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Life Translated

Dean Miller, College of Humanities at BYU

Every day—when we get dressed, when we exercise, when we interact with others—we transform who we are into a persona we deem suitable for those who will be reading us.

We are all translators, even if we are monolingual. Translation is not just a verbal activity; the word “translate” is rooted in the sense of something being “carried across” from one place to another, and our lives are filled with such transportive acts. Every day—when we get dressed, when we exercise, when we interact with others—we transform who we are into a persona we deem suitable for those who will be reading us. Reading is, itself, an act of translation, for we bring our unique combination of life experiences and understanding to everything we read, making something of the written lines that is never exactly what the authors, based on their life experiences and understandings, intended to capture with their carefully chosen words.

The College is abuzz with activities located somewhere on translation’s broad spectrum. Our world language students, for example, quickly come to learn the challenges and pleasures of words for which there are no English equivalents. Our faculty carry literary works in various world languages across the linguistic gap into English and other tongues, or update obscure texts through commentaries and contextualization. Some examine the way film and theater adapt literary works in creatively staged performances. For decades, some of our faculty have been studying how to harness computers to translate languages while others have made contributions to the growing body of theories behind various modes of translation. More recently, students can learn the art of commercial translation from seasoned practitioners, and now there is even a translation and localization minor that prepares them to enter a dynamic, growing, and lucrative professional field. (Ever noticed multilingual ATM machines? That’s localization!)

When we think of the word “translation” in a literary context, we usually imagine a kind of seamless correspondence that translators achieve by making an equivalent version of the original in the target language. Yet, as Wilhelm von Humboldt noted, translation is einer unmöglichen Aufgabe (an impossible task),1 and an Italian proverb reads “Traduttori traditori!” (Translators are traitors!) Such maxims arise because the nature of human interaction is more complex than it seems, and so, in even very simple and seemingly straightforward communications (Google translate notwithstanding), factors such as setting, tone, and nuance can turn seeming equivalence on its head. Translation is a task that requires translators to understand context, employ creativity, adaptability, and especially empathy even as they aim for a hopelessly high standard. So impossible is that task that we find great, perhaps cathartic, pleasure in hilarious examples of mistranslations into English, the more absurd the better: “Please use the restroom beautifully!”

One consequence I have found in the recent emphasis on using the formal name of BYU’s sponsoring church is to see it as an invitation to translate my worldly identity: I have been transformed from Mormon to saint! While, in my case, most observers would see this as a gross mistranslation, perhaps the collective impact of millions of renamed “saints” might help us revise, or more accurately reclaim, the meaning of the term to define one who sets oneself up as an example of a deeply flawed soul who places trust in a higher power to elevate them above their natural capacity. In the context of translation, perhaps we might understand God’s work and glory—“to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man’’2—to be the ultimate act of localization, wherein we are transformed, identities intact, from flawed denizens of a terrestrial planet into immortal beings living in exaltation across the eternities.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of living a saint’s life in the midst of a very imperfect and confusing world is to allow the magnitude of our conviction to draw out the divine from our human-habituated souls. Reaching out to others in a combination of sacrifice and love, yielding to promptings, and acting upon spontaneous bursts of inspiration are all ways in which we engage in translating our souls from natural man to saint. Likewise, training our skills of observation to see the divine within the all-too-human can translate mundane or even negative human interactions into transformational experiences. When we interpret life through a nobler vision of humanity, we can find ourselves and others translated from modest but myopic, egocentric beings into creatures reflecting the glory of our Creator.

In this regard, then, translation can, and should, be an act of love, of respect, a vote of confidence in the direction of mutual understanding and human connection. May the experiences we have in life render us into something quite different from what we started out as, yet, as in all good translations, may something of the original—the best part—remain. Along the way, our ongoing education in both the humanities and humanity can help us gain, rather than lose, something in our ultimate translation.

—Dean J. Scott Miller for the fall 2019 issue of Humanities magazine

1. Noted in a letter to A. W. Schlegel, 23 July 1796. Phillip Matson, ed. Wilhelm von Humboldt Briefe. Historisch-kritische Ausgabe (De Gruyter, 2017), vol. 3, p. 274.
2. Moses 1:39