The Holy Father’s “Our Father” Comments in Context

On the evening of December 6th, TV2000, the Italian equivalent of EWTN, aired an interview of Pope Francis where he criticized the Italian translation of the Our Father. He pointed out how some other languages have better translations. His argument is the Italian isn’t an accurate description of what the Gospel says, not to change the Gospel.

So, please don’t freak out about this. Give me 3 minutes to explain.

How Translation Works

Let’s do a little background to understand how translation works, the original text of the Our Father, and then examine the problem in Italian Francis refers to. Before I learned other languages, I thought the translation was just changing a word for a word. I assumed words meant the same in different languages. Later, I learned this is not the case. However, it is easy to think this before learning foreign languages.

A comical example a friend who teaches foreign languages posted was Google translate gives “mermelada de papel” for “paper jam.”  Anyone who knows Spanish is laughing. “Mermelada” means jam in the sense of fruit jam in your fridge so this means you’ve made paper into food.

More difficult still is how distinctions between words vary. In Spanish, the verb “estar” from the Latin verb to stand, is used in many cases we’d use “to be” in English but also for cases we’d use “to stand.” Such distinctions between words can also move over time. On these points, even professional translators struggle.

So what do we have in the Our Father? Here’s the key line in Greek, just as St Matthew wrote it.

καὶ μὴ εἰσενέγκῃς ἡμᾶς εἰς πειρασμόν (And lead us not into temptation)

I know most of you probably don’t understand that. I post it so we can understand translation. First, some words have a pretty easy or direct translation.

καὶ = and

μὴ = negation which we translate as “not” although “do not” or similar would also work

ἡμᾶς = us

εἰς = in or into

However, two words are not so obvious and direct to translate.

εἰσενέγκῃς which we translate as “lead” comes from two words “into” and “to carry.” Strong’s – a top dictionary of Biblical Greek – defines it: to carry inward (literally or figuratively), bring (in), lead into.

πειρασμόν which we translate as “temptation” but some Bibles translate “trial” has a wide range of meanings. Strong’s has a long definition but here’s a summary: an experiment, attempt, trial, proving, an enticement to sin, or temptation. It has a wider meaning than just a temptation.

Thus, the same line could be translated different ways based on those definitions.

Now let’s get back to Italian and Pope Francis. In Italian, the line is “e non ci indurre in tentazione” which is basically the same as English except “indurre” isn’t exactly “lead.” Google translate gives us “cause” when put in alone, but Italian dictionaries give a wider sense. One says “move another to do something, persuade.” Another says, “convince, persuade… force, oblige… provoke.”

Pope Francis on The Our Father

Pope Francis said this Italian translation isn’t good because it is too easy to misunderstand that God causing temptation. He says, “It isn’t a good translation as it speaks of a God who induces to temptation.” He insists, “[The one] who induces you into temptation is Satan.”

He refers to French and implicitly to Spanish, both of which clarify this point better. Francis mentions, “The French have modified the prayer as ‘don’t leave me to fall into temptation,’ because it is I who fall; it isn’t He who throws me into temptation.”

A literal translation of Spanish also shows the same pattern. It would read, “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

What the Pope is doing is not changing the Our Father. Instead, he is asking translators to make sure they don’t leave the translation open to misinterpretation.

Translations of ancient texts change as language changes, and to clarify possible misunderstandings. Few of us can read, “Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,” but that’s the first line of the original English translation of the Our Father from about 1000 years ago. Likewise, our current translation of the Our Father uses “art” as a verb and “thy”: we might switch them to “are” and “your” as the more standard words today.

When many interpret God as authoritarian, it is probably worth clarifying that he doesn’t cause temptation. Pope Francis is right in pointing out that God doesn’t cause, just allows, temptation. Some languages may have translations that need to be updated to reflect that. This does not change the Our Father.