The Essence of a Translation:
Was John Cornwell’s “Hitler’s Pope” malicious, and wrong? 

With the arrival of Communism in the Soviet Union, with its atheistic outlook, the Church became convinced it was a “Satanic” force bent on destroying Christianity and European civilization. This line of thinking permeated the Church at all levels, and steered it in directions that could effectively counter the Communist menace, irrespective of the moral failings this may have led to.

Gabriel Wilensky

For Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pope Pius XII, this was no different. His first close experience with Communism was negative and dated to the time when he was papal nuncio in Munich after the First World War, when Germany had become the Weimar Republic. This was a chaotic time in which revolutionary groups tried to gain power in the vacuum left by the abdicating Kaiser. Among them were socialist groups who had recently gained power installing the Munich Soviet Republic. At the Munich nunciature where Pacelli was stationed, there was a meeting of the diplomatic corps in which it was decided to talk to a man named Levien, head of the Munich Soviet, to ensure an understanding that the Communist government should recognize the immunity of diplomatic representatives and the extraterritoriality of their residences.

“It is important to point out that Pacelli’s constant reference to the Jewishness of this group of power usurpers was consistent with Germany’s growing belief that the Jews were the instigators of the Bolshevik revolution, and that they had as their aim the destruction of Christian civilization.”

Pacelli, thinking that it would be undignified for him to appear personally, sent his aide Monsignor Schioppa. When Schioppa returned, he gave the nuncio sufficient eyewitness information to recreate the circumstances of the meeting. Pacelli then wrote a letter to the Vatican Secretary of State. In this letter Pacelli relayed the information he had heard and endorsed, or that he added himself, including occasional personal annotations:

“The scene that presented itself at the palace was indescribable. The confusion totally chaotic, the filth completely nauseating; soldiers and armed workers coming and going; the building, once the home of a king, resounding with screams, vile language, profanities. Absolute hell. An army of employees were dashing to and fro, giving out orders, waving bits of paper, and in the midst of all this, a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was Levien’s mistress, a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcée, who was in charge. And it was to her that the nunciature was obliged to pay homage in order to proceed.


This Levien is a young man, of about thirty or thirty-five, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly. He deigned to receive the Monsignor Uditore in the corridor, surrounded by an armed escort, one of whom was an armed hunchback, his faithful bodyguard. With a hat on his head and smoking a cigarette, he listened to what Monsignor Schioppa told him, whining repeatedly that he was in a hurry and had more important things to do.”

This translation, from John Cornwell’s “Hitler’s Pope”, created quite a stir. First, because Cornwell interpreted it as evidence of Pacelli’s antisemitism, and second, because papal apologists were quick to dismiss it as not only a supposedly bad translation of the original Italian, but also as proof of Cornwell’s alleged malicious intent. Pacelli’s defenders claim Cornwell was simply portraying Archbishop Pacelli in the worse possible light to explain his lack of decisive action to protect Jews during the Holocaust.

I think papal apologists are wrong. Aside from whatever inaccuracies “Hitler’s Pope” may have, this translation of Pacelli’s report of the episode with the people from the Munich Soviet is not one of them. Let’s take a close look at the original in Italian and examine the translation. I am italicizing the key passages to make them easier to find in the analysis that follows:

“Lo spettacolo, che ora presenta detto palazzo, è indescrivibile. La confusione più caotica, il sudiciume più nauseante, l’andirivieni continuo di soldati e di operai armati, le grida, le parole sconce, le bestemmie, che ivi risuonano, rendono quella, che fu la residenza prediletta dei re di Baviera, una vera bolgia infernale. Un esercito di impiegati, che vanno, che vengono, che trasmettono ordini, che propagano notizie, e fra essi una schiera di giovani donne, dall’aspetto poco rassicurante, ebree come i primi, che stanno in tutti gli uffici, con arie provocanti e con sorrisi equivoci. A capo di questo gruppo femminile vi è l’amante di Levien, una giovane russa, ebrea, divorziata che comanda da padrona. E a costei la nunziatura ha dovuto purtroppo inchinarsi per avere il biglietto di libero passaggio!


Il Levien è un giovanotto, anch’egli russo ed ebreo, di circa trenta o trentacinque anni. Pallido, sporco, dagli occhi scialbi, dalla voce rauca e sguaiata: un vero tipo ributtante, eppure con una fisionomia intelligente e furba. Si è degnato appena di ricevere Monsignor Uditore in un corridoio, circondato da una scorta armata, fra cui un gobbo anch’egli armato, che è la sua guardia fedele.”


In the report in Italian it says, “una schiera di giovani donne”, which Cornwell and others present as “a gang of young women” and papal apologists believe it should be the more neutral “a group of young women”. Well, I am not an expert in Italian, but I believe “schiera” means “crowd”, so I personally think that given the context (which one should always take into account when translating) using the term “gang” instead of “crowd” seems more appropriate than “group”. They then accuse Cornwell of maliciously mistranslating “con arie provocanti e con sorrisi equivoci” as “lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles” when, according to them, should have been ”provocative and with a certain smile”. But then, “con arie provocanti” means with provocative air or appearance. I don’t think saying “ lecherous demeanor” instead of “provocative appearance” is a mistranslation. They translate “sorrici equivoci” as “a certain smile”, which is not bad, but “equivoci” is also “suspicious”. In this context, given what the writer thinks and is saying of these women, the “suspicious” smiles are not just the vague “certain”, but rather the more appropriate “suggestive”. Pacelli defenders then accuse Cornwell of mistranslating “gruppo femminile” as “female rabble” instead of “female group”, which would be the proper literal translation. However, as I said earlier, in the context of the rest of the letter I don’t think using “rabble” instead of “group” is inappropriate, given that a rabble is a type of group that perfectly describes what Pacelli is talking about. There’s no doubt that to him, these women were whores.

Continuing with the supposedly mistranslated report Pacelli sent to the Secretary of State, Pacelli defenders translate “Pallido, sporco, dagli occhi scialbi” as “Pale, smutty, with empty eyes” instead of Cornwell’s “ Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes“. Well, let’s see. The word “sporco” means “dirty”. Alternatively it can be “obscene”, which is close enough to their “smutty”, but the principal meaning is exactly what Cornwell used. Then, they translate “dagli occhi scialbi” as “with empty eyes”, instead of Cornwell’s “with drugged eyes”. Well, “scialbi” means “dull”, or “pale”, so neither of the two translations is exactly accurate, although I suspect that the report meant to say Levien’s eyes looked lifeless. So, even though I think that saying “empty eyes” is proper and is closer to the words I would have chosen, I don’t think Cornwell can be accused of maliciously mistranslating the word as “drugged”.

Then they translate “un vero tipo ributtante” as “a truly repulsive character”, while Cornwell translates it as “vulgar, repulsive”. Well, “un vero” is “a truly” as they translated and Cornwell translated as “vulgar”, so they get a point for being more accurate (even though Cornwell does not change the meaning), while “tipo” is “guy” or “fellow”, not “character” and “ributtante” is “repugnant”, close enough to “repulsive” which both Cornwell and papal apologists use, so both get points. I’d say that both are close enough and both convey the same meaning.

Lastly, Pacelli defenders translate “una fisionomia intelligente e furba” as “an intelligent and smart physiognomy”, while Cornwell translates it as “a face that is both intelligent and sly”. Let’s see: “fisonomia” is actually “features” or “face”, so both got it right. Both correctly translate “intelligente” as “intelligent”, so both get a point. “Furba” means “sly, cunning”, so Cornwell got it right here too.


A translator cannot simply make a literal translation of terms. If the words are not translated according to context, then the result will not reflect the intentions and meaning of the writer as a native reader would have understood. Thus, as I explained earlier, given the general tone of the report Pacelli sent to the Vatican, using terms like “gang” and “rabble” instead of “group” or “crowd” is acceptable and moreover better conveys the utter disgust the writer is expressing overall.

One should not necessarily interpret “drugged eyes” literally either, as an English speaker can actually use expressions like that, or “he looks like he just woke up” without necessarily believing that the person was actually a drug user or that he had just woken up. Again, in the context of the description of Levien as a filthy, despicable fellow, that expression is forgivable.

In any case, papal apologists claim this letter has no significance because the original report was written by Pacelli’s assistant Monsignor Schioppa, and was simply forwarded to Rome by Pacelli. Well, first of all, we do not know how much Pacelli wrote of the report he sent to Rome, based on the report Schioppa gave him. But even if he had transcribed it verbatim, the very fact he had no objections whatsoever about the form and content is telling. In other words, if he wrote it it’s bad, and if he didn’t write it but didn’t edit it that’s bad too. So, ultimately it doesn’t matter which are Schioppa’s words and which are Pacelli’s. The report was signed and sent by Pacelli, which means he approved all of it. And even if we accepted the more neutral (but less accurate) version, it would still be a pretty damning document. Pacelli was a product of his time and place, and referring to Jews with the types of slurs used in the letter was commonly accepted practice among Catholics.


Overall, Mr. Cornwell was generally more accurate in his translation. In other words, the characterization of Cornwell as malicious and misleading, at least regarding his translation of this letter, is incorrect. I actually think Pacelli’s defenders owe Cornwell an apology given how much they have ostracized and maligned him. I hope that this exercise shows Cornwell’s translation is a faithful rendition of the original. I do not think papal apologists are malicious, but I do think that once again they are misleading because they attempt to portray this report as something lighter and different from what it really was: an antisemitic rant.

In conclusion, I do not think Cornwell made a manipulative translation of this letter at all, but I think papal apologists did, because they are trying to couch it in a certain softness that is semantically improper, absent in the original, and is clearly not the meaning the writer tried to convey. Moreover, it is important to point out that Pacelli’s constant reference to the Jewishness of this group of power usurpers was consistent with Germany’s growing belief that the Jews were the instigators of the Bolshevik revolution, and that they had as their aim the destruction of Christian civilization. Also, the use of a catalog of epithets describing their moral and physical repulsiveness was consistent with old Christian stereotypical antisemitic contempt.

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