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Spanish professor translates historic interview with Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Spanish professor translates historic interview with Pope Francis

Erik Camayd-Freixas’ latest project, for CBS News’ 60 Minutes program, follows decades of work for national and international broadcasts

May 28, 2024 at 12:30pm

He has been an interpreter for more than 10 heads of state, and now, with a historic television interview that aired worldwide earlier this month, he has also interpreted for two popes.

Erik Camayd-Freixas (pictured), a professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages in the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, transcribed and translated the interview with Pope Francis that aired on CBS News, both as a one-hour special and as a segment on 60 Minutes. It was the pontiff's first extended one-on-one interview with a U.S. TV network in the course of his 11-year papacy.

The interview was conducted in Vatican City, and its recording forwarded to Camayd-Freixas for translation from Spanish to English. A separate narrator then used Camayd-Freixas’ work to provide voiceover on the broadcast. Camayd-Freixas also translated the English portions of the script into Spanish for broadcasts in that language as well as online video and text versions for full accessibility. Even for those who understand Spanish, though, the pope’s language may seem a bit uncommon, he noted.

“The pope’s Spanish is very much influenced by Italian at this point,” he explained. “And he's also Argentinian. So his style of Spanish is a little bit different from what we would call generic Spanish, if there's such a thing.

“I had to make sure that I was taking into account what he means in certain phrases. I'm familiar with the Argentinian lingo, but also in terms of what it would mean for a general Spanish-speaking public and what it would mean for an English-speaking public. Because there are certain words in Spanish that if you translate literally don't really mean the same thing in English.”

After some 40 years doing interpreting, Camayd-Freixas is highly sensitive to such nuances. In 1985 he became a federally certified court interpreter and has participated in hundreds of cases. He started doing live English to Spanish interpreting on television in 2003, after auditioning with Univision to handle President George W. Bush’s State of the Union address. Since then, he has consistently worked with the network on other major presidential addresses and debates. In particular, he did quite a bit of interpreting for President Barack Obama, adding, “For the Hispanic public, I was Obama’s voice in Spanish.”

Among his most vivid memories are interpreting, live, two masses celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and Yankee Stadium in New York, events that had millions of TV viewers. “It was a very special, emotional moment.”

With the Pope Francis interview, Camayd-Freixas noted the challenge of ensuring that the translation retained the character of the original words.

“You have to portray the same tone as the original – not just what he said, but also how it was said, the spirit of how it was spoken,” Camayd-Freixas explained. “You can tell in Spanish that he's very soft spoken, he has kindness in his voice. And he has this attitude: Nothing that is happening now is so earth-shattering for him, because he's looking at it in the context of human history. I mean, that is really an incredible perspective.”

The structure of language and how it impacts other areas of life is the subject of Camayd-Freixas’s next book, “Metagrammar: Critical Thinking and Problem Solving in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,” which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book examines how everything in our world has a grammatical-type logic behind it. While he is busy working on it, which is due for completion by year’s end, he is still relishing the experience of his recent work.

“This was a very special moment for me professionally, aside from the interest in listening to the pope, and putting his words into English. It made me feel part of a historic moment with a pope that I particularly admire. It was very rewarding.”