By Angela Bauer-Levesque
Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation was on my mind when I arrived in Shanghai, China, a little over a week ago to join a group of students, faculty, and staff from Episcopal Divinity School for a Travel Seminar.
What would be clouded by a non-alphabetical and non-cognate language? I do not speak nor read any Chinese. In my few attempts at learning some basic phrases (hello; please; thank you; excuse me; and the like), I have found the nuances of intonation difficult to duplicate. Having witnessed the laughter at unintended meanings due to what amounts to a slight change in tone to my ears, I have shied away more and more from even trying.
In the reverse direction, Western cartoons making fun of translations from Chinese into English are legion, and I do not intend to contribute to a racially problematic and cross-culturally insensitive dynamic. While sometimes indeed amusing, the signs we have seen in any of the cities we have visited (Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Xi'an so far, with Bejing still ahead on our itinerary) speak to the effort at bilingual access—for sure with business interests in mind. The cognitive dissonance creating the apparent funniness usually stems from word for word literal translations. Indeed, meanings get lost in translation in any direction. Nevertheless, it is amazing how much signage appears in both Chinese and English.
The much bigger issue is another aspect of translation altogether that has captured my imagination. What is said? What is left unsaid? And if it's even possible to understand with such little exposure and so much cross-cultural complexity, what is said between the lines? In various places we visited we had translators to help us communicate with our hosts. Welcome and introductions were usually followed by a time for questions and answers. The rhythm for the most part conformed to the usual short paragraph in one language being translated into the other, back and forth, and back and forth. There has been a lot of nodding and smiling led by those among us who understand both English and Chinese. And I keep wondering what is communicated.
Let me share an example: when I asked about whether something was “customary not to do” (i.e. cultural convention) or “not allowed” (i.e. prohibited), I was told that it was “required not to go." The nuance has struck me as profound, being both/and and neither at the same time. It is an answer without answering. It gave me a sense of expectation, both cultural/social and legal. Not knowing enough about either to say more, I was left pondering the additional space created by such way of thinking. The Aristotelian linearity deeply engraved in my own way of socio-culturally constructed thinking finds this concept of additional, rather than alternative meaning both intriguing and challenging. What am I told here to do and/or not do? Pushing for an answer a bit more, I receive the exact repetition of the earlier response. Clearly, I do not yet grasp the concept of additional space, translation for more options, enough to know what might be possible.
Not having a clear read on our Chinese hosts' restrictions on what they can or cannot tell us, I keep wondering about translation as it pertains to communicating across cultural differences of world-views, understanding of human relations in general and ethics in particular. How much there is to learn with each other and from each other's ways of thinking! (Let me also state that I know the bills need to get paid here as well as back home in the end, wherever the funding originates; which is to say that I understand that people need to say what they need to say, as I am aware of the privilege of such musings.)
Almost needless to say, translation is a form of interpretation. Thus, to move one step further and apply the rhythm of translation to more remote ancient texts, interpretation of interpretation takes center stage. Having listened to speeches as well as sermons in China that appear to embrace literal translations of biblical passages, I wonder what it would take to make space for “interpretation” that will empower all the people.
Professor Angela Bauer-Levesque is the academic dean of the Episcopal Divinity School. She also serves as Harvey H. Guthrie Jr. Professor of Bible, Culture and Interpretation. Her most recent book is The Indispensable Guide to the Old Testament (Pilgrim Press).