Fr. Peter Madros: “I speak and write 11 living languages, and know 5 dead ones”

By: Saher Kawas/LPJ - Published: February 21 Thu, 2019

Fr. Peter Madros: “I speak and write 11 living languages, and know 5 dead ones” Available in the following languages:

JERUSALEM – On the occasion of International Mother Language Day, the Media Office had the opportunity to speak to Fr. Peter Madros, a Latin Patriarchate priest and polyglot from Jerusalem, about his ability to speak 16 languages and his reflections about language learning and translation.

How many living and dead languages do you speak? Why did you choose to learn them in particular? What horizons did language learning open up for you?

With the grace of God, I speak and write eleven living languages, and know five dead ones. My beloved parents chose for me the De La Salle Brothers’ School in Jerusalem, my native city, thus granting me the possibility to learn correctly: Arabic, my mother’s tongue, English and French. At the Beit Jala Latin Patriarchal Seminary, I learned Latin and Italian. On my own, I learnt Spanish, Portuguese, German, modern Greek, modern Hebrew and Dutch. As for the Armenian, language of my paternal ancestors Mardirossian, I could easily learn it with the help of an Armenian lady and a gentleman from the Armenian quarter.

I was sent to Rome by late Patriarch Beltritti for “higher biblical studies”. There, I had tough courses of Biblical Hebrew, biblical Greek and Aramaic. May I immediately clarify that mastering either one of the modern and ancient languages of Hebrew, Aramaic (“Syriac”) and Greek, does not guarantee at all the knowledge of the other. Thus, prominent Old Testament scholars, perfect in ancient Hebrew, would not manage in modern Hebrew. The gap is still bigger between ancient and modern Greek (No way, for prominent New Testament or Septuagint scholars, to have a conversation in the “popular” Greek or to make themselves understood). As for Christian Aramaic, called Syriac, it does have a variety of alphabets and dialects.

So, the horizons were clear: modern European languages are the keys of western civilization and theology, after Greek and Latin. Biblical languages and ancient Versions helped greatly to grasp the meaning of the biblical words and expressions, at a distance of thousands of years. Later, I discovered through Syriac authors, that that judeo- and Christian Aramaic (Syriac) contributed magnificently to better understand the coranic text, as the proto Arabic alphabet comes from Syriac or Nabatean.

In 1973, you translated the book of Psalms into Arabic, what was the reason for that? How long did it take? What were one or two things that were challenging about this undertaking?

As a very young priest, hardly ordained, I could not possibly have dreamt of such a colossal project. It was again late Patriarch Beltritti, who, at a first stage, asked me to review the old Jesuit version where one could find mistranslations, mistakes of Arabic language (due to literal translation), and difficulty for chanting. “Serious” priests laughed at the Patriarch and at myself, rightly supposing that His Beatitude actually wanted to keep me busy, in order that “I may not have stupid ideas”, as Germans would say (“Um dumme Gedanken zu vermeiden”). We were then eight new priests and the Patriarchate wondered where to settle us.

Fresh in priesthood, so was I in obedience (a notion which I regrettably reduced somehow, later!) I started simply amending, correcting, adjusting a word here, an expression there. Fr. Theodore Samama, a priest from Betharram (of Jewish extraction) challenged me, taking advantage of my young age and my shyness (!) He said :”This initiative of yours does not make sense! Psalms are poems. So, “pour bien faire”, in order to do a good job, one should translate them in a poetic style!” Although I objected “Oh no! Impossible!”, I did take seriously the challenge and began the work from the start in a poetic style with rhythm and rime. In Arabic, one can obtain easily such literary forms through the plurals of names, and through verbal forms and adjectives.

I immediately made recourse to two great Palestinian scholars of Arabic language and poetry: Mr. Anton Shomali and Mr. Wadi’ Khoury. They were my “natural shield, rock and stronghold”, beside the Lord, Saint Peter and my guardian angel. At once, the version was jeopardized as “coranic”.

Whenever a substantial change was made, I always put its justification or its source in documents and references, in the footnotes (which opponents hardly read). This did not stop arbitrary critics.

I can count sixteen different “stations of the Cross” in the revision, the correction and the improvement of this version of sincerely yours, approved officially by our Bishops’ Conference in 1975. It took us one year and a half to finish the initial translation.

Most Bishops abode by the decision of the Bishops’ Conference, especially for the Holy Mass and a first edition of an abbreviated Breviary by late Msgr George Saba, who had admirably overcome his self-love and renounced a work of his own. Others preferred a new Jesuit version which was a hybrid version mixing arbitrarily poetry and prose.

Our Jerusalem translation – which was a historic and unique event in the history of our Patriarchate, which never had any of its priests translate any Holy Book – was also supported scientifically by two doctoral dissertations of mine in biblical theology (1982) and sciences (1984). The last, discussed before the Pontifical Biblical Commission, chaired personally by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, was in English (a “premiere” also at the Patriarchate), about “Six Arabic translations of the Psalter”, the sixth being ours, with complete analysis, parsing and comparison of the full text of Psalms 42- 72 (according to the Hebrew numbering).

As I had set my mind to render even the literary procedures, including the acrostic or alphabetical psalms (a system which I followed, with much encouragement, for the alphabetical Lamentations chanted in our Arabic liturgy of the Holy Week), that was a unique effort and toil. Apparently, Delitzsch tried to do the same, with much less success, as German lacks many Hebrew letters, which Arabic has. It goes without saying that many people criticized the process and dismissed it as “artificial”. So, at the end of the day, I thought of the impossible-to-please children of the Gospel. If we translate in plain prose, they object that psalms are poems. If we do render them poetically, our version is “artificial and coranic”. So, we “chanted laments for them, they did not weep! We sung for them, they did not dance!”(According to Matthew 11: 17).

Every human work is imperfect. But there are decent and objective ways to object and to suggest constructive ideas. Actually, in general, the simple Faithful, who do not have a clue about the whole background and controversy, like our version because it is poetic, according to the Semitic genius, thought and expression.

Another challenge was that of young age: in our “patriarchal geriatric” societies, a young person has a hard time, and is wrong even when he is right. Many a priest thinks of himself as included in the papal infallibility! Through humility and Job’s patience (an Arab sheikh), it was possible to survive and to overcome.

All this makes me understand better Saint Paul’s warning to the community, about his young fellow worker and spiritual son, Timothy: “May no one despise your young age!” (1 Tim 4:12). Later, unfortunately for me after I became older, many young priests were appointed in key positions.

If someone wants to learn about a certain culture or religion, is it enough to read about it in his or her mother language or should this person read about it in the language of this culture or religion?

For literature, one needs absolutely to know the original, because all languages have their “idioms” which are unique expressions and words which defy all translation, Italians say: “Traduttore traditore”, “Translator traitor”! How can you appreciate Shakespeare in French or Arabic? This is why Muslim scholars claim that it is impossible to “translate” the Koran accurately. Modern authors suggest “explanatory translations” which do not claim infallibility. At the same time, much of the “I’djaz” (inimitability) disappears when the text passes into another language. As for the Bible, apart some lofty literary pieces (like the Psalter, some poetic masterpieces of Isaiah, the Lamentations, Luke’s perfect Greek and sublime thought and style, Saint Paul’s the Hymn to Love in 1 Corinthians, where he shines as “a classical of Hellenism” and humanity!), the Bible rarely loses its value, founded on the meaning rather than the style. “Love your enemies” is as eloquent and equally tough and splendid in all languages and dialects.

Now, for the Bible, again, the basic knowledge of the text is required, in our own languages. Imagine our poor Faithful having to learn three ancient and difficult languages: old Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek! Nowadays, people are not gifted for languages or not enthusiastic about them, as they are rather worried by what they read on Facebook, Twitter, Viber, Google (censored)… In German, one makes a clear distinction between “begabt”, gifted, and “begeistert”, enthusiastic. By the way, atheists can never be “enthusiastic” or have “enthusiasm”, simply because the Greek original words “εν Θεός” “en Theos” mean: “God inside, to have God inside”!

Countless riches are found in the Bible when one knows decently the original languages. Of course, the essential is transmitted by translations. This same knowledge of the original is the basis of the science and of the Church’s positions which do not rely on versions. Such knowledge apodictically denounces the falsifications and manipulations, like those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Brooklyn headquarters in the so-called “new World Translation”.

We already mentioned the stylistic ornaments, usually impossible to translate: puns, alphabetical procedure… In psalm 89 we read. “So, He ended their days with futility (Hebrew “hebel הבל) and their years in terror ((בהלה” The play on word “hebel” (which gives the Hebraism “hebel habalim”, “breath of breaths’, “vanity of vanities’) and “behalah” is an interesting alliteration, which one cannot easily render in other languages. In our version, we tried with “nafkhah” (نفخة), breath and “khawfan” (خوفًا), terror.

In the “New world” translation, more than one hundred basic manipulations are found, even in Old Testament texts, like the rendering “three-tribe-division” instead of “flag, banner”, for the Hebrew “deguel דגל”. All this because the denomination does not acknowledge the State, the homeland and the flag!

Unfortunately, many translators lack honesty and scientific probity. Instead of rendering faithfully the text and transmitting what it says, they make it say what they want, or translate in a different way the same word, according to their positions. Thus, in the whole New Testament, many a “translation” renders accurately the Greek “paradosis παράδοσις” if it designates JEWISH traditions, but falsify it and change it into “teachings” when it designates apostolic Christian traditions (in 1 Cor 11, 2, 2 Thess 2, 14- 15 and 3, 6). All this because those denominations reject the “Tradition”. Thus, the followers do not find this word in their Bible designing any Christian but only Jewish traditions (Mark 7. Galatians 1, 13- 14 etc).

What is the most efficient language learning process? What does it entail? What advice do you have for someone who wants to learn a new language (other than living in the country of this language)?

FrPM: The most efficient process to learn a new language is patience, regular daily study or at least reading, possibly with CDs or visual methods, and contact with mother-tongue interlocutors, obliging them to speak only that language. The Jews have this extraordinary “language bath” (yet no “miqveh”) called Ulpan: they put you in a classroom where only Hebrew is spoken for several hours. This method imitates nature: how children learn languages without grammar.

I advise to read always something in the new language before going to bed at night. We were taught that during the whole night (provided there are no bombardments!) the subconscious works and the words and expressions “enter in your head”. Another excellent method is contact with mother’s tongue people. Anyway, without effort, one can learn decently no language! A French saying goes as follows: to be gifted means 10 per cent of “inspiration” and 90 of “transpiration”, “perspiration”. On the internet, one finds many new ways. I am too old to try.

You started learning French at the Brothers’ School (Collège des Frères), can you elaborate on the Brothers’ language teaching process? How does it differ from the current one?

At the Frères’ School, that was the classical method, since the earliest childhood, first grade, three languages at a time: and we did not become “depressed” nor “complex-patients’ nor “overburdened”… words, grammar, verbs. Today you have skeletons and bits and pieces, with no solid structure of grammar, syntax! I remember a Middle East seminary, which sent seminarians to France for “learning” French. Those young men of God used to return less male chauvinist and speaking French dialect. Others had managed to pick up Maghreb Arabic.

The refugee crisis is on the news 24/7. Learning a language becomes more and more difficult for adults especially with complex languages like German and French. In your opinion, what steps can both refugees and the hosting government take in order to better learn the new language?

The first condition for learning any new language is open-mindedness and flexibility, thanks to the acknowledgment that we are in front of an unknown new world which is not like ours. So, it would be incorrect and unwise to adapt this language to us, to our mother’s tongues, instead of adapting ourselves to that language, mentality, structure and forms of speech. Many Spanish-speaking Latinos would never reduplicate any letter, speaking Italian or Portuguese as if it were Spanish, saying for instance “belisimo” instead of “bellissimo”, o “bonyorno” instead of “buon giorno”. German speaking people would easily say “Tchordan” for ‘Jordan”… People from the Indian subcontinent would transform the “v” into “w” and vice versa: “And they vill know that ve are Christians by our lowe”. Many Arabs would never even try to pronounce the “p” and transform it into a “be”. A good acquaintance of mine, a Dutch historian and researcher, was regularly surprised by the importance of “the bees” when she interviewed Palestinian leaders. Then she discovered that they had meant “Peace”!

As Pope Francis one said: “One should solve the problems of those nations in their homelands” rather than “dealing with the results or the consequences”. A real and true and authentic (I insist) refugee is not happy to be a refugee (a parasite, a second class citizen or guest) but his right is to return home! Home sweet home!

Anyway, talking about languages, when “refugees” have no intention whatsoever to “integrate” but rather to submit, to subjugate and to rule the local inhabitants, there is little chance for learning the language of your future subjects and slaves! Such “refugees’ (where some terrorists infiltrate) prefer to impose bluntly their languages and their religious beliefs and traditions. Other refugees do have good will and adapt themselves: they try to learn a new language. Their children will be “ni chair ni poisson” “neither flesh nor fish”, internally divided and torn between two different cultures and often contradicting religions.

Cover Photo: BBC Arabic Our World