JUBILEE YEAR for the CENTENNIAL of BLESSED ROMERO, 2016 — 2017
Shortly after Oscar Romero’s beatification in 2015, I wrote with enthusiasm about a new book series of Romero’s sermons, A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to His People: The Complete Homilies of Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Back then, when Vol. 1 had just come out, I was excited at the promise of fresh, crisper, more natural sounding translations of Romero’s sermons which could make Romero more accessible by presenting him in greater clarity than had theretofore been achieved. Now that all six volumes are out, I can say confidently that the promise has been fulfilled and that this is the perfect collection to add to seminary and theological college library collections—and just in time for the Romero centennial.
Fr. Joseph V. Owens, SJ, edited by Rafael Luciani, Felix Palazzi, and Julian Filochowski. Convivium Press; 1st edition (2015-2017). Paperbacks.
This is Romero remastered! Just as sound recordings made on old analog machines, with hiss and muffled sound, preserved on electromagnetic tapes that developed cracks and static over the years, need to be cleaned up and made sharper and crisper for the digital age, so too do translations. The process through which Romero’s homilies were preserved is itself quite the yarn, with twists and turns which created technical and interpretative inconsistencies in the process, which Owens and the team has sought to remove. Romero’s sermons were preserved almost by happenstance. Originally, Romero had his sermons recorded in order to rebroadcast them on the diocesan radio station. But the recording, at the Cathedral, was primitive. It was done on a portable cassette tape recorder. Someone had to manually turn the tape over when it ran out. Sometimes, there were gaps between tapes.
The next step was to transcribe the sermons, which Romero began to do in order to reprint the texts in the diocesan weekly. Most of the transcription was done by Maria Julia Hernandez, a young lawyer in Romero’s legal aid office, and she was very diligent in transcribing the recordings. Additionally, she was close to Romero’s ministry, so she was good at deciphering things that were not clear—she knew what he was talking about; she knew the words he might use, what he might have said. Sometimes others pitched in, but they were not as familiar so they might not be as good at picking up everything. And so the quality of the Spanish language transcriptions varied. Add to that variations in quality of translations to English and, before you know it, there are clicks and pops in the translation just like in an old analog tape.
Some of the errors that have been caught and corrected are major and significant. For example, when Romero was killed on March 24, 1980, the quality of the sound recording made is particularly bad: barely intelligible in Spanish. So, it is perhaps understandable that when Romero said “la Hostia de trigo” (the wheaten Host) the transcriber heard “la voz de diatribo” (the voice of diatribe!), and so for years, English language readers saw translations that had Romero jarringly proclaim that “at this moment the voice of diatribe is changed for the body of the Lord.” Were Romero’s dying words a defiant declaration that violent speech (perhaps a call to insurrection) were a new progressive sacrament of sorts? Or was he saying that we must put aside violent subversion and seek Eucharistic peace? People were either excited or appalled—depending on their political views and their interpretation. But regardless, their reaction was based on a major error and the translation was actually nonsensical.
Much more often, the improvements made are much more subtle, but their overall, cumulative effect is a greater fidelity to Romero, and an enhanced sense of immediacy to Romero’s message—and to Romero himself. Salvadorans experienced Romero in a very intimate and spontaneous way. His Sunday sermons were a little like FDR’s fireside chats—he spoke directly to the people, he was candid and natural. Romero used colorful language, like Pope Francis, famously repeating folk wisdom, like saying that justice is like a snake in that it only bites the barefooted. Capturing those flavors and notes of authenticity in a translation requires an attention to detail that sometimes comes for the first time forty years after the fact.
In a recent post, I noted that Romero’s preaching has led an upcoming university conference to propose that he should be declared a Doctor of the Church. A Prophetic Bishop Speaks to His People is an invaluable tool to understanding the magisterial legacy of the Salvadoran martyr.