Tempted by the “Our Father”

Just saying…

I’d like to try and reflect today on the new Italian translation of the “Our Father” which, over the last few weeks, has been a topic of discussion both within and outside ecclesiastical circles. The question of translation had already been raised as far back as 1988, when in order to correct some errors a decision had been taken to revise the old translation of the CEI Bible of 1971. The new translation of the CEI Bible in 2008 adopted the wording “non abbandonarci alla tentazione (do not abandon us to temptation)”. This change did not, however, have any immediate or binding effects in the setting of liturgical prayer. During a recent interview with Fr. Marco Pozza for the seventh episode of the programme “Padre Nostro” (Our Father) on TV2000[1], Pope Francis expressed himself in favour of a new translation of the liturgical version of the prayer. It was Pope Francis taking the modification which the Italian Episcopal Conference had already introduced some time before into account. In other words, there was nothing extraordinary in what he said: Francis didn’t introduce any novelties, pace those who wanted to read discontinuity into his words. What he said had more to do with the reception into the liturgical setting of a formulation of the text which has already been used by the faithful for some time and with which they have familiarized themselves through the new translation of the CEI Bible. The final step in this decades-long process was the “assembly” of the Episcopal Conference held between the 22nd to the 25th of last January. Here, the bishops finally decided to allow the new translation of the “Our Father” into liturgical use, meaning that the inclusion of the new translation in the third edition of the Messale Romano – still a work in progress – will be obligatory.

Let’s get down to the merits of the translation. I’ll be honest: although I’m aware that some form of change is needed, I don’t find the new translation of the “Our Father” convincing! I fear that the new version “non abbandonarci alla tentazione (do not abandon us to temptation)” runs the risk of becoming a politically correct reply to the traditional formula “non ci indurre in tentazione (do not impel us into temptation)”, neutralizing that desire to change which animated all these long years of research and debate. The new version certainly presents itself as less “harsh” than the well-known “do not impel us”, yet it’s this traditional version which follows the substance of the Latin inducere present in the Vulgate text and of the original Greek eisenénkes, aorist subjunctive of the verb eisphérein, which means, literally “let enter, introduce, bring inside”. The problem arises from the fact that in Italian, “indurre” has shades of meaning different to its Latin and Greek counterparts. While “indurre” is a constrictive verb in Italian, inducere and eisphérein are implicitly permissive and concessive in value. In practice, this simply means that they convey the idea of “letting enter”.

The phrase could therefore be translated as “non lasciarci entrare [in tentazione] (do not let us enter [into temptation])”. This is precisely what the French bishops have chosen to do with “ne nous laisse pas entrer [en tentation]”. The Italians choice was to avoid lengthy translations so as not to render the prayer too cumbersome. That said, the new French translation has also become a source of polemic, this time of a theological and anthropological nature. The French translation appears to vehicle the idea that it’s possible to ask God to avoid experiencing the inevitable, namely, the experience of temptation.

Some observe that the new Italian version “non abbandonarci a (do not abandon us to)” has some merit in that it preserves the concessive sense of the Greek eisphérein and its Latin translation inducere. At the semantic level, it’s a legitimate translation. Personally, however, I hold on to my reservations with regards to the new translation. I hold that it’s exposed to a fundamental ambiguity which risks leading us into an intellectual short circuit. Just like the old translation, the new translation suggests that it’s God who “abandons us to temptation”. Yet the new translation is further aggravated by the fact that He not only leads us to temptation, but abandons us to it. The end result is that we double down in our suspicion of God. I ask: can God abandon us to temptation, just as one abandons someone to their own devices and to their own destiny? Most certainly not! The fundamental problem of the old translation therefore seems to re-present itself. It’s as though we find ourselves trapped in that logic of “change everything so that nothing changes”[2].

We’d like to distance ourselves, on the one hand, from the idea of a God who impels (or leads) man into temptation. As Francis reminds us in the interview with TV2000, “it is Satan who leads us into temptation”. On the other hand, with the new version of the translation we risk saying exactly the same thing as before, save for the use of different words coated in an abundant crust of sugar. Then we have the French attempt at a new translation which – although a valid translation of the Greek text – conveys the problematic notion that de facto, man petitions God that he may be dispensed the passage into adulthood. In other words, he asks God to remain a child.

I believe that the true problem lies not in the translation of the verb eisphérein, but rather in the meaning we attribute to the noun peirasmós, which the Vulgata translates temptatio. Through time, this word – which originally had the value of vox media (that is, its meaning was neutral) – has undergone a “semantic shift”. In other words, it has ended up assuming a meaning in Italian with prevalently negative connotations. The Italian word for “temptation” – “tentazione” – has become a specialized word with a precise meaning: a moment of hardship in which man finds himself in crisis, a crisis which sees him crumble and, in the Christian tradition, distances him from God. Now, in order to recover the median value of the term “tentazione”, what we could do is distinguish between temptation understood as “trap” – which communicates the image of a sadistic God who amuses himself playing games with us – and temptation understood as “trial”, that same trial lived by Abraham, Israel and Job, yet also by Jesus. We might read “trial” as an education towards fidelity, love and freedom.

Considering the above arguments (here necessarily simplified), over the years I find myself affirming repeatedly that it would probably have been more opportune to recover the median value of peirasmós while leaving the traditional formula “non ci indurre in tentazione” untouched (it remains a translation more faithful to the original Greek than the more recent version). Otherwise – if a change is truly necessary from the pastoral point of view – we should translate with the more daring “do not abandon us in temptation (non ci abbandonare nella tentazione)”. This would, yes, have brought about a substantial change both in the formulation of the text and in our understanding of it. Praying “do not abandon us in temptation” would be like saying “do not leave us alone when we’re tempted … by others, however, not by God”. We wouldn’t be asking God to dispense us from temptation/trial as such, but rather, that He may not abandon us in that moment in which we find ourselves tempted. A simple preposition would suffice to transform the sense of the expression and the image of God it communicates.

I’ve recently been encouraged to return to my reflection on the issue by Pope Francis’ interview on TV2000. Quoting the French translation from memory, Francis made a small mistake which passed almost unnoticed. Attributing to the French a formulation of the text which does not correspond in its entirety to the one adopted by the Episcopal Conference, the Pope said: “Even the French have changed the text with a translation which says ‘do not let me fall in temptation’: it’s I who fall, it isn’t Him who pushes me into temptation”. Now, I find Francis’ idea here very interesting with respect to the formula adopted in France (“ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation”). Francis’ formulation allows the concessive value of the Greek verb (“do not let us”), the dynamic idea of entrance (“falling” always presupposes “entering into”), the semantic double stratification of the word “temptation” and the demand for personal responsibility to be held together, thus exonerating God from the charge of sadism on the one hand and paternalism on the other. When we enter into the temptation/trap to which Satan exposes us (and into the temptation/trial which God permits in order to educate us in living as responsible adults), and being aware that we may fall, we ask for the Father’s help that we may not surrender.

Translation – as we know well – is always an interpretative act. As such, it’s always open to risks. The translator must have the capacity to hold together what may be very far apart, meanings on the one hand and what is necessary for a good translation into a different language on the other. I was unable, due to the brevity of this article, to go into the riches of the biblical text. Standing on its own two feet, the biblical text is more than capable of giving reasons to support the numerous tensions inherent in the translation of the “Our Father” I have attempted to tease out, tensions which it would be wise, perhaps, to leave alone. In this sense, every translation is subject to its own constitutive limits.

Are we tempted/tried by the “Our Father”? This could, in itself, be good news: that words – incapable of fully containing the mystery of God and the mystery of man – may inflame within us the desire to deepen our search once more.

[1] TV2000 is the television station of the Italian Episcopal Conference (the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, or CEI for short)

[2] Made famous in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “Il Gattopardo (The Leopard)”.

Photo by Ben White 

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