Monday, October 6, 2014

Translations of Saints' Names plus Q&A

A couple weeks ago, as I was walking out of daily mass with a few of the other church ladies, I made some comment about the saint's memorial we had just celebrated--Padre Pio.

"What?" excalimed one of my friends, "Are you saying today was Padre Pio's feast? I thought it was some St. Pius something-or-other. Now I feel like I missed it!"

Which got me wondering why the Powers that Be had to call Padre Pio by the English (Latin?) version of his name. I mean, for cryin' out loud, everyone knows who Padre Pio is! Why try to hide his identity with "Pius" thus confusing him with the two sainted popes by that name who are already on the universal calendar.

But looking back through the calendar, I see it is pretty standard to translate names into English. Hence, we didn't see St. Francesco on October 4th, or St. Giovanni Bosco on January 31st. We do have two Frenchmen on our calendar in French: St. Therese (not Theresa)  and St. Andre (not Andrew) Bessette.  And I also notice St. Juan Diego (not St. John James) on December 9th. So what gives with Padre Pio?

End of rant.  I hope you are all enjoying October weather and October saints.

If anyone has any questions or comments related to the Liturgy of the Hours, please use the comments section below.


  1. It's true there doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason as to which saints names we translate and which we borrow directly from the parent language. Maybe they were hit with a fit of wanting to be all standardized when they entered him into the calendar. I have noticed that some places do list St Therese as St Theresa, which rather drives me crazy.

  2. Yes, it is a rather difficult, yet universal question, and not quite universal in it approach or recommendation. As a Newfoundlander, we have a Cabot Tower on the top of Signal Hill in St. John's which commerates his arrival on our shores in 1497...However, the Italian Ambassador has been campaigning to have all references to John Cabot be made into his native name - Giovanni Caboto....I am acustomed to speaking of John Cabot and Cabot Tower, and I worry if there is not a little bit, just a little bit, of hidden prejudice or racism, in that fear of the name change. I wonder how many Americans would be comfortable referring to Columbus Day as Colombo Day? Is Jesus now Yeshua? Mary now Miriam? Decades and centuries are hard things to break, but they are not impossible with faith and knowledge that truth can be gradually revealed and discovered with the help of the Holy Spirit.

  3. Elizabeth Korves OCDSOctober 7, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    Are you sure your friend didn't simply have the wrong saint in mind as opposed to a translation problem? As for the Therese vs Theresa, I know among we Carmelites, we tend to stick with Therese in order to distinguish her from Teresa of Avila. With two "Teresas", its one small way to know which one we are talking about in any conversation. And we don't use the Theresa spelling for either.

    1. Elizabeth, if you look at your church calendar or missalette, you'll see it says "St. Pius of Pietrelcina" for September 23rd.

  4. Thank you, this has been one of those little things that always bugged me. Even the Pope's name while living are changed, do they think we are too limited to be able to call Pope Francis "Francesco"? IS it to seem more comfy to the english speakers and not so *gasp* foreign? Anyway, it is a subject matter that has captured my imagination at times pondering over the years as I read about saints, or the news.

  5. Maybe as we all become know! --cosmopolitan! (There's a good word that's been co-opted by a horrible magazine) we will start seeing more saints' names in their native languages. And once more saints with non-translatable names appear, there will be no choice. I'm glad St. Bakhita didn't get put there as St. Lucky. My African breviary includes a memorial on October 20th for Blesseds Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa. If they were ever to be canonized and put on the universal calendar, we'd just have to manage to pronounce them as is.

  6. I'll one up you: In my Divine Office (Collins), we celebrated St. Teresa of the Child Jesus on St. Therese of Lisieux's day! ;)

  7. I don't know I think suggesting that our discomfort with leaving names in the original language is a symptom of racism or prejudice definitely goes too far. The fact is it really is complicated. We've got two thousand years of many cultures drawing on the same well of Biblical and saints names and most often "translating" them to their own languages. Mary is Marie is Maria is Miriam is Maryam is Mali. Should everyone ditch 2000 years of history and tradition just because someone might think we're prejudiced against Jews if we don't say her name in the exact same way her family did? (And that doesn't address the difficulty for people whose languages don't really allow for those sounds to be readily made in exactly that way.) We are a global church and we no longer have Latin as a lingua franca that unites us all. So it makes sense that we address the saints familiarly in the versions of their names that we are comfortable with. In fact, I think we should take our cue from the way the Blessed Mother has presented herself to peoples in various cultures. When she appeared to St Juan Diego she was an Aztec maiden. When she appears in Asia she wears Asian clothes and an Asian face. I'm thinking of how beautiful and right it is to wander the National Cathedral and to see Our Lady in all her dresses under all her titles. She is the universal mother. We shouldn't cringe when we call her Mary any more than a Spanish speaker should refrain from calling her Maria. And if it makes St John Bosco feel more familiar to call him John instead of Giovanni, I think that's all for the good.
    Now when it comes to Padre Pio and other saints of recent memory it makes sense that we first met them using their untranslated names. As we've become more of a global culture that's become the custom. We don't translate names as much anymore. But I don't think we should try to retroactively apply today's standards to saints we already know and love with English spellings, it would feel false and forced and there's really no good reason not to stick with the familiar.
    But I do think Padre Pio should be left as Pio because that's how we know him. And with the Padre too, even though that's not technically the correct title. Because there are other Pios and Pietraclina isn't so well known as a modifier as "Padre."
    But I guess I'm more comfortable than most with a sort of bilingual ambiguity. My husband's given name is Domenico and he gladly goes by that. But he also introduces himself as Domenic or simply Dom. I use them all because they all reflect the reality of our multicultural melting pot.