Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 284
March 2, 1998

"A Translator is a Traitor"


"I disagree with you," and I ask, "About what?" I'm usually still puzzled after the person has described the disagreement, and I have to ask for further specificity. When I finally pinpoint the source of the other's disagreement, I often find that I am now the one in disagreement with that person's understanding.

No doubt, my own dullness of thought and fuzziness of expression leads to some confusion and dissent, but there is also misunderstanding existing in the ear of the hearer and the eye of the beholder. We all constantly respond to others, and to situations, through our own experience. A word that I find neutral is, for another, loaded with anguish. To an idea that I consider destructive or demonic, another responds with a shrug of the shoulder.

In scholarly circles the Italian expression, "Traduttore traditore," literally means "a translator is a traitor," and it implies that it is impossible to translate without misrepresenting the author.

That is true at every level. The artist on canvas or in musical composition or in words on a page struggles to translate a mental concept into physical form, and the physical form, to some extent, always betrays the idea. Then, if the physical form is communicated thorough a conductor, an interpreter or a translator, that person adds her or his own experience to the original creation. Finally, the physical expression takes another mutation in the mind of the observer.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain once expressed his dissatisfaction with many of his books translated into English because "the translators who knew French did not know philosophy, and those who knew philosophy did not know French." Which leaves us with the possibility that a discussion in an American classroom on Maritain's philosophy might be passionate but miss the point.

These somewhat abstract comments take on bone and flesh in every marriage, family, social and work setting where "communication is the problem." Because we make the common assumption that the other is "just like us," we miss the clues leading to misunderstanding. I think that the only way I could fully understand another is to place myself in suspended animation and make myself totally present to the other, trying to understand the perspective from which the other is speaking. Lacking that, I stumble along.

Actually, I don't feel too pessimistic about our ability to translate the thoughts and feelings of others, as long we understand there will always be some static and distortion in the process.

And, that gives you absolute permission to tell me, "I disagree with you."

--Robert H. Tucker
2 March 1998


© Robert H. Tucker, 1998.
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