Taming the 'Devil's Advocate' (Part 1 of 2)
Or so, I thought. The term came up again last month, though this time it was in a translation assignment. First, let's understand and analyze its meaning. 'Devil's Advocate' is actually a 16th century Roman Catholic term. But even when I was still a Catholic (before converting to Agnosticism about ten years ago), I was not too familiar with it. Obviously I was not a good Catholic. Only about five years ago, upon reading an article in The New Yorker, I came to fully understand its meaning.
Historically, the phrase derives from the canonization process utilized by the Roman Catholic Church. The Devil's Advocate (Latin: advocatus diaboli), was a canon lawyer appointed by Vatican authorities to argue against the canonization of a candidate. His job is to take a skeptical view of the candidate's character, to look for weaknesses, holes in the evidence, and so on. Naturally, the Devil's Advocate opposed the God's Advocate (Latin: advocatus Dei), whose task was to make the argument in favor of canonization. The office was established in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, and partially disbanded in 1983 by Pope John Paul II.
In secular and common parlance, a Devil's Advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes an opposite position (that he/she does not necessarily agree with) just for the sake of debate or to validate a particular argument. A lawyer in a law firm for example, may be appointed to play the Devil's Advocate in order to sharpen an argument.
In any case, the literal translation of 'Devil's Advocate' in Indonesian, Advokat Setan, sounds awkward and its meaning will not be immediately understood. Its other meaning ('devil's avocado') could even be distracting and corrupt the target audience's understanding. Thus, only a contextual translation will fit the bill.
[To be continued.]
Johannes Tan, English <> Indonesian Translator & Conference Interpreter