A language translation error in the Italian edition of a Catholic book aimed at young people made it look like the Vatican had changed its mind about birth control, reversing centuries of church policy. The book had to be temporarily pulled from the shelves while the publishers corrected the error, lest young Italian Catholic couples think they had been given license to practice contraception.
The book, YouCat, uses a question-and-answer format to give young adult readers guidance on Church teachings. One question deals with the traditionally thorny issue of family planning. According to ThirdAge.com, when this particular question-and-answer couplet was translated, the Italian phrase “metodi anticoncezionali” was used as a translation for the German phrase “Empfngnisregelung”.
As you’ve probably guessed, since it’s a cognate, “metodi anticoncezionali” means “contraceptive methods” in Italian. So, the Italian version of the question asked “Can a Christian couple turn to contraceptive methods?” The answer given in the book translates to, “Yes, a Christian couple can and must be responsible about their capacity of being able to give life.”
Mark Brumley, president of Ignatius Press, which published the English-language version of YouCat, explained in more detail how the error occurred in a post on his blog:
“The problem did not originate with the German text–at least not if the Italian translation is based on the same German text as that on which Ignatius Press based its translation. The German text of question 420 asks whether a Christian married couple may regulate the number of children they have. It does not ask whether the couple may use methods of contraception.”
The church does allow couples to attempt to regulate how many children they have, but only by “natural family planning” methods, which require a lot more effort than most other popular methods and have a higher failure rate to boot. Since the Vatican has been fighting the prevailing cultural winds for decades on this issue, the mistranslation was kind of a big deal. It’s also a perfect example of how translators have to be sensitive to the nuances of the words they use when they work. There are so many situations, just like this one, where “close enough” just doesn’t cut it.