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The Pensive Catholic - Writing as Translation

Posted by: Arthur Powers on May/24/2014

Writing as Translating


            In 1969, I went to Brazil as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  It was my first serious exposure to intercultural life.  During the initial six months, as I struggled to learn Portuguese and Brazilian culture, I would have been startled had someone told me that being bicultural would become one of the key elements of my experience – and that I would spend most my adult life in Brazil. 

            Eight years later, on Easter Vigil, 1977, I was baptized into the Catholic Church.  The two journeys were not unrelated (it was partly exposure to deep Brazilian faith that led me to the Church).  But what I focus on here is a point that faith-based writers, especially those born into a faith community, often forget: Entering into faith is entering into a new culture, a new language.

            Approaching faith requires seeing things in an entirely new way.  Think of the scene in which Christ tells his disciples that they must eat of his body and blood.  People turned away, utterly confused and repelled.  Even Peter seemed to be to be groping to understand as he answered Christ’s question: “Lord, where else would we go….?”

            Or the hard sayings – such as needing to lose your life in order to find it.  Who, in our modern society, understands that concept at first blush? 

            Our secular society has a world view that is very different from the world view of the great faiths.  Concepts such as love, humility, and obedience have almost entirely different meanings for modern culture from those they have in faith. 

            Part of our job as faith-based writers is translation.  I have translated stories from Portuguese into English, and I realize that translation is not just the act of taking words from one language into another.  The true translator has to convey an entirely different culture, a different way of thinking – has to capture the tone and spirit of the original.

            That is our task, also, in writing about faith to a modern audience.  To take a concept such as submission and put it into language that will convey its inner meaning to a modern person is a daunting task.  Often it is best to alter the words we use (words over time take on meanings that can mask, even block, their original sense).  Usually it is best to convey these messages through images and stories, so that the reader experiences them from inside, not as an outside explanation.  Christ took this approach in his parables. 

            To complicate matters, even the secondary language we use can create problems.  As a Catholic writer, for example, I need to remember that terms such as Eucharist, mass, dogma, orthodoxy may mean different things – or nothing at all – to my readers.  (Of course, in my case, it helps to remember before my conversion, when these terms did not mean anything to me.)

            It helps – or, at least, it helps me – to see our work as a form of translation.  I need to have a compassionate understanding of my reader – his/her possible world view, what things are going to create barriers for the reader.  I must have an equally compassionate love of the faith that I write from – the essence that needs at this moment to be conveyed.  I ask the Holy Spirit to help me convey it – then get down to the loving, hard work of showing a portion of the faith-world to those who do not yet know it.