TEMPTING

The Pope wants a new translation for Christianity’s most famous prayer

Obsession
Language
Obsession
Language

Does anything about this translation of the Lord’s Prayer, the most well-known prayer in all of Christianity, strike you as odd?

Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

If you answered yes, you are in the company of none other than Pope Francis, who thinks this translation, standard for hundreds of years, needs changing.

The pope’s opposition centers around the phrase “lead us not into temptation.” God, says the pope, would never do such a thing. Humans may succumb to temptation, but God does not lead them to it. He suggests using “do not let us fall into temptation”—or something that similarly does not make God the subject of the sentence—instead.

“It’s not a good translation,” the pope told (link in Italian) an Italian TV channel earlier this week. “It is I who fall, it is not God who throws me into temptation and then sees how I fell.”

His target is not just English. Translations into Italian, Spanish, and other languages all make it sound like God is leading us to temptation. And it is French Catholics who appear to have led the charge against “lead us into temptation.” They introduced a more passive construction, which translates to “do not let us give in to temptation,” that was approved (link in French) by Rome in 2013. The new translation has since spread to the Francophone countries of Belgium and Benin. The spread is likely to continue with the Pope’s new push—his announcement was covered widely in the Spanish-language media (link in Spanish), for example.

The story is a bit more complicated, though. The English translation of the Lord’s Prayer above comes from the Latin Vulgate, a 4th-Century translation of the Bible into Latin from Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Greek. The “lead into temptation” construction that the Pope disagrees with exists in both the Greek and Latin versions. The Latin uses the verb ducere, meaning “to lead” or “to guide.” And the Greek is something like “carry” towards temptation. So it’s not as if “lead us into temptation” is an incorrect translation.

But Francis’ thinking here is in line with most modern translators. Translations are best understood not as perfect representations of the original, but as living documents that reflect the culture and teachings of the day—and in this case, interpretations of theology dictated by the current pope. Theologians or translators who agree are not likely to be upset by the pope’s suggestion.

But millions of Catholics might have to slightly revise the deeply ingrained memory of the Lord’s Prayer.

Annalisa Merelli contributed language expertise.

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