Letter from the Fellowship of Saint John – Jos̩ Latour

Translating the Rule of SSJE

In the spring of 2005, Lucas Fleming, my friend and Sigma Chi fraternity brother, convinced me to head to Boston for a brief retreat at SSJE… I needed it.  Soon thereafter I joined the Fellowship of SSJE and committed to a personal rule of life. The more I understood SSJE’s powerful ministry, the more I wanted to help; but given my reality, writing a big annual check was not possible. So I decided that my gift to the ministry would be to translate the SSJE Rule into Spanish, making it available to Spanish-speakers worldwide.  I envisioned essentially a technical undertaking: the Rule was masterfully written and all I had to do was “masterfully” translate it.  When I received the Word document in English, I told the Brothers I’d have it done in a few months.

Not quite:  the full translation of the Rule took me over two years. “How,” you might ask, “can it possibly take that long to translate a relatively short book?”  The answer: the SSJE Rule is a treasure chest of wisdom, insight, and Christian spiritual guidance distilled from centuries of profound Christian introspection.  As I translated, it soon became apparent that literal translations of many of the concepts resulted in Spanish phrasing that omitted the sense and subtlety of the original.  One nuance in the original Rule turned bland in literal Spanish; conversely, an eloquent sentence translated literally took the Spanish reader into an unintended direction.

Consider the opening sentence of Chapter One:

“He was lifted up from the earth in his crucifixion and resurrection from the dead in order to draw all people to himself.”

A literal translation of that underscored clause into Spanish would convey, using the first-response word choice (e.g. dibujar – “to draw”), a nonsensical result.  To get the true meaning of the clause – the selflessness of His return to the world – the right word to translate from English was not “draw” but, rather, “attract”.  And even that adjustment required finessing:

“…para atraer a todo el mundo a él.”

Close but not right: in Spanish, while that is grammatically correct, the power of the original language is totally missed; it turns this extraordinarily brief and powerful expression of the utter gift of Jesus into something that sounds, in Spanish, more like something a carnival barker or soap-box pundit would do.  To complete the sense of purpose, it is necessary to add what is a slightly awkward ending, literally “to draw all people to he himself”.  Accordingly, the translation reads like this in Spanish:

“…para atraer a todo el mundo a si mismo.”

And all that was only for the FIRST sentence!

As a second example, consider Chapters 9-11, dealing with celibacy.  That was perhaps the most difficult section to translate, not only because many of the Spanish words were new to me but also because of the cultural nuances which, generally speaking, require a more limited and conservative word choice than what English gives us.  What appears as a clear and open comment in the rule in English can appear crass and disrespectful in Spanish.  Consider this sentence in Chapter 9:

“The exploration of our sexual solitude through prayer will reveal the depth of Christ’s desire to be the one joy of our hearts.”

I wrestled with this one for awhile: to most Spanish speakers, the discussion of “exploration of sexual solitude”, however subsequently qualified, has no business in a document as profound as the SSJE Rule.  I tried various other wordings in order to circumvent this issue (e.g., ”Recognizing our sexual solitude”, etc.) but when I did so, I was distorting the message.  I finally realized that the mention of the “exploration of sexual solitude” could translated accurately if the balance of the sentence tempered that initial, somewhat-shocking-in-Spanish clause with devotional word choices overriding any such reaction.  And so that sentence became:

“La exploración de nuestra soledad sexual a través de oración revelará la profundidad del deseo de Cristo para ser la única alegría en nuestros corazones.”

The process of translating the Rule forced me to rethink and reexamine every phrase and thought contained therein, and I treasure it more than ever as a result. As so often happens when we delve into the divine, the “gift” of my translation pales when compared to the blessings I received through the experience.



  1. Christopher Rivers on April 14, 2011 at 09:21

    What a great gift. I appreciate how eloquently you write about the translation process here. Is your translation of the Rule available? I would love to read it.

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