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The Power of Translation

The Power of Translation

by Sarah Stewart on April 07, 2023

Translation is essential to communication. In the last year, I’ve read books translated into English from Russian, Japanese, German and Ukrainian. I’ve read books written by authors who learned English as a second or third language before writing in it. I’m grateful for the work of translators, and authors who learn second languages, because they bring more writing to more people.

There’s a movement to put translators’ names on the title pages of books, instead of tucking them away on the copyright page. Translation is an art, a work of intellect and love that transforms the voice and meaning of a piece of writing into another language. It’s good for readers to be reminded of the importance of translation, because human beings use translation every time we try to communicate the most important truths to one another.

At this holy season in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, I’m reminded of this importance of translation. To communicate what really matters, we all have to use our translation skills. Talking about ultimate reality is not the same as talking about a dentist appointment or a bus schedule. I’m learning Spanish right now, and I can say things like “I’m busy” or “The cafe is near the train station.” But I can’t communicate my deepest feelings or my beliefs in the holy—those are hard enough in my native English. 

Whenever we try to talk about religion, we find ourselves in the world of metaphor and translation. Take the simple word “God.” St. Anselm said in the 11th century that God was “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” He hit upon the difficulty: whatever we think we mean when we say the word “God” (and Anselm was saying the word “Deus” in Latin), the reality is slightly outside of what we can comprehend. All three Abrahamic religions which have holy seasons right now have an understanding of “God”; all three would say that in whatever language, they worship the same God, yet the divisions between these cousins have sometimes led them to war. What we believe is not a simple thing.

In our new members’ classes here at First Unitarian Church, we do an exercise that shows the diversity of what we believe. I label one side of the Chapel “Absolutely Yes” and one side “Absolutely No,” and I ask participants to stand where they fit on a spectrum between those two options for a variety of statements. One statement is “I believe in God or some kind of higher power.” And people always line up across the spectrum, from one end to the other and in-between. I emphasize that if we were to ask the whole congregation to do this exercise, we would see the same kind of diversity. In our Unitarian Universalist church, we have no creed; each of us is responsible for our own beliefs about what matters most.

Yet we live together in community. So to talk to each other about what we believe, about what matters most in life, about how to be good people, about the nature of the soul, about the sacred, we must all be translators. We must be willing to hear past our own assumption about what words mean and take in what another person is telling us. Deep listening and effective translation require humility, curiosity, and openness. We must practice the golden rule—affirmed by Islam, Judaism and Christianity—and listen to others as we wish to be listened to ourselves.

We’re doing this good work of translating at First Unitarian Church. By practicing listening and understanding even when we disagree, we help build muscles of inter-religious understanding that the world needs. As we eat together at the Seder dinner tomorrow and celebrate resurrection on Easter morning, may we be grateful for the chance to practice translation.

Tags: easter, passover, christianity, islam, muslim, translation, jewish, judaism, ramadan, ecumenical, interfaith

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