More on the Papal Motto: “miserando atque eligendo”

So there seems to be a little controversy about the meaning of the papal motto, which in Latin quite simple and elegant: “miserando atque eligendo”. This was Cardinal Bergoglio’s episcopal motto for many years, and it was on his episcopal coat of arms, just as it is now on his papal coat of arms.

There are a few competing ideas. Myself and several other persons, translated it as “pitiable yet chosen.” A similar translation has the phrasing “lowly yet chosen” and another has “miserable yet chosen”.

But then there are a few off-the-rails translations, such as “with mercy and choosing” and Fr. Z.’s odd phrasing: “By showing compassion and by choosing”.

Which is correct? Many students of Latin are chiming in to explain the grammar of this phrase and of the text from Saint Bede from which it is drawn. They explain the declension (ablative, used for prepositional phrases) and case of the verb (a gerund, not a gerundive) and they go on at some length about how the meaning must be one thing or another, based on all these grammatical factors.

My experience in translating Latin: I spent five years, working nearly every day, to translate the entire Clementine Vulgate Bible from Latin into English (as the Catholic Public Domain Version). I’ve also published my own edit of the Latin Bible. See my work with the Bible here. So when I explain how translating Latin works, my explanation is based on my experience — something most of the online commentators on this subject lack.

Anyone can look up words in a Latin dictionary and find the meaning, case, tense, gender, etc. But if you look up all the words in a sentence or phrase, and translate each word individually with the correct dictionary definition and grammar, you will not necessarily obtain a correct translation. Sometimes a proposed translation can be entirely correct in terms of the grammar — the student-translator gets the case, tense, etc. right — and yet the wording of the translation is wrong. There are a few reasons for this.

First, sometimes the proposed translation, despite being based on a correct understanding of grammar, is simply not how you would say that in Latin. I often see Latin phrases online, which are apparently the result of choosing a phrase in English, and then translating it, word for word, into Latin. The grammar is correct, and yet that is not how you would express that idea if you actually knew Latin. Conversely, it is possible to get the grammar right, and yet have the translation all wrong.

Second, a native speaker of Latin does not hear the words, and then figure out in his head all of the grammatical facts, and then figure out what the meaning may be. Grammar affects meaning, of course. But so does context. There are essentially three rules for the translation of Latin or any other language: context, context, context. When I read passages from the Latin Bible, I can understand the meaning without first translating the text into English in my head, and without analyzing the grammar.

Third, a correct translation must be based first and foremost on meaning. If grammar is placed first, the translation will either be awkward, or incoherent, or flat-out wrong. Consider an interlinear translation of the Bible. The interlinear text is exact on every point of grammar. But read by itself, the interlinear is almost unreadable. The extreme emphasis on the exact grammar sometimes harms the meaning.

Fourth, a loose translation of the Bible (a “dynamic” translation) puts meaning above the word-for-word text, with all its grammatical factors, sometimes too far above it. A literal translation of the Bible keeps the meaning bound to the text and its grammar. But even with a strict literal translation, the tense and case of the translated text is not and cannot always be the same as in the original text. Latin uses case and tense differently than in English. So even in the strictest literal translations of the Bible, case and tense are NOT always maintained in the translation.

So when I see online explanations of the grammar of the papal motto, “miserando atque eligendo”, I notice that correct grammar does not always result in a correct translation.

In particular, Fr. Z.’s translation — “By showing compassion and by choosing” — does not make sense. Yes, miserando and eligendo are both ablative, and so that would typically be translated with a prepositional phrase. Sometimes the ablative is used with a stated preposition in the Latin, other times it is implied. Yes, both words are gerunds (a verb form that functions like a noun). However, you can see that getting the grammar correct is not sufficient by looking at Fr. Z.’s translation of the sermon of St. Bede (from which the papal motto is derived). I said DERIVED. It is not merely lifted out of that sermon without any change in context or meaning.

Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi Sequere me.

Fr. Z’s translation:
Jesus, therefore, saw the publican, and because he saw by having mercy and by choosing, He said to him, ‘Follow me’.

My translation:
“Then Jesus saw the publican, and because he saw [him to be] pitiable and yet elect, he said to him: Follow me.”

Fr. Z’s translation of that phrase, in the context of St. Bede’s sermon, is not grammatically correct in English: “because he saw by having mercy and by choosing”. More than an awkward translation, it is incoherent and incorrect. Fr. Z. describes his own approach to translation as “slavishly literal”. But my experience as a translator informs me that the most literal translation is sometimes awkward or obscure, and other times plainly incorrect.

Why does Fr. Z. get the translation wrong here? He is grinding an axe. He doesn’t want to accept the papal motto chosen by Pope Francis, which uses the word “miserando”. The Pope is humbly referring to himself as a pitiful wretch, who is not worthy to be chosen. The same motto was used by the Pope when he was a Bishop. He was contrasting his selection by Christ to be Christian, to be Bishop, and now to be Pope, with his own unworthiness: “miser et miserabilis” (wretched and miserable, or wretched and pitiable, or miserable and pitiful).

Fr. Z. and other commentators wish to soften the Pope’s self-description. The Pope is essentially saying: “I am a worm and not a man: a disgrace among men, and an outcast of the people. Yet I have been chosen by Christ. For God has chosen the ignoble and contemptible of the world.” (cf. Ps 21:7; 1 Cor 1:28).

But some of the proposed translations of the papal motto soften “pitiable” or “wretched” to “lowly”. Can we not admit that the Pope is a fallen sinner, just as we all are? They are doing what many modernist Bible translators do, they alter the translation, in contradiction to the source text, so as to soften all the sharp edges of the Gospel, so as to remove or obscure every phrase that would expose our unworthiness.

Fr. Z. goes a step further. He changes the entire meaning, so that the phrase has the Pope showing mercy (or compassion) and choosing. To the contrary, my read of the Latin phrase has the Pope humbly admitting his unworthiness as one of many pitiable wretches, and yet rejoicing that he has been chosen by Christ to serve God and His people.

Is a translation of “lowly” justified?

The root word is a verb (misereo, misere) meaning to pity, or to feel pity. In biblical passages, especially in modern translations, the verb is often translated as to have mercy or to feel compassion. That translation, in my view, is not so accurate. Misercordia is more often translated as mercy, though it can also mean compassion or pity. But misere is more often rendered as “to pity”. The related adjective translates as “miserable, wretched, unhappy, pitiable”.

My view is that “lowly” is too soft and cuddly, compared to the harshness of the stark phrasing “miserando atque eligendo”. The Pope was not saying: “I’m very humble and lowly, and so for that reason I was chosen by Christ.” Instead, he is saying: “I am a miserable wretch and yet I have been chosen to serve.”

Fr. Z.’s translation essentially has the Pope bragging: “I am the one who shows compassion and who does the choosing”. He does not want to see the Pope as a miserable and wretched sinner, who was chosen despite his fallen human nature and his personal faults and failings.

Now as for the case and tense of the words miserando and eligendo: Yes, Fr. Z. and other slavishly-literal translators, most of them students with little or no actual translation experience, have understood the grammar: ablative gerund. So a strict translation, with no regard for context at all, would translate the phrase as “by taking pity and by choosing”. But that translation is at best awkward and inaccurate in the context of St. Bede’s sermon, and it is incorrect as a translation of a papal motto. A correct translation of any sentence or phrase does not always maintain the same case and tense. Sometimes maintaining the same case and tense is awkward, and other times it is simply a translation error. Context, context, context.

For example, there is a Greek expression: “Molon labe”. The Spartans were ordered by the Persians, at the battle of Thermopylae, to surrender their weapons. The Spartan king replied: “Molon labe”. The strict translation, keeping all the grammatical points the same, would be something like: “Having arrived, take.” Does that sound like a king defiant at his last stand?

A looser and better translation was actually used on a flag by Texan settlers, when the Mexican army ordered them to surrender their weapon, a cannon: “Come and take it”. Notice that the first verb now has a different tense, and the word “and” as well as the word “it” are added, with no corresponding words in the Greek. But this looser translation is clearer and more accurate.

So when we translate the papal motto, the verb tense and case need not remain the same.

Now the papal motto is lifted from a sermon by St. Bede, and that changes the context. The same thing happens, to a lesser extent with the Latin titles of papal documents. The first word or two or three of the document’s first sentence in Latin usually becomes the title. But often the case and tense of the words in the first sentence do not make sense as a title. And so the English translation of the title changes (or outright ignores) case and tense.

A word that has one case in the first sentence, might not retain that case when it stands alone as a title.

Title: Casti Connubii (Chaste Marriage)
Sentence: How great is the dignity of chaste wedlock….
The phrase is genitive in the sentence, but proper translation of the same phrase as a title, does not retain the case. The translated title is essentially nominative (“Chaste Wedlock”), and not genitive “Of Chaste Wedlock”.

The same grammatical situation occurs with Humanae Vitae; the phrase is genitive in the document, but not in any translation of the title that you could find anywhere.

Similarly, when “miserando atque eligendo” is used as a motto, as a phrase that stands on its own, it cannot be accurately translated with strict regard for case and tense, as an ablative gerund. The context and the meaning take precedence over the grammar.

“Pitiable yet chosen” makes perfect sense as a Papal motto. It is an expression of the humility of the man who was chosen by Christ.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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3 Responses to More on the Papal Motto: “miserando atque eligendo”

  1. Dr. Ronald Tucker says:

    This was an outstanding article and I’m grateful to you, Ronald, for taking the time to address this topic. I had seen various translations and they all seemed to ‘fail’ for me intuitively, although I could not explain why. Your expertise is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  2. Giuseppe says:

    Check Father Z’s post about this. A commenter Diane argues that the words are dative gerundives modifying ‘illi’ (Matthew). She makes a fantastic argument.

    • Ron Conte says:

      It’s not the right spelling for the gerundive. Fr. Z. is right that each word is an ablative gerund. He is just translating the phrase too literally.

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