Phyllis Zagano trusts Google Translate, slanders Card. Müller

Over at the Fishwrap, our dear old friend Phyllis Zagano has a fantastic piece this week.  It’s a classic!

First, let me say – as I have said before  – that Phyllis is solidly pro-life.  She is firmly against abortion and for that I give her props.

However, this week she resorted to a nasty trick that she has used before: false moral equivalence.

In her recent offering, she drew a moral equivalence between ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram and… wait for it… Ludwig Gerhard Card. MüllerPrefect of the CDF.

Bizarre, I know, but that’s what she did.

Ms. Zagano looked at an interview that Card. Müller gave to the French outlet La Croix. HERE  In that interview the Cardinal addressed issues facing the upcoming Synod, include Communion for the divorced and remarried.

She saw his phrase “Il est impossible d’avoir deux femmes!”.

She translated this as “It is impossible to have two women!”, and had a melt down.


What Card. Müller actually said:

Q: Sur la question des divorcés-remariés, ne peut-on imaginer, après un chemin de pénitence, de reconnaître une seconde union qui n’aurait pas de caractère sacramentel?? [On the question of the divorced-remarried, can we imagine, after a path of penance, recognizing a second union which wouldn’t have a sacramental character?]

Card. G.L. M.?: Il est impossible d’avoir deux femmes?! Si la première union est valide, il n’est pas possible d’en contracter une seconde en même temps. Un chemin de pénitence est possible, mais pas une seconde union. La seule possibilité est de retourner à la première union légitime, ou de vivre la seconde union comme frère et sœur?: telle est la position de l’Église, en accord avec la volonté de Jésus. J’ajoute qu’il est toujours possible de chercher à obtenir une déclaration de nullité devant un tribunal ecclésiastique.  [It is impossible to have two wives! If the first marriage is valid, it is not possible to contract a second at the same time. A path of penance is possible, but not a second marriage. The only possibility is to return to the first legitimate marriage, or to live the second marriage as brother and sister: that is the Church’s position, in accord with the will of Jesus. I’ll add that it is always possible to seek to obtain a declaration of nullity/invalidity before an ecclesiastical tribunal.]

It is perfectly clear what Card. Müller said (i.e., “wives“), but Zagano chooses the weirdly false meaning of “femme” because that fits her agenda: to slander Card. Müller.

Read all of her strange piece over there, if you wish.


Is there anyone who has been at least through freshman French (sorry, freshperson) who doesn’t know what “femme” means?  Did she miss the class that taught that “femme” means not only “woman” but also, and commonly, “wife”?

Obviously, Card. Müller said that “It is impossible to have two wives“, not “two women”.

The premise Phyllis uses, in order to draw a moral equivalence between ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, etc. and Card. Müller is her mistranslation of “d’avoir deux femmes” as “have two women”, implying ownership or that women are objects.

The benign conclusion is that Ms. Zagano doesn’t know any French, and therefore plugged the text into Google Translate.  That’s why she got the entire premise of her thing wrong.  Here’s what happened when I used Google for that phrase:


I would rather think that that is what happened than that she purposely mistranslated what the Cardinal said.  That would be mendacious.

But she did begin with drawing a moral equivalence between murdering Islamic terrorists and Card. Müller.

Sapienti pauca.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Green Inkers, Liberals, One Man & One Woman, Synod, The Drill, Throwing a Nutty, What are they REALLY saying?, You must be joking! and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Elizabeth D says:

    “Sapienti pauca” =(Mitch) Pacwa is wise

    See, you don’t have to know a language to translate it.

  2. LeeF says:

    There is also this common usage in Card. Müller’s native language of German, where Mann/Frau can mean both man/woman and husband/wife, with Mann/Frau being abbreviations of Ehemann/Ehefrau. Anyone who uses google translate for professional purposes is both incompetent and careless. That’s not a sin, at least over at Fishwrap. But being incompetent and careless in one’s haste to defame another person is.

  3. You don’t need to bring German into it. Card. Müller, like anyone who has had even basic French, knows that “femme” means “wife”. In any event, the context was crystal clear.

  4. If it was a simple mistake made by an unfortunate use of Google Translate, I’m sure we’ll see a retraction. If it was a deliberately misleading hit-piece, then not so much. Tomorrow will tell.

  5. LeeF says:

    This matter to do with a foreign language also brings to light a critical failing of Fishwrap, which is that most of their writers seem not to be proficient in a foreign language (John Allen was an exception before his departure), and thus can only engage the larger Catholic world through translation. Which is the reason they don’t understand why their nutty/heretical concerns are not shared by many others (the vast majority) in the Church except for fellow liberals in Western Europe and English speaking countries.

    This incident also shows that their editors are not very rigorous in at least questioning the accuracy of a translation on which her entire premise for the article is based. Then again, just as with liberal media in general, truth is not really foremost in their concerns.

  6. LeeF says:


    There is a third option, which is that although she made an honest mistake in relying on google translate, she still won’t retract because it would require her to both admit being careless/incompetent and also remove the basis for an attack on the good Cardinal that she wanted to make anyway. The only way to retract is to remove the entire article since it was totally based on a false translation. Other media outlets analyzed his interview and discussed its main point, which was changes in the CDF under Francis. But that apparently doesn’t interest PZ much.

  7. The Masked Chicken says:

    Phyllis Zagano’s problem wasn’t translation, per se.

    When I started to read this post and read the isolated sentence, “Il est impossible d’avoir deux femmes,” I, immediately translated it as, “It is impossible to have two women,” and then scratched my head [I have had French language studies since I was young as well as college-level textual analysis and passed a Ph.d translation exam]. I wasn’t thinking about CONTEXT. I read French, but without knowing the context, the isolated sentence is ambiguous. For instance, if it referred to the lead actress in a play, it would be perfectly possible to translate the sentences as, “It is impossible to have two women [get the part].” Now, however, throw it in the context of what Cardinal Muller actually said, and shame on Phyllis Zagano. Anybody with half a brain, even if they are using Google Translate, would have to have been suspicious that femme might have additional meanings other than just woman and looked up the word in any standard French-English dictionary. Indeed, any dictionary (even English ones) will give the double meaning.

    This is just laziness on her part.

    Now, what Phyllis doesn’t know (thankfully!), is that in more recent language usage, femme can also be translated as the effeminate half of a lesbian couple. That would have been even more shocking to her and would have really thrown things down the rabbit hole. So, maybe it’s a good thing she doesn’t read French.

    The Chicken

  8. LeeF says:

    BTW, it is worth digging into the comments over at Fishwrap and amuse oneself in watching PZ try to dig herself out of this. She is insisting that the Cardinal is the one who made the mistake of not using “epouse” in a formal setting, and that the use of “femme” by folks amounts to an “etymological insult”. And she has the gall to dispute with native speakers. It is clear she will not retract.

  9. Priam1184 says:

    Context, Phyllis, context.

  10. ppb says:

    Yes, anyone who knows any French at all and reads the context of the interview question should be able to see that “femmes” means “wives” here. Card. Muller is in fact upholding the dignity of women by his condemnation of adultery. He is opposing the idea that women can be treated as possessions to be discarded and replaced – which is precisely what adultery does, not Christian marriage. He’s obviously not saying that a woman is “property” of her husband and therefore cannot leave an abusive spouse. How Ms. Zagano managed to get that out of his comments is a complete mystery to me.

  11. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    An elemental error, that is so egregious, it should be followed immediately by apology and retraction of the piece. Absolutely elemental.

  12. CrimsonCatholic says:

    Go look at the comment section, I don’t think she made a mistake as she is stating that if he meant wife he should of used the word “epouse.” Since she is not backing down to the criticism of her translation, one would think this was meant as a hit piece.

  13. Peggy R says:

    Wow! That’s a basic failure. As a francophile, I lament the decline of French lang/culture in the world these days.

  14. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Actually, most Indo-European languages have the man=husband, woman=wife pairing. Heck, a lot of world languages, period.

    English used to have this pairing (guma=man and groom, wif=woman and wife), but we lost it. We are a weird exception.

  15. SaintJude6 says:

    Well forget professionalism or even good manners. She is doubling down on her error. She even tried to say that femme was too informal. Fortunately someone in the com boxes noted that femme is used for wife in the Bible and also in the marriage ceremony.
    Somebody has quite the axe to grind and isn’t too picky about what stone she uses.

  16. chonak says:

    Dr. Zagano claims to know some French. In one of her books, she translated some French text into English.

    Is it possible that by writing so much about the (imagined) ordination of women (ordination des femmes), she has fallen into the habit of equating femmes with women outright?

    Quel dommage.

  17. pelerin says:

    Chonak has pointed out that this lady appears to have studied the French language in which case she should indeed have placed the word’femme’ in its context and definitely translated it as ‘wife.’ She must have heard men say ‘Je vous presente ma femme’ – an everyday expression for ‘this is my wife’ and certainly not ‘this is my woman!’

    Interesting information from The Chicken which I didn’t know – until now!

  18. Marianna says:

    Someone over there is trying to dig her out of a hole by complaining that in Quebec you would use ‘mon epouse’!

    It’s interesting that in French – as spoken in France, I hasten to add – ‘femme’ means either ‘woman’ or ‘wife’, but ‘homme’ (‘man’), cannot be used for ‘husband’ (‘mari’). So if Card. Mueller wants to avoid being misrepresented in future, all he need do is change to ‘Il est impossible d’avoir deux maris’ (or maybe ‘deux epoux’ for the Quebecers)!

  19. benedetta says:

    I admire her prolife stance amidst a hostile crowd.

    That said, I rather doubt that fishwrap readership and pay content subscribers really care much for accuracy of any sort. As to issuance of correction and apology, as this is not a crowd to really stand on shared agreed upon principles applicable to all, it’s not surprising that opportunity too goes by without pause for taking stock.

  20. Grumpy Beggar says:

    The Masked Chicken states it quite succinctly , the context itself of what Cardinal Muller was saying doesn’t really leave a heck of a lot of room for misinterpretation.. And if one had bothered to enter the word wife in a half-decent, competent , web-based English-French French-English translation source – such as wordreference , one would discover that, the connotation of wife , in the French language is rendered as femme, even before it is rendered as épouse .

    FWIW , in the Province of Quebec , in conversation, Francophones commonly refer to the wife as femme , and its use could be deemed predominant by everyday people here in comparison to use the word épouse. “Our dear old friend Phyllis Zagano” , the journalist, really gets caught with her pens down on two counts (at least) :

    1. She has put her ignorance on display for everyone to see ; and as much as her unsubstantiated semi-coherent critique irks me, I can’t help but feel sorry for her , because she hasn’t left herself any escape hatch. She initially admits,clearly, that Cardinal Muller is talking about Catholic marriages – excerpt:
    “Most telling is Müller’s perspective. Speaking about second marriages to the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, Müller declared: “Il est impossible d’avoir deux femmes!” (“It is impossible to have two women!”)
    Note to Cardinal Müller: Women are no longer chattel in the developed world. Women are independent human beings made in the image and likeness of God. To “have two women” speaks to the older traditions that terrorists want to preserve in Christian lands: Women are property; women are to be controlled. Remember female genital mutilation? Remember honor killings? “

    – A claim that is at best, shoddy, because it reveals an aloofness to any comprehension whatsoever of the the idiom : Recall first , that the journalist has already admitted that Catholic marriage is the subject. The proper use of the word “femme” for wife, carries with it the implication that the “woman” is married – it simultaneously admits to a sacramental character while expressing union and gender ( are you same-sex marriage protagonists paying attention here?) . The French word femme, when used to imply “wife” actually dignifies marriage, particularly when one considers that commonly used French terms to connote a common-law wife are conjointe [de fait] , and , less regularly concubine ,but not femme.

    2. The above, in consideration of the overall article, really makes a strong case for the possibility of the existence of an ulterior motive – an agenda which was waiting to blurted out way before journalistic ignorance of the particular idiomatic ever became an issue. This particular fish at Fishwrap has, most unfortunately gone for the lure as opposed to the real bait and has left herself snagged on a hook for everyone to see with no apparent way to get “off the hook” . . . not a position I personally envy.

    It’s all quite confusing, if not depressing :Cardinal Muller says we can’t have two wives. The gay militants and proponents of same-sex marriage say we men can’t even have one wife , but they’re allowed to have a husband (although it has never been made clear what the other partner in the case of the latter would then be referred to as . . .Go figure ! : Marriage without defined partners). And now , pro-life Phyllis Zagano says we can’t have any “women”. . . (is there anyone left for us men who do our best to believe in what our Blessed Lord teaches , or is everyone else either taken or off-limits now ?)

    Still, it is questionable whether Phyllis Zagano’s article needs to be seen as a complete loss. After all, she has inadvertently demonstrated for us that being pro-life is not necessarily concomitant to being pro-Magisterium – at least, not for those who have to keep picking up and re-attaching their Catholic name tags.

    I’m reminded of a little story told to me more than a few years ago about a conversation overheard between to Catholic boys :

    Jimmy : “ Hey Bobby, I didn’t know that we Catholics are allowed to have sixteen wives.”
    Bobby : “Sixteen. . . ? Really . . . ?”
    Jimmy : “ Yeah – Four richer, four poorer, four better and four worse.”

  21. Grumpy Beggar says:

    – Just want to make sure than no one missed the real jewel that Cardinal Muller delivered in the same La Croix article Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller?: « La mission du pape est d’unifier le monde ».

    Cardinal Muller understands Pope Francis’ vision , and it’s anything but anti-magisterial. He has a clear idea of the direction in which the Pope wishes to lead the Church.

    When asked by La Croix, ” L’Église catholique était perçue jusqu’ici comme arc-boutée sur la doctrine?: le regard est-il en train de changer??”

    Cardinal Muller replied:

    ” On peut avoir l’impression que les pontificats antérieurs faisaient une fixation sur la morale sexuelle et que le pape François veut revenir à l’universalité du message de l’Évangile. Mais le message du pape François est aussi très clair sur une sexualité de l’homme ordonnée à la volonté de Dieu qui l’a créé homme et femme. L’Église rejette toute vision gnostique ou dualiste qui ferait de la sexualité un élément isolé de la nature humaine. Le pape veut élargir la réflexion pour souligner que la mission de l’Église est de donner l’espérance à tous les hommes. “

  22. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Would I be right in thinking the good doctor does not have a rounded sense of how ‘avoir’ works in French, either?

  23. The Masked Chicken says:

    Sorry about the Thayer quotation. I thought it was in Unicode, already. I suppose it isn’t necessary. There is no way, short of examining the html code to see if unicode is being used :(

    Here is an edited version:

    I don’t know how to get this note to Phyllis Zagano, since I do not read the NC Reporter, but I think she might need to hear this.

    Dear Dr. Zagano,

    With regards to the recent snafu in your translation of, femme, as woman, in an article wherein you quoted Cardinal Muller in the original French, might I point out that the use of the generic, woman, as a proxy for wife has had quite an historical precedence. For instance, in Ephesians 5:25, St. Paul exhorts:

    “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;”

    The transliterated original Greek reads [Hort and Westcott]:

    “oi andres agapate tas gunaikas kathos kai o cristod egapesen ten ekklesian kai eauton paredoken uper autes”

    Now, the word, gunaikas, is the generic term for women, but in this context is translated as wife. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon has this to say:

    1. universally, a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow: Matthew 9:20; Matthew 13:33; Matthew 27:55; Luke 13:11; Acts 5:14, etc.;…, Matthew 5:31; Matthew 19:3, 5; Acts 5:1, 7; 1 Corinthians 7:2; Ephesians 5:28; Revelation 2:20 (G L WH marginal reading), etc. of a betrothed woman: Matthew 1:20, 24. his step-mother: 1 Corinthians 5:1, Matthew 14:4; Matthew 22:28; Mark 6:18; Mark 12:23; Luke 20:33; I. 2 b. at the end a form of address, may be used — either in indignation, Luke 22:57; or in admiration, Matthew 15:28; or in kindness and favor, Luke 13:12; John 4:21; or in respect, John 2:4; John 19:26 (as in Homer, Iliad 3, 204; Odyssey 19, 221; Josephus, Antiquities 1, 16, 3).

    It is clear that St. Paul said, “Men [Husbands] love you women [wives]…” It is, obviously, context which determines which form is correct. One might point out that the root, gune, is translated with the following frequencies in the New American Study Bible:

    bride (1),
    wife (71),
    wife’s (1),
    wives (11),
    woman (96),
    woman’s (1),
    women (33)

    Indeed, The Blessed Virgin is referred this way when she was betrothed to Joseph. In any case, context must determine the usage. The parallel passage in the Vulgate uses, uxores, wives, so it has no trouble getting the meaning from context. While the Greek might have used a more specific term for wife, St. Paul chose not to, preferring to let context lead.

    Perhaps, the most direct mixing of the same word for wife and woman occurs in Jesus’s comments on lust and divorce. Let me quote the passages for you. First, Matt 5:27-28:

    hkousate oti erreqh ou moiceuseis
    egw de legw umin oti pas o blepwn gunaika pros to epiqumhsai authn hdh emoiceusen authn en th kardia autou

    [Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt not commit adultery: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.]

    Now, Matt 5:31-32:

    erreqh de os an apolush thn gunaika autou dotw auth apostasion
    egw de legw umin oti pas o apoluwn thn gunaika autou parektod logou porneiad poiei authn moiceuqhnai kai os ean apolelumenhn gamhsh moicatai

    [Again, it was said, Whoever puts away his wife has to give her a statement in writing for this purpose: but I say unto you, that every one that putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, maketh her an adulteress: and whosoever shall marry her when she is put away committeth adultery.]

    The word for woman in the first case is gunaika and in the second case is, likewise, gunaika. It seems that even Our Lord referred to woman and wife by the same word.

    Thus, you should, perhaps, have been more careful and charitable in giving Cardinal Muller the translation his words deserve. Context must often determine the meaning of words where a mixture of genera can occur.

    Thank you for your time. I remain,

    The Masked Chicken

    [Everyone, for Greek use Unicode]

  24. The Masked Chicken says:

    Does Phyllis Zagano read the comments at the newspaper? If it clears moderation, I have a really nice letter I wrote to her (which I will not post at the newspaper, but anyone, here, has my permission to do so) where I show from the original Greek that both St. Paul and Jesus did the same thing as Cardinal Muller – use a word which can be translated as either woman or wife.

    The Chicken

  25. The Masked Chicken says:

    Sorry, about the unicode problem. This is one more reason why html5 can’t get adopted soon enough. I suppose what I should have done is quoted the first line of the Thayer citation and then provided a link to the rest. Still, for someone who specializes in feminist Scripture studies, one would have expected her to know that the same word is used for woman and wife all of the time in the New Testament.

    The Chicken

Comments are closed.