Does Pope Benedict sound different in a foreign language?

September 19, 2010

speeches 1Does Pope Benedict sound different when he speaks a foreign language? I’m not referring to his German accent — anyone following his visit to Britain these days can attest to the fact that he has one in English. But does he say the same thing when he speaks in his native German — or in Italian or French, two languages he also speaks fluently (and better than English). Does he present his ideas with the same words? Does the message come across in the same way? How does it “feel” to the listener?

(Photo: Pope Benedict at Westminster Hall, 17 Sept 2010/Tim Ireland)

Benedict’s basic message is fundamentally the same, regardless of the language he speaks. But his speeches and sermons these past few days have sounded different from similar speeches delivered in other languages — and not just because they were in English. The speeches were shorter. The wording was at times more direct and the argument more succinct than in similar speeches on previous voyages to other countries. The speeches included several references to Britain and British history that his listeners would know and appreciate. He doesn’t usually nod that much in the direction of the local audience.

Having heard him speak in these different languages over the years, my first impression after listening to his speech to “representatives of British society” in Westminster Hall on Friday was how short it was. The main arguments in that speech — that religion has a role in public life and is not incompatible with reason — are central themes of Benedict’s papacy. He delivered a somewhat comparable showcase speech “to the world of culture” in Paris in September 2008. The Regensburg speech to “representatives from the field of the sciences” during his 2006 visit to Germany was also about faith and reason, although his use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote about Islam being an irrational and violent religion overshadowed the public perception of it.

speeches 2Since these showcase speeches are meant as one of the highpoints of a visit, it’s interesting to make a few comparisons. The Regensburg speech was 3,521 words long in German, according to my word counter. The Paris speech was 4,181 words long in French, it said. By contrast, the London speech in English was much shorter — 1,805 words long. In Germany, any formal speech shorter than an hour is not considered complete. It can be like that in France as well. But length is not necessarily a virtue among English-speaking orators, as Abraham Lincoln showed when he delivered his 272-word Gettysburg Address.

(Photo: Pope Benedict at the College des Bernardins in Paris, 12 Sept 2008/Oliver Laban-Mattei)

Benedict planned to deliver a similar speech at Rome’s La Sapienza University in January 2008, but bowed out after students protested against it. The Italian text the Vatican later released ran to 3,304 words.

Brevity doesn’t always bring clarity, but the London speech also sounded more succinct than the others. Two examples are “The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?” and  “Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation.” In one section, he borrowed a common term from economic policy to highlight his message: “… the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail’.”

speeches 3There was also more formality in his speeches on the Continent. The Regensburg speech was a philosophical address delivered at the last university where Benedict taught before rising in the Church hierarchy. It was sprinkled with words and phrases in ancient Greek and Latin and started off quite formally, greeting “Your Eminences, Magnificences and Excellencies, honoured ladies and gentlemen!”

(Photo: Pope Benedict at Regensburg University, 12 Sept 2006/Markus Nowak)

The Paris speech, a reflection on the role of monasteries in European history delivered in a Church-owned medieval hall, was also quite scholarly. Its salutation went to “Mr Cardinal, Madame Culture Minister, Mr Mayor, Mr Chancellor of the Institute, dear friends.” The undelivered La Sapienza speech was addressed to “Magnificent Rector, political and civil authorities, illustrious lecturers and technical adminstrative staff, dear young students!”

By contrast, the Westminster Hall speech started with the simple salutation “Mr Speaker.”

Pointing this out isn’t meant as an exercise in Anglophone chauvinism. Each language has its own style and each of these speeches had its own audience, so this is not a close comparison aimed at deciding which is best. Or whether the language used shapes the thoughts expressed. But his speech in Westminster Hall stood out from showcase addresses on other foreign visits. Even though the message was similar, Benedict did sound a bit different this time.

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