Historians and the Work of Translation


I just finished Houghton College political scientist Peter Meilaender’s essay “Crossed Lines: The Importance of Translation in an Era of Growing Political Indifference.”  The piece, which appears in the Michaelmas 2019 issue of The Cresset, really resonated with me.  It is a reflection on the work of translation, born out of Meilaender’s reading of a collection of translated short stories.

Meilaender writes:

…only the lover is a faithful translator.  We today need more such translators–more peopel with the kind of curiosity and good will that motivates them to move outside their home culture, and with the kind of love that inspires them to it again, bringing with them the fruit of their travels.  Not all of us need to be such translators, but all of us should honor them, and we should want our public life to be enriched by their work as intermediaries, go-betweens, ambassadors.  At its best, that work embodies a form of intellectual virtue that holds out the promise of mutual understanding without papering over genuine difference.  It accepts the consequences of Babel while maintaining the hope that division and confusion need not be the last word, the ultimate and incorrigible fate of humanity.  It calls us to sing a polyphonic new song, with multiple languages in counterpoint and in harmony.

This essay resonated with me so much because I have been involved in the work of translation most of my adult life.  Translators, of course, must know something about two (or more) cultures.  They must know how to speak the languages of both cultures.

As a Christian, I have inhabited, and continue to inhabit, American evangelicalism.   I can speak the language.  I have spent the better part of my life in this culture. I know it well. I know its strengths and flaws. (I was also a practicing Catholic until the age of 15 or 16, so I can also speak the language of that culture, although I now do so with a heavy evangelical accent).

As a historian, I have inhabited, and continue to inhabit, the culture often described as the “historical profession.”  (I will be taking part in a community ritual associated with this culture in January 2020 when I will attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York).  I know this culture well. I know its strengths and flaws.  I can speak the language.

Some of what I have published over the years are works of translation–efforts to bring these two worlds together.  Other books and articles I have published are not works of translation. They were written in the language of the profession.

Public historians and academically-trained historians who write for the general public are always involved in the work of translation.  (See my recent reflection on this here). So are teachers.

Sometimes I need to translate my middle-class life to my working-class family, and sometimes I find myself doing the opposite.

I think it is imperative for the health of our communities that we all do the work of translation.  The divisions we face in the United States today are often due to a lack of skill in this area.  If you live in a social world where you are not forced to engage in the hard work of translation, you may be part of the problem. (And I am speaking here to my fellow academics as well). Meilaender suggests that the translator engages in moral activity.  She must have empathy for both cultures and use her work to seek “mutual understanding.”

But the translator always faces a conundrum.  Meilaender writes, “We today need…more people with kind of curiosity and good will that motivates them to move outside their home culture, and with the kind of love that inspires them to return to it again, bringing with them the fruits of their travels.”  I really like this sentence, but we also must acknowledge that sometimes a translator can get confused about exactly which culture is “home.”