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.”

Commonplace Book #124

There is no word for ‘home’ in Italian.  There is casa (house), fucolaro (hearth), but no word for home (as if they had no need for it) as in English.  In American English the yearning for home looms large: in American literature the theme of home and search for home is persistent, from Mark Twain’s Huck Finn through Melville’s Moby Dick to Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and You Can’t Go Home Again. American songs like Home, Home on the RangeOld Folks at Home, and Me and Bobby Magee along with Protestant hymns are peppered with the word.  Baseball, that most American of games, has as its object to reach home safely as often as possible.

Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale , La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, 462.

When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

Maybe Bruce Springsteen Was Born to Run Home

springsteen netflix

Springsteen on Broadway (courtesy of Netflix)

Religion News Service is running my piece on Catholicism and “home” in “Springsteen on Broadway.” Needless to say, I had fun with this one.

Here is a taste:

Yet, as Springsteen knows all too well, escaping a Catholic past in the Irish and Italian enclaves of working-class New Jersey is not easy. “You know what they say about Catholics … there’s no getting out … (the priests and nuns) did their work hard and they did it well.”

Springsteen understands that the past often has its way with us — shaping us, haunting us, defining us, motivating us and empowering us. Like a priest conducting Mass, he asks the audience to receive the Lord’s Prayer as a “benediction” — perhaps a final blessing from a music legend who was never quite able to outrun the sound of the church bells.

Maybe this is what it means, as he wrote famously in “Born to Run,” to “get to that place where we really want to go” where we can “walk in the sun.” Maybe Bruce Springsteen was born to run home.

Over the years, Springsteen has become the darling of progressive politicians. He campaigned for John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and (briefly) for Hillary Clinton in 2016. But when he tells his story on Broadway, he transports us back to a day when progressive ideals and the relentless quest for the American dream were not separated from tradition, roots, place, a longing for home, and Christian faith.

Read the entire piece here.

Messiah College Humanities Symposium: “Home”

Home Symposium

I have been thinking and writing about “home” for a long time.  So needless to say, I am looking forward to the Messiah College Humanities Symposium this coming week.  Here are some of the sessions I hope to attend during the week:

Thursday Night Keynote: “Home as Grief, Home as Us, Edwidge Danticat

Monday Afternoon: “Home, the Humanities and Higher Education,” Peter Powers, Dean, School of Humanities

Monday Evening: “Songs of Home”—faculty panel and performance with

Monday Evening:  “From Bible School to Grantham University: The Evolution of Messiah College”—faculty lecture Devin Manzullo-Thomas, Humanities

Tuesday Afternoon: “Finding Home: Housing and Travel in Segregated America, 1900-1960” David Pettegrew and students, Digital Harrisburg Initiative and Office of Diversity Affairs

Wednesday Evening: “Pilgrim’s Progress: Find Home for faith Through Journeys Into History”—history faculty panel discussion, Joseph P. Huffman, Bernardo Michael, David Pettegrew

See the entire schedule here.

Historian Richard White on “Home”


Yesterday we posted a link to a History News Network interview with Stanford historian Richard White.

Today, White is back with a piece at Smithsonian.com on the idea of “home” in America’s Gilded Age.

Here is a taste:

When reduced to the “Home Sweet Home” of Currier and Ives lithographs, the idea of “home” can seem sentimental. Handle it, and you discover its edges. Those who grasped “home” as a weapon caused blood, quite literally, to flow. And if you take the ubiquity of “home” seriously, much of what we presume about 19th-century America moves from the center to the margins. Some core “truths” of what American has traditionally meant become less certain.

It’s a cliché, for example, that 19th-century Americans were individualists who believed in inalienable rights. Individualism is not a fiction, but Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie no more encapsulated the dominant social view of the first Gilded Age than Ayn Rand does our second one. In fact, the basic unit of the republic was not the individual but the home, not so much isolated rights-bearing-citizen as collectives—families, churches, communities, and volunteer organizations. These collectives forged American identities in the late-19th century, and all of them orbited the home. The United States was a collection of homes.

Evidence of the power of the home lurks in places rarely visited anymore. Mugbooks, the illustrated county histories sold door to door by subscription agents, constituted one of the most popular literary genres of the late-19th century. The books became monuments to the home. If you subscribed for a volume, you would be included in it. Subscribers summarized the trajectories of their lives, illustrated on the page. The stories of these American lives told of progress from small beginnings—symbolized by a log cabin—to a prosperous home.

Read the entire piece here.

The Grief of Staying Home


Andrew Sullivan reflects on place and rootedness in an age of globalization:

I’ve always been unusually attached to places. It’s one reason I still call myself a conservative. Travel doesn’t attract me. I’ve now lived in the same loft in D.C. since I bought it, in 1991 (apart from an ill-fated year and a half in New York City); I’ve spent 20 consecutive summers in the same little town at the end of Cape Cod, and have no desire to go anyplace else. Even when I go home to England, I tend to spend around half my time near where I grew up.

I wouldn’t go so far as Malcolm Muggeridge, who famously said: “Travel, of course, narrows the mind.” (Don’t you love that “of course”?) But I would say that the reverse can also be true. Staying put allows you to really get to know a place deeply at different times and in different seasons, to capture, often serendipitously, a small detail you’d never seen before, or arrive at a street corner and suddenly remember that this was where you first met an old friend.

But staying home brings grief with it as well. Everything changes, and when your beloved tree at the end of the street is cut down, or a new Safeway replaces the corner baker, or, more fatally, the factory that used to be the linchpin of the place lies empty and crumbling, it stings and wounds and demoralizes. When I’ve visited my own hometown in England, so much is the same. And yet, on closer inspection, many of the once-vibrant shops are selling secondhand clothes, or given over to real estate offices. My old church has a broken window where the rain comes in. The services have dwindled to near nothing. Maybe it’s being away for so long, but it seems familiar and yet a little empty, as if something in it has somehow died, a continuity somehow lost….

In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.

Read the entire piece here.

It is easy to disparage the working white people who think Donald Trump is their savior. We want to write them off for being overly nostalgic about the local world that globalization has taken from them. Murray captures this sense of loss better than any other writer. (Too bad Middlebury College students did not see it this way).  This sense of loss is real.  Too often we are oblivious to the pain that comes in the midst of social change.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in anger.  Sometimes such pain manifests itself in sadness. And sometimes it manifests itself at the ballot box.

I tried to write about all of this in the context of the eighteenth century in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  For Fithian, modernity and its trappings–ambition, education, self-improvement–often existed in tension with a love of home, sense of place, and local “relations.”  This tension was not only a fixture of early American culture on the cusp of modernity, but it exists for many Americans in the 21st century as well.

The Democratic Malaise

revoltThis morning I picked up my copy of Christopher Lasch’s 1995 book The Revolt and the Elite and the Betrayal of Democracy and started reading it again.  I am still trying to process it all from the perspective of the so-called age of Trump, but here is a relevant passage from the Introduction.

p. 5-6: Thanks to the decline of old money and the old-money ethic of civic responsibility, local and regional loyalties are sadly attenuated today…Advancement in business and the professions, these days, requires a willingness to follow the siren call of opportunity wherever it leads.  Those who stay at home forfeit the chance of upward mobility.  Success has never been so closely associated with mobility, a concept that figuted only marginally in the nineteenth-century definition of opportunity…Anbitious people understand, then, that a migratory way of life is the price of getting ahead…The new elites are in revolt against “Middle America,” as they imagine it: a national technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.  Those who covet membership in the new aristocracy of brains tend to congregation on the coasts, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion, and popular culture….The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort.  Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world–not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.

As I read this passage I began to wonder how much the ascension of Trump is really a story that can be explained through the lens of “place.”  Healthy democracies often require face-to-face engagement in public spaces where ideas can be exchanged in civil ways. Sadly, it is hard to find these kind of spaces in America today.  Ambitious kids in search of the American dream no longer seem to find that dream at home, unless, of course, home is on the coasts.  They go off to college and never come back, depriving the communities that raised them of the intellectual resources and skills in informed, evidence-based conversation that are necessary for democracy to function at the local level.  (This, of course, assumes that they are getting these skills and resources from college.  With the rise of professional programs at the expense of the humanities this kind of education is no longer a given).

While Lasch’s juxtaposition of the “elite” and the “people may be a bit contrived, I think he does have a point.  If time allows, I will try to develop some of my thinking along these lines and post some more stuff from Revolt of the Elites.  I want to reread Revolt alongside J.D. Vance’s celebrated Hillbilly Elegy.

Stay tuned, and thanks for thinking with me on this front.

Song of the Day

Long Walk Home

Last night I stood at your doorstep
Trying to figure out what went wrong
You just slipped something into my palm and you were gone

I could smell the same deep green of summer
‘Bove me the same night sky was glowin’
In the distance I could see the town where I was born

It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home
A long walk home

In town I pass Sal’s grocery
Barber shop on South Street
I looked in their faces*
They’re all rank strangers to me*
Well Veteran’s Hall high upon the hill
Stood silent and alone
The diner was shuttered and boarded
With a sign that just said “gone”

It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home
It’s gonna be a long walk home

Here everybody has a neighbor
Everybody has a friend
Everybody has a reason to begin again

My father said “Son, we’re lucky in this town,
It’s a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone”

“Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t”

It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home
It’s gonna be a long walk home
It’s gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home
Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me
Gonna be a long walk home
It’s gonna be a long walk home
It’s gonna be a long walk home