Monsignor Mark Miles is the linguistic bridge between the Spanish-speaking Francis and his English-speaking audiences.
LONDON — If every word you say is considered by some of your listeners to be divinely inspired — maybe even infallible — what happens if you don’t speak their language?
For Pope Francis, the answer lies in the man in the glasses, the unobtrusive black-robed priest who can be seen trailing the pontiff, whispering into his ear and sometimes speaking directly into the mic.
Monsignor Mark Miles is the linguistic bridge between the Spanish-speaking Francis and his English-speaking audiences. He has accompanied the pope on other international trips and been at his side in some illustrious company, including President Obama, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Queen Elizabeth II.
The queen is Miles’ other leader, at least from a secular perspective: He hails from Gibraltar, the British-ruled rocky outcrop in southern Spain, which also explains why Miles speaks English and Spanish fluently.
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His clipped British accent and his looks have some female fans atwitter — or a-Twitter, the social network on which they’ve shared their avowedly unspiritual devotion. (“Father forgive me,” wrote one admirer; “cutest dimple ever,” cooed another.)
Miles himself prefers to stay out of the spotlight, declining to give interviews. Little is known about the monsignor except that he is 48, attended the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome, the training ground of Vatican diplomats, and had official postings in Ecuador and Hungary. According to the Roman Catholic journal The Tablet, Miles is “affable, bright and hardworking,” sings well and likes to cycle.
Of the 18 speeches Francis was delivering in the United States, only four were in English, including Thursday’s address to a joint meeting of Congress. The rest he is delivering in his native Spanish.
Miles’ biggest challenge is keeping up with a boss known for going off script. On a stop in the Philippines in January, Francis decided to rip up his prepared homily in favor of an impromptu address and gave his put-upon aide a shout-out: “I have a translator, a good translator!”
That papal penchant for off-the-cuff remarks has at times flummoxed Miles, as well as the Holy See’s news office and the team of translators and interpreters whose job it is to render Francis’ utterances into several languages, including Italian, English, Spanish, French, German and Arabic. (The pope has Twitter accounts in all those languages. The Spanish one has the most followers, nearly 10 million; English is second with 7 million.)
Vatican media aides have scrambled to find out just what the boss said that caused a stir in the media. The most widely quoted statement so far in Francis’ papacy — “Who am I to judge?” in reference to a gay priest — came during a session with reporters aboard the papal plane on a flight home from Brazil. Back on the ground, the Vatican media office, besieged with questions, took days to issue an official Italian transcript.
The Vatican’s translations of those transcripts into other languages are usually marked “unofficial,” frustrating international reporters who cover the pope.
“Very often they miss the point. They miss the nuances,” veteran Vatican correspondent Robert Mickens said of the translations. “I don’t use them. I (do) my own translation.”
Miles’ job at the pope’s side can be even more difficult, since his interpretation has to be instant. He’s earned kudos for a style that’s almost akin to method acting, mimicking the pope’s emphases and inflections and laughing in the same places.
“He does a pretty good job, I have to say,” Mickens said. “Miles knows Spanish and Italian and English, of course, so he triangulates this thing. He’s very good at it.”
But he can be stumped by the pope’s Argentine dialect. At the appearance in the Philippines, according to another Vatican reporter, Francis used the word pollera, which folks in his hometown of Buenos Aires would know means “skirt.” To Miles and most other Spanish speakers, that article of clothing is a falda.