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How Translation Introduces Loss And Can Distort Meaning

Pope Francis has grabbed many headlines by discussing what appear to be bold changes to Catholic doctrine. However, one recent headline would make it sound like he wants to rethink the concept of religion and God entirely. The alleged quote goes something like “God is not a divine being or a magician” (this phrasing is taken from the Catholic Register).

Twitter has taken this statement to its full absurdity.

Catholic Warrior: Pope Contradicts Genesis Account of Creation He said God is Not Divine WHAT!
Armageddon News: Pope Francis backs theory of evolution, says God is not divine or a magician | Pebbles Smith: On the matter of GOD IS NOT DIVINE Just setting the record straight. Stan isn't alive in the vatican, but bad...

Even to a non-Catholic, something should seem wrong with this statement. After all it is an established joke to ask if the Pope is Catholic or if God is Divine. These statements are supposed to represent a foundational fact so basic that it is ridiculous to question it.

Is the Pope Catholic? Is God divine? Do bears go in the woods?

So where did this ridiculous statement come from? Most likely bad translation. Pope Francis wasn’t speaking English when he made this statement, and although his native tongue is Spanish, he has been known to favor Italian since becoming Pope.

Looking to the text of the speech in Italian and comparing it to the official French and Portuguese translations offers a glimpse of where the confusion might have originated.

“Dio non è un demiurgo o un mago” – Official Speech Transcript in Italian

“précisément parce que Dieu n’est pas un démiurge ou un magicien” – Official Speech Transcript in French

“Deus não é um demiurgo nem um mago” – Official Speech Transcript in Portuguese

A brief scan of religious news articles by the Vatican and others makes it even more clear:

“God is not a demiurge or a conjurer” – The Vatican Information Service (English)

“Dios no es un mago sino el Creador” – The Vatican Information Service (Spanish)

“God is not a demiurge [demigod] or a magician” – Religious News Service (English)

“Dio non è un demiurgo o un mago” – Avvenire (Italian Language Catholic Newspaper)

Then going on to popular news media, we find a very similar, yet completely different statement:

“God is not a divine being or a magician” – The Sydney Morning Herald (among others)

“God is not a demigod or a magician” – Huffington Post


What is a demiurge? Is it a demigod? Or a synonym for divine?

The word demiurge is somewhat of an immigrant. Originating in Greek, it was transferred via Latin to English, French, and Italian. From Wikipedia:

The word “demiurge” is an English word from a Latinized form of the Greek δημιουργός, dēmiourgos, literally “public worker”, and which was originally a common noun meaning “craftsman” or “artisan”, but gradually it came to mean “producer” and eventually “creator”.

Being a scholar, Pope Francis might have intended the word in a more classical sense:

The demiurge (/ˈdɛmiˌɜrdʒ/) is a concept from the Platonic, Neopythagorean, Middle Platonic, and Neoplatonic schools of philosophy for an artisan-like figure responsible for the fashioning and maintenance of the physical universe.

But, either way it seems obvious that he did NOT intend to say “God is not divine”.

Why did media fail so badly at translating “demiurge”?

The culprit is most likely machine translation. Try looking up demiurgo in an Italian to English dictionary. It can’t be found. Yet demiurgo can be found in Italian dictionaries, so we know it is in fact an Italian word.

Since no one has manually recorded what demiurgo means in English, it’s likely that popular translation software would try and scrape some meaning from another source, such as Wikipedia. In this case, the Italian language article on demiurgo is linked to the English language article on demiurge. Thus without a known definition of demiurgo, the translation software made an educated (and not wrong) guess that demiurge was an appropriate translation of demiurgo.

Screen Shot 2014-10-31 at 12.45.05 AM-1

The issue is that demiurge doesn’t mean anything to the average English speaker. While the word technically exists in dictionaries, it represents a nuanced concept that very few people understand. Thus it seems that an editor or reporter swapped out the equivalent seeming demigod and divine, which is completely wrong…but sounds right.

What is really interesting is that popular translation software will now get the phrase right, or at least less wrong. Meaning that someone (since this story broke) has submitted a more accurate translation to the service which is now overriding the original translation.

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Language nuance lost in machine translation

Why do people use machine translation? Well, it may be error prone, but machine translation is also fast, easy and free. In the 24/7 news cycle and the race for the byline, critical analysis is often left by the wayside. Even a TIME Magazine article about this brouhaha fails to correct the obvious mistranslation at the heart of the story they were attempting to cover. But, it is one thing to get the gist of a document using machine translation, and quite another to use inadequately rigorous translation to imply papal doctrine.

Machine translation is actually one of the most error-prone natural language processing (NLP) tasks. At Babel Street, we’re frequently surprised at how many systems, when confronted with non-English text, look to immediately translate that text into English. By doing so they insert a source of error at the very start of their data lifecycle which will likely exacerbate errors of subsequent NLP tasks. If instead translation is done just-in-time, when a user needs to read it, these errors can be avoided and the context of that moment can help optimize the translation.

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