September 15, 2006

Spreading the faith by the sword, and vice versa

Pope Benedict XVI has incited a firestorm of criticism in the Muslim world by relying on an obscure medieval polemic to illustrate a point about religion and violence. In the speech, given at Regensburg University in Germany, the Pope turned to a dialogue between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and "an educated Persian," dated to 1391. The Emperor is quoted as saying:

Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.

Though the Pope made it clear that he was only quoting this viewpoint, he didn't do much to disavow it in the immediate context of his speech. (And his portrayal of the Prophet's teachings in the Qur'an is erroneous in other ways, as Juan Cole and others have pointed out.) As if that wasn't inflammatory enough, the New York Times managed to bollix the money quote in its original article on the speech.

Here is the correction currently running at the bottom of the Times story:

Because of a transcription error, an article on Wednesday about a speech by Pope Benedict XVI in Germany, in which he addressed the concept of Muslim holy war, rendered incorrectly a phrase from a quotation by a 14th-century Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus. The correct quotation reads, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." — not "to spread the sword by the faith he preached."

It's easy to see how a transcriber could get tripped up on the English translation of the Pope's phrasing, since it places the prepositional phrase "by the sword" before "the faith he preached" (the object of the verb "to spread"). Not that there's any real preferable alternative, since putting the prepositional phrase at the end — "to spread the faith he preached by the sword" — makes it ambiguous whether "by the sword" modifies "spread" or "preached". So the stilted phrasing got switched around by moving the "by" forward, treating the NP closest to the verb ("the sword") as a direct object and the more distant NP ("the faith he preached") as the object of the preposition. Unfortunately, that drastically alters the sense, with the sword spread by the faith rather than vice versa.

It's possible that the Pope's distinctive phrasing is due to the Vatican's translation of the original German text, where the quote reads:

Zeig mir doch, was Mohammed Neues gebracht hat, und da wirst du nur Schlechtes und Inhumanes finden wie dies, daß er vorgeschrieben hat, den Glauben, den er predigte, durch das Schwert zu verbreiten.

If I'm not mistaken, a word-for-word translation of the relevant part ("den Glauben, den er predigte, durch das Schwert zu verbreiten") would be "the faith, which he preached, by the sword to spread." German's verb-final word order makes it a bit easier to put the prepositional phrase nearby ("durch das Schwert"/"by the sword") without causing any ambiguity with what it should modify.

Pope Benedict's German phrasing was in turn likely based on French, since he is quoting Theodore Khoury's Entretiens avec un musulman, 7e Controverse (1966). And who knows what linguistic material Khoury used as the basis for his French work (Ottoman Turkish? Latin?). Whatever the provenance, this arcane bit of cross-linguistic polemics is turning out to have enormous repercussions.

[Update, 9/18: Curtis Booth helpfully points out that Khoury would have relied on the original Greek manuscript for his translation. Booth wonders why Pope Benedict depended on Khoury, since Erich Trapp's German translation (Manuel II palaiologos: Dialoge mit einem 'Perser') was also published in 1966. ("Maybe the pope was just brushing up on his French," Booth suggests.)

For more on the polemics of Manuel II, see this article on "De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors." There it's argued that the "Dialogues with a Persian" are actually "a mixture of fact and fiction." And Jean Jacques Waardenburg's Muslims and Others (available on Google Book Search) notes that the Emperor's interlocutor is actually Turkish, but is "abusively called 'Persian.'']

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at September 15, 2006 03:37 PM