strongly suspect his native language is Italian. He was wrong-footed by the prayers, not because he didn't understand them but because of the difficulty of translating them into English. I wouldn't be surprised if he was mentally translating first from Latin to Italian and then from Italian into English, all in an instant.

    Judged by normal standards of simultaneous interpreting, the performance was pretty good. By normal standards of simultaneous interpreting into a foreign language it was extremely good.

    OK, there are plenty of Italian interpreters in Rome whose English is very good, but even they don't come cheap. If this guy is BBC Rome's regular interpreter, it would be foolish to spend a small fortune on a more specialist interpreter for this one speech. No doubt, they could have found an English-speaking cleric in Rome with interpreting skills. But he or she would owe it to the profession to charge top rates, even if the money was given to charity.

    We expect the standard of translation to be high in BBC News. But accurate and stylish translations are added to the raw filming during the editing process. Yes there are occasions when speeches appear to be accompanied by brilliant simultaneous interpreting, but that's usually because the interpreter received the script in advance. It's not unusual to see a press conference on TV where brilliantly interpreted initial speeches are followed by very clunkily interpreted question and answers. This speech, of course, could not possibly be given to the interpreters in advance. WE didn't even know who was going to speak, let alone what he would say.

    1. WE

      The caps have no intended significance — just a typo.

    2. "Judged by normal standards of simultaneous interpreting, the performance was pretty good. By normal standards of simultaneous interpreting into a foreign language it was extremely good." Sorry, but I couldn't disagree more. I heard the BBC interpreter and lost no time e-mailing a comment to the BBC News website. The (probably Italian) interpreter's chief failing was his unfamiliarity with the standard text of the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary in English. While we all know that there is no single correct translation of any sentence, much less of a prayer or a poem,from one language into another, in the case of a core text such as those that Pope Francis (not surprisingly)uttered yesterday evening before the crowd in St Peter's square, nothing but the standard version will do. The interpreter was woefully under-prepared in the sense of not having done the necessary documentation, for the task. As an interpreter and teacher interpreting at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, I am confident that each and every one of my Spanish postgraduate interpreting students would have done a much better job.

      The truly brilliant simultaneous interpretations are not the result of the interpreter having been given the script in advance. They happen when a trained interpreter, having researched the speaker and his subject (including any likely references), is then free to render the speech into his/her own language.

    3. Jacquie

      The (probably Italian) interpreter's chief failing was his unfamiliarity with the standard text of the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary in English.

      I consider it monstrously unfair to expect any interpreter to have such familiarity. OK if it had been a native English-speaking interpreter, but it wasn't.

      The interpreter was woefully under-prepared

      Monstrously unfair again. The interpreter couldn't possibly prepare for the unforeseeable words of an unforeseeable speaker.

      As an interpreter and teacher interpreting at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, I am confident that each and every one of my Spanish postgraduate interpreting students would have done a much better job.

      My wife used to teach interpreting, and I know that students can reach very high standards. But the standard you claim for your students is one I find ridiculous. It was totally impossible for the interpreter to

      research the speaker and his subject (including likely references).

      All he could possibly know was that the new Pope was likely to talk about God — probably in Italian, but maybe in unidiomatic foreign Italian. That the new Pope would also speak in Latin was not at all predictable.

      And why did you write to the BBC? I still think it could have been outsourced from a Vatican source.

    4. Not predictable that the new Pope would speak in Latin? Seems to me it's a reasonably good guess that he might. It's the language of the church. I know that in many things English serves as the language business is done in between people of different nationalities, but in the Catholic Church, it's Latin.

    5. David,

      A professional interpreter knows what the situation is likely to demand of him or her, and an interpreter hired to convey the first public words of a newly elected Pope should not be surprised at hearing the two prayers in question. Nobody would expect such a level of preparedness of an interpreter - except the interpreter him/herself.

      As for monstrous expectations,I'd be delighted to welcome you to an end-of-year Master's class so that you can see for yourself what properly trained, pre-professional interpreters of a very high standard can achieve. The standard you describe as ridiculous is the precisely the one they aspire to. The best of them don't fall short of it.

      The Sky News interpreter did a reasonable job, as did France 24. I e-mailed the BBC because they have some responsibility for the quality of the interpreting service they provide for their viewers.

    6. Ellen

      Of course an interpreter would know that the Pope would be able to speak Latin to small groups of people within the Vatican. It was less predictable that he would speak Latin to millions of lay people in St Peter's Square and over world-wide media.

      Ironically, the interpreter did understand the Latin, and it was his undoing — as was his rather good English pronunciation. If only he'd ignored the Latin and spoken with a more obviously foreign accent, he wouldn't have upset so many viewers.

    7. The Pope didn't utter a single word in Latin! The Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary were both in Italian. The interpreter should have known the English version of them.

    8. Alex

      How strange!

      The first reply (by Thomas Widmann) mentioned 'simple Latin', so that's what I was expecting to hear when I later found the clip and played it.

      The Lord's Prayer was obscured from the start by what the interpreter was saying. Then there was a pause in which Ave Maria could clearly be heard, so I assumed that the rest of it was in Latin.

      So he did 'utter a single word in Latin'. The word was ave.

      I can normally tell the difference between Latin and Italian, but once I read Thomas's post, that part of my brain was switched off.

      Thomas's post was a day and a half ago, and Latin has been mentioned several times since by me and others. I wonder why you were the first to correct us.

    9. Alex

      The interpreter should have known the English version of them


      OK, it would have been easier for him and better for his listeners, but that's different from an obligation.

    10. You are absolutely right, of course! The only Latin spoken was before Pope Francis came out onto the balcony. Interpreters always take a few essentials along to any assignment - notepad, pen or pencil and, nowadays, an iPad or similar. A well-prepared and properly equipped professional can Google the English version of such well-known prayers in seconds. I agree with you, Alex - he should have known (or known how to access) the English texts.

    11. The first reply (by Thomas Widmann) mentioned 'simple Latin',

      This also coloured any re-reading of John's post. This referred to 'Latin', but actually in the context of the Latin form of one word: the name Francis.

    12. The interpreter should have known the English version of them.

      Why? Of all the foreign students of the English language, how many of them do you think know the prayer by heart? Why on earth would they need to know it?

  6. Who was covering it? Jon Sopel? And for the radio?

    I was appalled that the Wikipedia page on Pope Francis gave a Latin pronunciation with an affricate. But then again, that is the Ecclesiastical, Italianate pronunciation. I would've much preferred the Classical frãˈkɪskʊm. But I'm not sure any of the Cardinals pronounces Latin in that manner.

    Especially after the comments I've read about the appalling Latin of the Papal renunciation of position: many thought it was Latinized Italian.

    ãˈnʊnkɪo ˈvoːbɪs ˈɡaʊ̯dɪʊ̃ ˈmaŋnʊm |
    haˈbeːmʊs ˈpaːpã ‖
    ɛmɪ̃nɛ̃ˈtɪsɪ̃mʊ̃ ak rɛwɛrɛ̃ˈdɪsɪ̃mʊ̃ ˈdɔ̃mɪnʊ̃
    ˈdɔ̃mɪnʊ̃ ˈsãŋtɛ rɔ̃ˈmãːnɛ ɛkˈleːzɪɛ kardɪ̃ˈnaːlɛm ...
    kʷɪ ˈsiːbɪ ˈnõːmɛ̃n ɪ̃ˈpoːzʊɪ...

    Or something to that effect.

  7. J.M.R.

    What else would you expect from a Frenchman?

    It does at first seem odd that pronunciation should vary among those that work in the Vatican. I suppose that it's because those who converse in Latin do so with the same small group of people. Each speaker is familiar to each hearer, so a difference in accent is no real barrier to communication.

    1. From a Frenchman? I would expect ‹c› before front vowels to be s. But Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran is all to familiar with Italian pronunciation and chose the affricate.

      I now see that I've really made a mess of that Latin transcription.

    2. From a Frenchman? I would expect ‹c› before front vowels to be s.

      That's something they've been taught not to do. But all the other Gallicisms have probably been there since childhood.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. I did notice that he didn't seem to stress the middle syllable of habemus. It was more like ˌhabemus ˈPapam.

  8. It didn't occur to me before. How do we know that the interpreter was employed by the BBC? Could it have been a feed from the Vatican?

  9. One of the BBC presenters stated, after some woefully dreary camera work, that the feed was supplied by the Vatican. That suggests, but does not confirm, that the poor sod of an interpreter who got lumbered with the Lord's Prayer, was also supplied by the Vatican.

    1. Michael

      That explains a lot.

      However, it's slowly dawned on me that all of us, myself included, have misdiagnosed the problem.

      The first time I viewed and listened to the item, I understood the Pope to be quoting the prayers. It was, I think, on my third viewing that I twigged that the Pope and everyone else on the screen were performing the prayers.

      This places the interpreter in a very different position. Ideally, he should have joined in. That was impossible because he didn't know a conventional English version of either prayer — or, indeed, any version at all. He should have done one of three things:
      • say something like The Holy Father is leading us in prayer
      • say nothing at all
      • join in the Latin prayers

      Catholic viewers no doubt recognised, as I failed to recognise, that the prayers were being performed. That explains extreme reactions such as that in the Mail. But they seem not to have recognised that it was the interpreter's job to make us understand what was happening. Getting the translation right was secondary.

    2. Well, the interpreter had correctly translated the “Let's pray ...” part before the prayers themselves.

      Armando di Matteo

    3. army1987

      Unfortunately, Let's pray for him is different from the formula Let us pray. A small difference, but I for one was thrown completely.

  10. Drat it, my profile doesn't show my full name. Michael at 05:37 is me.

    Michael Nash

  11. I suspect the interpreter had heard the English version of the prayers once or twice before (though he couldn't remember them by heart), as what he said wasn't an exact translation of the Italian versions either.

    1. Forgot to sign with my full name...

      Armando di Matteo

  12. It would seem that the same interpreter has been used for the Pope's address this morning. Noticeably he referred to "Francesco Saverio", the Italian version of who in English is called Francis Xavier (ˈfrɑːnsɪs ˈzeɪviə).

  13. People on here might like to read this article of mine:

  14. Had I been the translator, I would have gone :

    - "The new Pope is now saying the Lord's Prayer." And kept silent until the end of the prayer.

    I am not a Catholic, but I can recognise a prayer when I hear one.
    But that might be against the training received by translators.
    Does anybody know?

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