Linguistic comparisons

Just looking at the transcripts of Francis’s papal addresses in Poland today, and in paticular the greetings offered, I am struck by the splendid rectores magnifici, or “magnificent rectors”, faithfully rendered in Italian, Spanish, French, Portugese, Polish (I think), but unaccountably watered down in English (“University rectors”) and German (“O magnificent ones” — did the German translator not know what a rector was?). No wonder we have such problems with liturgical translations….


  1. The English version is at,
    with links for other languages.
    The word “magnifico” in Italian means a person of distinguished rank or office. It does not have the same usage as “magnificent” in English; it refers to the position rather than the person. “Faithful rendering” in translation does not mean using a similar sounding word.
    For “magnificent”, my German dictionary gives “herrlich.”

  2. I agree that faithful rendering does not mean using a similar sounding word. That reasoning is what has given us “consubstantial with” instead of “of one being with”.

    My point was that “university” is scarcely a translation of “magnifici” — “distinguished” might have been, although the Italian original uses “distinti” for this purpose — and in German the rectors are not even mentioned.

    A line-by-line comparison is instructive:

    Signor Presidente,
    Distinte Autorità,
    Distinti Membri del Corpo Diplomatico,
    Magnifici Rettori,
    Signore e Signori,

    Panie Prezydencie,
    Czcigodni przedstawiciele władz,
    Szanowni Członkowie Korpusu Dyplomatycznego,
    Wasze Magnificencje,
    Szanowni Państwo,

    Monsieur le Président,
    Distinguées Autorités,
    Membres du Corps diplomatique,
    Recteurs magnifiques,
    Mesdames et Messieurs,

    Mr President,
    Honourable Authorities,
    Distinguished Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
    University Rectors,
    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    Herr Präsident,
    sehr geehrte Vertreter des öffentlichen Lebens,
    sehr geehrte Mitglieder des diplomatischen Korps,
    meine Damen und Herren,

    Señor Presidente,
    Distinguidas autoridades,
    Miembros del Cuerpo Diplomático,
    Rectores Magníficos,
    Señoras y señores

    Senhor Presidente,
    Distintas Autoridades
    Ilustres Membros do Corpo Diplomático,
    Magníficos Reitores,
    Senhoras e Senhores!

    from which it can be seen, for example, in addition to what I said in my original post, that the French and Spanish rendering for members of the Corps Diplomatique omits “distinguished” altogether (the Portugese “illustrious” is great!); in Polish the authorities are not mentioned (“distinguished representatives of the…” with nothing following); nor are the rectors (“Your Magnificence[s]”, similar to the German); and in English “honourable” and “distinguished” are both used to translate the same word.

    Once again, if official Vatican translations of simple modes of address can vary in this way, why shouldn’t Missal translations have similar flexibility?

  3. This post brought back some memories. I did my theology degree at Leuven, in the European system. In that system each faculty (theology, mathematics, etc.) is headed by a rector, the equivalent of a dean or department chair in the US. The Rector Magnificus is the rector of rectors, the equivalent of a university president or chancellor in the US. So the English seems to be translating the concept behind the title, that the persons present were each the rector of an entire university. This is actually an excellent example of the problems with the missal translation. There is an English cognate for the title, Magnificent Rectors. It is literally exalted language that would never be used by an English speaker and renders the actual meaning pretty much unintelligible.

  4. Most Americans would not even know what a university “rector” is. The term is used here only in ecclesiastical institutions like seminaries, if I am not mistaken. Anyone know of a secular university in the US that has a “rector”? Or even a Catholic university?

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      The Unversity of Virginia, the first truly secular university in the USA and founded by that notable deist, Mr Jefferson, has had a rector since its founding – the Rector leads the Board of Visitors, which is the governing body of the university corporate entity (the Harvard equivalent being the President and Fellows of Harvard College – aka informally as the Harvard Corporation). (A president of the University of Virginia didn’t come on the scene until the 20th century, and didn’t displace the Rector and Board of Visitors.)

  5. The chief administrator of the Catholic University of America was titled “rector” from its founding in 1887 until the appointment of its first lay head in 1967.

    1. @George Hayhoe:
      Ah, I knew after I said that that Catholic U would be an exception. UVA surprises me, but I think the example shows the use of rector is an archaism, along with Board of Visitors, also not common, right?

      1. @Rita Ferrone:
        Well, UVA in its conception was very forward of American thinking (but became more backward as Virginia became more reactionary in the antebellum era, though UVA before the Civil War was the second largest American college, if memory serves – but the Civil War rendered it a backwater for many years).

        It took 40 years to get chartered (Patrick Henry was an early dogged opponent in state government) precisely because it was deliberately secular (no divinity/seminary component) and instead of being modeled on ancient English-French clerical college-university, was instead modeled on what later became known as Humboldt University. Jefferson was trying to avoid the linguistic associations with the medieval university model, and in that sense, was ahead of his time. Other American public universities up to that point still were more built around the medieval concept that was more familiar – seminaries were even given the mission of training ministers to preach to unconverted survivors of our indigenous peoples.

        One of the pieces of recursively ironic humor at the University is that the original Greek words of John 8:32 καὶ γνώσεσθε τὴν ἀλήθειαν καὶ ἡ ἀλήθεια ἐλευθερώσει ὑμᾶς are inscribed along the architrave of Stanford White’s Cabell Hall, which closed the powerfully symbolic open vista Jefferson wanted at the southwestern end of The Lawn (which vista had provided a view through a valley to the American Future, as it were). Jefferson had his own understanding of that verse.

        Jefferson’s last years partook of this frustrated vision: he (and his confreres Madison and Monroe) became more feeble and even reactionary about reforming Virginia, which as its agriculture declined was becoming dependent on breeding enslaved people to sell to the booming Cotton South. (By contrast, curmudgeonly John Adams became more liberal in certain respects as he aged – his last public office, as an 85-year old delegate to a state constitutional convention to amend the constitution he penned in 1780, included a fight to disestablish municipal churches in Massachusetts (establishment of which was included at the time at the insistence of his pious cousin Samuel) – which, being an Adams, he failed, but the war was won a few years after his death).

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:

        “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” — most people (including myself) think they know the truth, but only listen to themselves.

        In this instance Pope Francis merely offers customary salutations. Yet we the faithful do not know much about Pope Francis’s academic scholarship. This is sharply in contrast with Pope Benedict — the titles and broad contents of his doctoral thesis and habilitation are widely known. A modest introduction to Pope Francis’s studies, perhaps in an interview, would be interesting. Dottore Bergoglio is certainly more humble than Pont. Max.

      3. @Jordan Zarembo:

        Didn’t the education of Pope Francis follow the standard Jesuit pattern of his and previous times: first Classics, then philosophy, and finally theology? I’m not aware that there’s any mystery there.

  6. In British English I would think the term should be ‘Vice-Chancellors’. Perhaps what is missing is an adjective – perhaps ‘learned’ might be the one appropriate for a university head.

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