St. John's College Annapolis The Program

The Work of Translation

The Rosetta Stone. (Public domain photo)
The Rosetta Stone. (Public domain photo)

By Alison Tretina

Over the course of freshman year, I have found translation to be an indispensable part of the Program. Because reading a foreign language is of a different nature than reading a familiar one, the translating done in the language tutorial plays a different role in the Program than the work found in seminarlaboratory, and the other tutorials. But, upon further reflection, I have come to realize that translating shares the same difficulties and assumptions as reading and communicating in any other class. In fact, every act of learning in the Program is an act of translating.

What are we doing when we translate? Translating is a constant back-and-forth movement, sweeping over the entirety of a work, from a word’s definitive meaning to its syntactical place, from the structure of a clause to the context of the paragraph. Unlike a decoding process, translation frequently demands looking to the sentence to find the meaning of a word, or looking to the end of the sentence to return to its beginning. Translating is a complex and paradoxical process. It requires simultaneously understanding the whole through the parts, while understanding the parts through the whole.

However, the ideal purpose of translating—to find a shared meaning between two languages—is impossible; no two languages have perfectly reciprocal meanings. At times, words may share similar meanings, and sometimes even seemingly equivalent meanings. But, no language fully embodies the meaning of another language perfectly.

For example, the word nomos in Ancient Greek could be translated into English as law, custom, or convention, depending on the context. There is no word found in English that embodies all the meaning of nomos. Similarly, English has no perfect way of expressing the Greek subjunctive verbs. English also has a verb tense called subjunctive, but this is not the same as the Greek tense. Because of these difficulties and many more, the work of translation becomes the work of approximation, aligning the meaning between two languages as closely as possible.

Now, you may be wondering: why would anyone undertake an arduous task with impossible goals? Moreover, what does this task have to do with learning?

In freshman year, we quickly realize that people think differently. Others ask questions

The St. John's classroom. (Photo by Admissions)
The St. John’s classroom. (Photo by Admissions)

that would never have crossed our minds. They find significance in things we would otherwise disregard. As a result of these differences, we are constantly trying to align others’ meanings with our own understanding. This task is identical to translation.

Finding meaning in translation and in conversation begins with a belief that the text or the person has meaning to share, that the meaning is capable of being found, and that the meaning is worth finding. We are only scanning our eyes over the page or hearing noises in our ears, until we take faith. Once we have taken faith, we will be ready to begin the meticulous work of either translating or conversing. Translating requires going back and forth within the text, and considering all the possibilities for each word and sentence structure. Similarly, conversing requires keen listening skills, grasping the question trying to be answered and the answer itself, recognizing the implications and possibilities. Even the slightest details matter. A subtle change in word usage could be the difference of another meaning.

Translating and conversing, either with a peer or a text, are intrinsically related to language. When we misplace a clause in a sentence, when we misinterpret our peer’s answer, or whenever there is a misunderstanding, we have failed to align the language of two people. Language is the medium of our search for meaning. Without it, learning is impossible.

The language tutorials, in which we currently study Ancient Greek and French, could easily remove translation from the Program, and pursue more attainable goals. These might include a proficiency in logic or rhetoric, or developed techniques in writing and speaking, all of which are encompassed in a liberal education. But it is through translation that we learn to learn. Nothing can adequately replace it, and anything that did would require an act of translation.

1 comment on “The Work of Translation

  1. Agbc Saxony

    Some things will never change.. it’s wonderful.. I felt the same way as A’79.


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