Words and Meanings

Translation – as any translator will tell you – is not so much about translating words as about translating meaning. If you translate words without knowing what they mean – and I imagine that that is what machine translation does – you can easily fail to convey the correct meaning.

So a translator must have an excellent knowledge of the source language, the language of the original text which is to be translated, because they need to understand the meaning of the words. They also need to have mastered the target language into which they are translating, so that they can accurately convey the meaning of the original text in a way which the reader can easily understand.

This is especially difficult when the meaning is not easily understood, even by a native speaker. If the subject matter is physics or metaphysics or any other specialist topic, there are probably difficult or complicated concepts to grasp. Or there may be several layers of meaning – as in poetry, for example.

A translator really needs to have a very good understanding not only of the two languages, but also of the two cultures. When I’m translating a sermon by a German pastor into English for British church-goers, that isn’t too much of a problem. I’m very much at home both in the German Protestant Church and in church circles generally in both Britain and Germany. And the two cultures don’t differ that much.

I recently translated the annual report of Brot für die Welt, the German equivalent of Christian Aid. This included reports on projects in various countries such as Colombia (concerned with peace and human rights) and South Africa (concerned with the rights of mine workers and their families). I found it helpful to have visited South Africa, Ecuador, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, and Palestine, so that I have some understanding of the context of Brot für die Welt’s project work. Indeed one of my two visits to Kenya was to take part in the evaluation of a Brot für die Welt project, the Quaker-run Rural Service Programme in Western Kenya. I didn’t have much trouble translating project reports or interviews with Brot für die Welt staff. But I did struggle a bit with the balance sheet, in spite of having produced the annual accounts for the European peace church network Church and Peace for several years.

I’m now getting involved in a major translation project which is likely to throw up a few problems: the translation of George Fox’s journal into modern German. George Fox was the principal founder of the Quakers, born in 1624 in the English Midlands. He was not only writing in 17th century English; he was living in a very different culture from that of 21st century Britain. Last year my wife and I spent five months at Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria. The Hall became the first headquarters of the growing Quaker movement after George Fox visited the Fell family there in 1652. I was able to get some sense of what life was like there in the 17th century. But I couldn’t turn the clock back and actually live at that time and experience the culture at first hand. So I have to make do with reading about those times. (Here I would strongly recommend Christopher Hill’s “The World Turned Upside Down”.)

Having been born in the 20th century, my knowledge and understanding of 17th century England and English is limited. But translating into German, which is not my mother tongue, could well be even more of a problem. So I’m glad that I’m working together with native German speakers and will not have to translate the whole journal (nearly 800 pages) myself.

One of the words used frequently by George Fox could cause us a few headaches or at least a lot of head-scratching. George Fox often quarrelled with people whom he disparagingly referred to as “professors”, people who professed their Christian faith but who did not actually know – or “possess” – Christ in their hearts. To translate “professor” as “Professor” or “Dozent” in German would obviously be wrong. But I have yet to find a suitable German word which conveys what George Fox meant by “professor”. “Fromme”, meaning a pious person, is the best I can come up with so far. Any alternative suggestions would be most welcome!

George Fox was at pains to point out that academic learning can be a waste of time and what really matters is to pay attention to the Spirit of Christ, our Inward Teacher, the Light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

Last night I dreamt that I was waiting in a courtyard to set off on a long journey with a fairly large group of people. I was one of the first to show up (which isn’t at all typical of me) with my large rucksack. (I guess I am carrying a fair amount of psychological baggage.) Slowly, more and more people entered the courtyard. I was looking out for the leader of the group, but no-one identified themselves. Eventually, when the courtyard had become rather crowded, someone started calling out my name. I couldn’t tell very easily where the voice was coming from and felt rather annoyed that the leader hadn’t identified himself before calling out my name. After a short while I saw who the leader was amongst the crowd, but I made a show of looking all around to make the point that the leader should have identified himself more obviously. I wonder now whether perhaps I should have been paying more attention to all the other people who were coming and going. I might then have noticed the leader when he arrived. Or maybe he was there all along.

Thomas Kelly, the 20th century Quaker mystic, possessed knowledge of Christ within. He wrote in “A Testament of Devotion”:

How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps of our souls.”

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