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Monsignor Brings Pope's Tweets To The World, In Latin


In this season of Lent, a few thoughts you might ponder in 140 characters or less: We all need to improve to change for the better. Lent helps us fight against our faults. And this one: May we learn to say thank you to God and to one another. We teach children to do it, and then we forget to do it ourselves.

Those pithy offerings are tweets from Pope Francis, who has almost four million followers on his English-language Twitter feed. A few keystrokes away, you can also find the Latin.

MONSIGNOR DANIEL GALLAGHER: (Speaking foreign language)

CORNISH: Yes, the pope also has a Latin feed, and that's the voice of Vatican Latinist Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, who is behind it. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

GALLAGHER: Good to be here. Thank you, Audie, for having me.

CORNISH: So we should explain that you're one of seven Latinists in the Vatican's Office of Latin Letters. And your job is to help the pope conduct business in Latin. Help us understand how Twitter figures into this work.

GALLAGHER: It was under Pope Benedict that a decision was made for the pope to begin tweeting in several different modern languages. And it was soon discovered that there was a great interest in Latin being included. And Francis, Pope Francis since his election, has decided to continue this tradition. And basically it works by helping the pope to communicate with the world.

So in addition to all the heavy documents that he does, sermons and homilies, et cetera, there are these little thoughts that come out a couple of times a week in this social medium of Twitter, which has been wildly successful.

CORNISH: Are the Latin tweets a straight translation of the English tweets, meaning is the Latin Twitter feed identical to the other Twitter feeds?

GALLAGHER: No, it's always the same thought, but we do have a latitude of freedom as Latinists because we want to put it in language that is properly Latin, so not simply just a slavish translation from English or Italian or whatever language the tweet happens to originally be in.

CORNISH: I read, though, that every once in a while, the pope throws a curve ball with a word like sourpuss.

GALLAGHER: Ah yes, right. So what we have to do in that case is go back, and we - first of all, we have an author in mind. So we say OK, Plautus or Terentius, the two great Latin comedians, we know that they had some expression for this. And so we basically go to dictionaries, go to their works, and we come up with (speaking foreign language). And (speaking foreign language) is simply a face, and (speaking foreign language) in Latin is kind of like a tight face, so it's scowling.

There are other ways it can be said, but we thought OK, let's use something that if you were to say it to Plautus all those centuries ago that he would have understood exactly what facial expression we're talking about.

CORNISH: Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, the Vatican's official Twitter feed has a pretty impressive 231,000 followers. Latin is the official language of the church, but many, many more people maybe look at it as a kind of dead language. And is this an opportunity to kind of enjoy it as a living language?

GALLAGHER: I think that's correct. I think it's showing that in fact it is not a dead language. And what I like about this is that with young people particularly, you can think of, like, if you want them to like Beethoven, and you were to play the first eight notes from the Fifth Symphony, they're going to want to hear more. And Latin is the same way. If you throw out a nicely crafted sentence in Latin, in 140 characters, our hope is that they will go and read the letters of Cicero, read St. Augustine, anyone, simply because they've been engrossed by the beauty that's there.

CORNISH: Monsignor Daniel Gallagher, he's a Vatican Latinist and translator. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

GALLAGHER: Thank you very much.


CORNISH: Monsignor Gallagher was speaking to us from a Latin gathering at the University of Michigan. You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, or as they'd say in Latin...

GALLAGHER: (Speaking foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.