A Reflection about Dreams, Poetry, and Translation

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When I’m stressed, I often have a recurring dream: I'm back in university trying to get ready for a morning class, but I can't find everything I need. A notebook, a textbook, my shoes . . . something is always missing. Time ticks by, and I grow later and later. Then I realize I haven’t finished my assignment that is due. I wake up in a panic.

It has been more than 20 years since I graduated from university, yet for some reason that is where my subconscious goes to process my real-life stress. This morning, after waking up from yet another stress dream -- this time being late for World Literature I -- I was reminded about the real-life challenge of translation. 

In my third year of university, I took a World Lit class that explored a variety of written works from across the globe. All of them had been translated into English, but some of them had a side-by-side presentation in our anthology so that you could see the original work next to the English version. One particular Charles Baudelaire poem stood out to me. 

As a French minor, I could read the original poem and see how poorly the English translation reflected it. The word choices were mostly accurate, but the translation couldn't match the rhythm and cadence of the original. Something beautiful and essential was missing.

I asked my professor for permission to write my final paper exploring that issue. I argued that the translation itself required careful crafting and skill far beyond word replacement. To be done well, translation needs to be thought of as artistry in its own right, or so my 20-year-old self opined. 

In my work as a communicator today, part of my job is to figure out how to meet the needs of non-English speakers. Of the approximately 1,000 congregations of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, nearly 200 worship in a language other than English. This means that CRC Communications needs to reach people who speak Korean, Spanish, Chinese (simplified and traditional), Navajo, Laotian, French, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Hindi, Urdu, Samoan, Thai, and about a dozen other languages. 

There are many technological tools that can assist in this task. For example, once you provide closed captioning in English, YouTube can autotranslate the file into an array of other languages. Similarly, a service such as Interactio can provide simultaneous translation in multiple languages during synod, Inspire, or other events. And, in a pinch, Google translate can help us read and then respond to emails we receive.

But technology has its limits. A recent Reuters article, “Google translation AI botches legal terms . . . ,” identified some of the problems that arise when mistranslations occur. Language is tricky and has all sorts of nuances that technology might not pick up. What’s more, every sector of society has special jargon and terms that machine translators may fail to understand or recognize.

In the CRCNA’s case, machine translation may not recognize specific ministry names (such as Resonate or World Renew) or denominational terms (“church council,” “synod,” “classis”). And a document that encourages someone to cultivate and practice “spiritual discipline” may end up being translated in a way that emphasizes retribution or punishment. 

Technology is also limited by the data set it has available. More than 7,000 languages are spoken in the world, but technology is currently able to translate only about a hundred of them. Navajo, a language spoken in 10 CRCNA congregations, isn’t a language that Google translate can even assist with. 

A BBC article, “The languages that defy auto-translate,” gives me hope that technology is moving forward in ways that will include more language and more conversational terms. I’m even imagining the CRCNA incorporating some sort of tool to make it possible for our online chat to seamlessly take questions and respond in any language. 

But in the meantime, what do we do?

For the CRCNA, we’ve tried to supplement technology by gathering people from diverse cultural and language backgrounds into what we call our “translations team.” We select what we think are the most important CRC documents to translate. We have them translated and reviewed by dedicated translators who aim to bring the text into their cultural context while paying attention to CRC terminology and nuances of language. For the most complicated and nuanced texts, we sometimes have a third or fourth set of eyes look things over before we post or publish the translations. 

We’re also building up our websites to incorporate more translated content. Here on The Network, for example, users can submit content in English, French, Korean, Spanish, or Arabic. If they tag the content with that language, it can be searched and found by future visitors. On crcna.org we are slowly translating key pages for non-English-speaking visitors (check out the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, and toggle to a different language in the upper-right corner; then visit the other creeds or confessions pages to see those in that same language).

Thinking back to my university paper, though, I wonder if this is enough. I recognize that articles of Church Order and doctrine may be different from a work of poetry. I wonder, though . . . If we want to truly speak to people’s hearts, do we need more artistry in our translation? 

Maybe we need to encourage even more cultural contextualization beyond word-for-word translation. Maybe we need to move beyond translation, itself, and create more spaces to solicit original content written in other languages. 

If you know of someone who is a good writer in another language, encourage them to post here. If we need to add another language to our tags, just let us know ([email protected]), and we’d be happy to do so. While you are at it, feel free to send us ideas on how we can do more or better at meeting the needs of non-English speakers.

In the meantime, I’ve given my subconscious something new to obsess about. Cue the stress dream.

 

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