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What translating Benedict’s words taught me

Benedict XVI: magisterial intellect (AP)

The first things that came to mind when I was asked to write about the experience of translating Benedict XVI’s Last Testament were uninteresting and entirely predictable: all the unforeseen consequences one might expect when an early career academic finds himself with a gargantuan, if awesome, task to complete in very little time.

Making my way tortuously through 288 pages of freshly printed German text in August, in an extreme bout of overwork, led to moments of anxiety. I worried about even slightly misconstruing the intended meaning of the former pope’s words, panicked about when I would finish my own book (which I was supposed to be submitting to the publishers that month) and, most serious of all, felt an overarching sense of guilt at a wholly unsatisfactory neglect of my wife and son over the August Bank Holiday.

Such was the maelstrom of complex emotions swirling around my little writing desk in a poky corner of our flat, where I was hunched over a laptop balanced precariously among piles of books and dictionaries. I did emerge from time to time to read our toddler a story, or eat a spot of dinner. But on such occasions I still found my gaze wandering out of focus as I agonised over the best possible way to translate difficult German words. Gezecht, for example, meaning “to carouse” or “consume large quantities of alcohol”, which the Pope Emeritus uses to describe the activities of a small group he joined for after-session debriefs in the Trastevere district of Rome during Vatican II.

But the “kitchen sink theology” image just described is not really the whole truth. For although I was a million miles away from the scene the Pope Emeritus describes of his own optimum environment for careful study, the fact remains that – as the retired pope’s interviewer Peter Seewald puts it himself – “In the beauty of [Benedict XVI’s] language, the depth of his thinking leads one up to the heights.” Amid all my difficult circumstances, there was much to keep me fully engaged with the text as I followed all the twists and turns of Ratzinger’s remarkable life, and sailed upwards on the wings of his magisterial intellect.

This didn’t come as much of a shock to me, admittedly. I converted to the Church in 2008, and I believe that Joseph Ratzinger said once that the Church of the future will be a Church of converts, just as it was for the first generation of Christians. Converts from 2005 to 2013 can thus aptly be termed the “Benedict Generation”, and tend to share a concern for the intellectual heritage of Europe, a firm conviction in the formative power of the liturgy and the practice of piety, and – as exemplified by their namesake – a sense of dynamic contemporaneity combined with deep fidelity to the sacramental mission of the Church.

What particularly kept my soul ringing out with joy as I was hunched over Last Testament was the candour with which Benedict XVI shows himself to be a man of profound interiority and prayer.

There is, of course, plenty of human interest in the book, and much a non-Catholic would find compelling simply as a drama of history. One feels some sympathy for this softly spoken 50-year-old intellectual when he is unexpectedly and reluctantly elevated to the episcopate, and then again four years later when he takes on the global responsibility of being the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog. The feeling of sympathy grows yet stronger in reading about the attempts he made to resign – yearning for a life of solitude, recollection and prayer – which eventually led to the point where John Paul II would know a request to step down was coming and answer: “You don’t need to tell me … you want to be set free, it will not be heard. As long as I am here, you must stay.”

Of course, John Paul II’s days came to an end, but Ratzinger didn’t get the reprieve he expected. Now I understand why the antechamber adjoining the Sistine Chapel, where a newly elected pope waits to go before the faithful, is called “the room of tears”. But eventually, Benedict XVI had only one authority who could grant him permission to step down. He usually refers to that authority in Last Testament as “the loving God”. He also describes in scintillating detail the prayerful encounters with that ultimate authority which led to his decision to relinquish the Petrine Chair, with God’s gracious blessing.

The really important things I learnt from this translation, then, were not the usual caveats about work-life balance, time management and professional boundaries. On the contrary, I glimpsed something of what it is to stand “in the heart of the fire” (Deuteronomy 4:12), and as a fully paid-up member of the Benedict Generation this means I should get to work and fan the flame of this fire in once Christian lands.

Now I just need to convince my long-suffering wife that I’ll make sure I won’t be doing this over the August Bank Holiday next year…

This article first appeared in the November 11 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here