Traduttore, Traditore

Recently, I acquired the new translation of Karol Wojtyła’s Person and Act, the first volume of the critical edition of the works of Pope St. John Paul II. I had never bothered to purchase a copy of the previous English edition, The Acting Person (Analecta Husserliana, 10), having heard of various serious issues with the translation. Below is a passage that I found particularly interesting while simply leafing through the book. By luck, it turned out to be a clear example of the reported inferiority of the previous English edition.

The first paragraph is the new, critical edition. I’ve omitted the critical apparatus indicators, and simply highlighted in blue the texts that are so marked. The second paragraph follows the critical apparatus to indicate the differences in the older editions: strikethroughs for passages or words omitted, and red font for words added or changes.


— Wojtyła, Person and Act, 2021 Critical Edition (p. 371) —

The colloquial and hylomorphic understandings of the relation of the soul to the body

It seems that both these categories of phenomenological vision prepare a very proximate ground for grasping the relation of the soul to the body in man. This grasp is achieved through metaphysical categories, and such is the proper meaning of the concepts of “soul” and “body,” though at the same time their colloquial meaning has also developed. In the metaphysical sense, the soul is a “form,” and its relation to the body, according to Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, is the same as the relation of “form” to “matter” (we must add that what is meant here is, properly speaking, so-called first matter, materia prima). We spoke of this at the end of chapter 4. Perhaps we should repeat once more what was stated there, namely, that the present inquiries lead indirectly to these classical understandings. At the same time, they attempt to show the entire richness of the experience of man that resides on the path to the metaphysical conception of the human soul and its relation to the body. They also attempt to grasp, in a sense, the boundary of this experience, the boundary of vision, and thus to better reveal the path of understanding along which the human mind progresses in grasping the realities that ultimately explain man and his entire dynamic. We must add that this method helps us to concretize what is contained in the colloquial understanding of the soul and its relation to the body in man. It seems that in this regard the concepts of the transcendence and integration of the person in the act are explained in a particular way. The colloquial understanding of the soul and its relation to the body is certainly quite close to experience. Precisely this closeness to experience, the grounding of the metaphysical content of the concepts of “soul” and “body” in experience, determines their meaning for people who know nothing of the relation of form to matter yet are convinced of the existence of the soul and its relation to the body.

1979/1985 version, based on the 2021 critical apparatus

The colloquial and hylomorphic understandings of the relation of the soul to the body

It seems that both these categories of phenomenological vision prepare a very proximate ground for grasping the relation of the soul to the body in man without, however, achieving that grasp. This grasp is achieved through metaphysical categories, and such is the proper meaning of the concepts of “soul” and “body,” though at the same time their colloquial meaning has also developed. In the metaphysical sense, the soul is a “form,” and its relation to the body, according to Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas, is the same as the relation of “form” to “matter” (we must add that what is meant here is, properly speaking, so-called first matter, materia prima). We spoke of this at the end of chapter 4. Perhaps we should repeat once more what was stated there, namely, that the present inquiries lead indirectly to these classical understandings. At the same time, they attempt to show the entire richness of the experience of man that resides on the path to the metaphysical conception of the human soul and its relation to the body. They also attempt to grasp, in a sense, the boundary of this experience, the boundary of vision, and thus to better reveal the path of understanding along which the human mind progresses in grasping the realities that ultimately explain man and his entire dynamic. We must add that this method helps us to concretize what is contained in the colloquial understanding of the soul and its relation to the body in man. It seems that in this regard the concepts of the transcendence and integration of the person in the act are explained in a particular way. The colloquial understanding of the soul and its relation to the body seems quite close to experience. Precisely this closeness to experience, the grounding of the metaphysical content of the concepts of “soul” and “body” in experience, determines their meaning for people who know nothing of metaphysics and of the metaphysical meaning of form, matter, and their reciprocal relation. Thus the categories of phenomenological vision, which allow us to show the complexity of man on the basis of experience and vision, and the ability to grasp the limits of this vision are both important here.


The comparison reveals several differences, some of which amount to substantive philosophical issues. First, there is the needless qualification added in the first sentence (“without, however, achieving that grasp”), which, one could argue, is relatively minor. However, the omission of the fourth to ninth sentences of the passage amounts to undercutting the reiterative force that the author wished to convey. Not only that, the deletion of these sentences seems to remove the Wojtyła’s emphasis upon a claim to the compatibility of the metaphysical and phenomenological approaches to the human soul. Whether or not Wojtyła is correct, the old edition deprives the reader of the opportunity to consider the point through its mutilation of the text.

The third change (the substitution of “seems” for “is certainly”) and the subsequent change of the last sentence and the addition of another sentence at the end of the passage are substantive in new ways. The substitution completely alters the valence of Wojtyła claim on behalf of the common human experience of being alive. Combined with the alteration of the last sentence of the original passage, this prevents the reader from considering whether the way in which the metaphysical and phenomenological approaches are compatible is precisely insofar as the experience of soul and body, which is “certainly quite close to experience,” is the very basis upon which later, more precise philosophical insights can be had. The added sentence compounds this smothering of Wojtyła’s point by refocusing the reader’s attention only on the value and limits of the phenomenological approach, the metaphysics of Aristotle and St. Thomas now a side-point that fades into the background.

The translator of the critical edition, Grzegorz Ignatik, notes two categories of problems with the old editions, both of which seem to appear in the above:

The international community of thinkers interested in Wojtyła’s philosophical work has long been aware of two main problems with the 1979 English edition of Person and Act (entitled The Acting Person), translated by Andrzej Potocki and edited by Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. The first of these problems is unauthorized editorial interventions in the text of Person and Act by Tymieniecka, a devoted phenomenologist and long-standing friend of St. John Paul II. The second problem, closely related to the first one, is an unfaithful and inconsistent English translation of the Polish text. …

Through her revisions, Tymieniecka changed the text to align it more closely with her own phenomenological sympathies, as if she were a coauthor of the definitive version of Person and Act. Her changes included, for example, removing almost all references to St. Thomas and Aristotle, replacing Latin terms and phrases with English substitutes, and adding phenomenological languages and even names (e.g., those of Husserl and Heidegger). Unfortunately, it is impossible to identify which changes may have been approved by or come from Wojtyła, given that corrections sent to Potocki are unavailable and that there are no indications of them in the English text itself.

… Finally, a brief word is in order regarding the quality of the translation of the first English edition (1979). This edition took liberties in translation through frequent imprecisions, omissions and additions, and inconsistencies in translating the same terms with different English words.

Person and Act, Translator’s Preface, pp. xxviii, xxix, xxx

Ignatik recounts how Wojtyła disagreed with and attempted to correct these errors in the English translation, but to no avail. The new critical edition translation, in part as a consequence of the checkered history of the text, is based upon the first 1969 Polish edition, and only changes made in Wojtyła’s own hand to later editions were included. The critical apparatus includes the variants and comparisons to all previous English editions.

One is reminded of Plato’s seventh letter, or:

It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words.

Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, p. 41

It is now to be hoped that Wojtyła’s philosophical thought can be more accurately and adequately understood.

2 thoughts on “Traduttore, Traditore

  1. Many thanks for this, John. I’ve used the Acting Person in courses that I’ve taught. Lots of commenting to do!

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