Does 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.
Since 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.