Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lost in Translation

The Pope’s recent visit to Israel was scrutinized and commented upon from every angle possible. Some were critical of what he said. Others were critical of what he didn’t say. Some observed that his presence is not as great as that of his predecessor, John Paul II. Others said that his presence in Israel was enough in, and of, itself. Some flocked to the city. And many stayed away to avoid the traffic nightmares his visit and security created. In many ways, there was more Monday morning quarterbacking going on than after the Super Bowl. Every gesture he made was commented upon. Every word he uttered was scrutinized. Every word he did not utter (Nazi, murder, sorry, six million) was questioned. The Pope’s visit was full of religious, political, cultural and diplomatic symbolism, and real issues. The Pope is a frequent flyer but in no other country are his visits quite as scrutinized. It goes without saying that the mere presence of the leader of more than one billion Catholics in the Jewish state is bound to be significant. Jews and Catholics (indeed all Christianity) don’t have to look far back to times when anti-Semitism was at the very least common and Church sanctioned, if not encouraged. It’s only been 15 years since the Vatican actually recognized the State of Israel and established full relations. Having two successive Popes of Polish and German origin underscores that there is an inseparable connection between the Holocaust and the Church. Yet as they try to make amends for the past, the deep wounds are exacerbated by plans to beatify Holocaust era Pope Pius VI. I am neither a linguist nor an historian nor a theologian. And I don’t play one on TV. And while I tried to absorb all the observations being made, I had a hard time coming down on either side of what all the questions and scrutiny were ultimately about: Is the Pope, and his visit to Israel, good for the Jews? Yet some things seem patently obvious. Given the extremes to which people have gone to interpret the Pope’s visit, I have to go back to basics. First, it’s hard, and even unfathomable, to think that the Pope would come to Israel as anything but a gesture of good will. OK, so he sees the world, religion and politics differently than we do. It’s not as if we are one unified body on most issues, so it’s a moving target as to which segments of the Jewish or Israeli population from whom he really differs. Some of his actions and words may have come across poorly or not clearly enough. But is it really possible that he came here with the intent of showing overt disrespect for Israel and sugar coating a message for which he really didn’t care? I don’t think so. Perhaps the Vatican Foreign Ministry will go back to the drawing board and try to learn for the future, not just about what message they wish to convey, but how it will be conveyed, how it might be received, especially if the positive message he tried to convey on this visit was lost on those he visited. In five days in Israel alone, the Pope must have delivered more than a dozen formal speeches, attended many events and dialogues, and held mass in three or four different places. He had a busy schedule indeed. Each event was planned not just by the Israeli hosts, but by the Vatican as well. So, as many posited their own opinions, I wondered who wrote his speeches and what they intended to convey. Was there gross insensitivity or a huge cultural gap? Was there a consideration to use language that would convey to Israelis that he gets it, that we’re really on the same page, that the Church deplores anti Semitism, that the Church is sorry for its role in the Holocaust, that Holocaust denial is a sin? The Pope’s visit reminded me of a third grade school party. I don’t remember the occasion, but we sat in a circle and played the famous childhood game, telephone. One person started by whispering something to the child to his or her left, and so it went around in a circle to see if the original message remained intact. Our teacher, Mrs. Mathis, used this as her way to announce to the class that she was pregnant and would be leaving at the end of the year. It’s strange how such memories can come back after almost four decades in a seemingly unrelated context. Whoever wrote his speeches probably wrote them in Italian, Latin or maybe even German. Then they were translated to English. And after he delivered them, they were translated yet again into Hebrew. Was something lost in the translation? In his speech at Yad Vashem, among those most scrutinized, is it possible that the word used in the original copy (in whatever language it was written) that was translated as “killed” really meant something closer to “murdered?” Is it possible that some or all of the brouhaha that came about was nothing more than a misunderstanding, like a third grade game about which everyone can have a good laugh afterward without pointing fingers and getting angry? Maybe what the Pope MEANT to say was “Mrs. Mathis is having a baby.” But what we HEARD was “Mrs. Mathis is eating turkey with gravy.” And I hate gravy. How could the Pope be so insensitive? And why didn’t he apologize for, if nothing else, the horrible traffic?