Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

So the other day, I was sitting in the hallway of my University’s Residence Halls, around midnight, and listening to a theology discussion which the RA’s were having. There were people of all different backgrounds there, but the most vocal was a young man of the Mormon faith. At one point, the question arose of Bible translation and the fallibility of human translators.

The young Mormon piped up with a very innovative analogy on translation which he learned in Seminary, which I felt was quite interesting. I’ll roughly paraphrase below:

The word of God is a lot like a picture hanging on a bulletin board. It only has one tack to secure it [representing the Old and New Testament together], so anybody can spin it around as they’d like, changing the perspective, even though the picture stays the same. The translators each tilt it a bit differently, and it’s tough to see exactly what the right orientation is.

For us [those of the Mormon Faith], the Book of Mormon is a second tack. It provides a second hold, and keeps you from spinning the picture. Whenever there’s a question about the perspective and translation in one, you can consult the other. What might be unsure with one tack, is securely locked with two.

Whether you believe in the validity of either work, this is an interesting analogy. It seems to imply a distinct split between the actual “word” or message of God, and the written words used to pass it on, much like the split between concept and language used to describe it.

A similar idea is actually used frequently in the translation of a seminal work in Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhicharyavatara (‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’) by Shantideva. Very early after its transcription (originally in Sanskrit), two highly authoritative versions were created of the work, one in Tibetan, and one in Sanskrit, and both are treated as equal by the Buddhist community. In modern translations, many of the translators choose to base their work off one version or the other, but use the other version to clarify difficult passages. My personal favorite translation, by Stephen Batchelor, was based on a 12th Century Commentary on the Tibetan text, but uses the Sanskrit for clarification in footnotes. When you’re dealing with differences as extreme as that between “May all women become men” and “May all women attain the rights and privileges of men”, a point of clarification is wonderful.

Now, let’s use a similar idea in a secular sense. I would like to describe an event, something complex, emotional, and generally slightly vague. Take, for example, an account of one’s first day leaving for College. Imagine a bilingual author were to write the story, once in, say, English, and once in Spanish. Not so much translating one into the other, but actually telling the story twice (with an effort to include much of the same information in both). Would the Spanish be a “second tack” for the English version and vice-versa? Could one use the Spanish to clarify the English ambiguities, and vice-versa? Most importantly, would another bilingual reader have a better idea what the author meant by reading both versions, rather than just one?

The more I look at it, translation seems messier and messier. I’ve begun to suspect that there is no such thing as a one-to-one translation, and that any time you switch languages or rephrase, something is lost or gained. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it, like all other things, needs to be studied further.

I hope this post made sense. If not, maybe I’ll try writing the same thing right next to it in Spanish. If it helps, I’ve just found a thesis.


Have a question, comment, or concern about this post? Contact me!