This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

5.1. Language and Translation

The idea of translation

Translation is a necessity, particularly if there is to be any hope of the transmission of ideas within the modern world; this is particularly true when we are dealing with something like the American context where national pride itself seems to work against the idea of one’s learning the language of any foreign people. Thus, while translation is accompanied by great difficulties, which we’ll mention below, it is in some sense a necessity, and so is permissible so long as expectations are properly set and limits observed.

Languages are not arbitrary

The formation of a language is not an accidental or haphazard process where, after the fashion of evolutionist theory, a language comes into being purely based on chance and whether or not it is advantageous to the species, and where its content and structure are either arbitrary or determined by environmental factors and could easily have been something else very different. If this fictitious narrative is commonly believed, it can only be because in the modern world it has almost become the reality, because in the modern world words really are arbitrary. The narrative, therefore, seems to explain the English language as currently found. But if we step outside of our present content, we find that this way of seeing language is quite the contrary of reality, and that in their origins words are not simply assigned definitions at whim without respect to any objective correlations. Yes, it is true that the West has abused language in this way, particularly in the naming of children. Here names are chosen, not for meaning, but for a pleasing sound, or for ‘uniqueness.’ Some do adopt the names of parents, but this is rare and not usually done with the same motivations that compel the practice elsewhere. Others even go so far as inventing their own names for their children, which usually amount to gibberish plain and simple. But that is, in the end, how Westerners seem to view language from the developmental point of view: as a few sounds capriciously grouped together and then attached to a meaning. Compare this with the Hebraic custom of pausing when the name of God appeared in a manuscript. Or the scriptural story of Adam being given the responsibility of naming the animals. For the traditional mentality, it would be absurd to imagine that he simply ‘made up sounds’ and attached them to the animals as he saw them, one by one. He could only have been given the privilege of the naming if he had actually ‘known’ what to name them–that is to say, he had to have known, intuitively, their real names, the names that were appropriate to them and not to some other entity. In other words, the process of naming is not one of invention but of ‘recognition’ of what a thing is, and the name is part of the actuality of that being. In this view, the name of a thing is in a real sense the same as the thing itself. Hence, to speak the name of God is to actually invoke Him, to encounter Him; hence the great offense of invoking Him ‘in vain.’ And what is true of names and their correspondence with objective reality can also be said of sacred languages (Hebrew, Sanskrit, Latin) in their entirety.

Traditional language and magic

We said above that the true name of a being is identical with that being, and to speak the name is to invoke the being. To elaborate even further, it is precisely this principle that is at work in the case of incantations, magical or otherwise, and it explains why magic makes no sense in the modern world. Magical formulas employ ‘real’ words, words that correspond with actual beings or forces of a subtle order, and when language loses its connection with reality, or when the identity between name and being is lost or becomes nominalist, magic naturally becomes ‘ineffective’ and farcical. We can say that arbitrary languages like contemporary English are intrinsically impotent beyond the purely utilitarian level, using words as vehicles to convey the artificial meanings assigned to them, whereas a traditional meaning-bound language is capable of interacting with reality in ways that the modern world cannot begin to comprehend.

Languages are not equivalent

Everyone will admit that languages are not grammatically equivalent, but there still persists, to those not familiar with very many of them, the assumption that this is only an appearance, and that aside from the ‘accidental’ difference in arrangement, and of course the even more obvious phonetic and alphabetic differences, the substance of all languages is the same. The container differs but the contents, they assume, are universal. Or to say it another way, there is an unconscious assumption that behind the forms, all languages can convey the same meanings. This is very much not the case. Language is the accurate representation of the mentality of those who use it. Where mentality differs, so also will the language. And even among those who speak the same tongue, if the way of thinking diverges, it will sometimes seem that they are ‘speaking different languages,’ even those they are both using precisely the same words. This holds true for time as well as place. French from only two hundred years ago would in many cases need to be ‘translated’ in order to be fully comprehensible today, despite the fact that the same words are in use. This is the first problem with translation. Because difference in language is not merely a problem of comparing vocabularies and choosing equivalent terms, translation requires far more than a merely grammatical knowledge. There may be equivalent terms, but the ideas conveyed by them may have very different meanings attached to them, and much is always lost. In essence, there is no such thing as mere translation. Other process are at work.

Translation, interpretation, commentary

It is sometimes said, in conversations on Bible study, that the most literal translation is the most accurate but can be more difficult to understand, while a dynamic-equivalent translation is more readily understood but further removed from the actual source text. There is truth to this, but it is misleading.

In some cases, in fact, the most literal translation will be the most deficient, not just because it is difficult to read but because the idea of a ‘direct, literal translation’ is itself misguided, as we’ve explained above. That is why translations, in and of themselves, can never be trusted, as if they placed the reader in possession of objective data that anyone with a working knowledge of both languages could follow in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of the text in question.

On the contrary, if the translator does not possess a complete understanding of both mentalities, including their differences, and if he does not fully comprehend the meaning of the work he is translating, then he cannot possibly succeed in his task. Because of this difficulty, in order for a text to be translated it really must cease to be a translation and must become a commentary, which is to say, it must involve not just translation but interpretation. This allows the translator to make up for the discrepancies between languages, and to ‘fill in the gaps’ that the translation itself cannot possibly be expected to fill.

The problem with the assumption mentioned at the outset—which is that ‘dynamic-equivalent’ translations involve a mere modification of vocabulary—is that it is a naïve oversimplification that hides the magnitude of the interpretive task being handled by the translator. The ‘Bible student’ at this point will think that he’s simply been given an equivalent rearrangement of words which he can then set about interpreting, without realizing that he is not being told what the text says but rather what it means. He is only adding his own arbitrary nuance to an interpretation that took place without his involvement.

Translation is for the most part impossible

In Arabic the word tarjumah means both translation and commentary, and this is in accord with the traditional point of view which sees the two as inseparable. That is why the word should be translated as ‘interpretation.’ Where traditional texts are concerned, in fact, the more precise and literal the translation, the more the actual meaning is usually lost. Direct translation is, as we have already said, impossible due to the stark mental differences that a difference of language implies. We do not follow the incredibly superficial and historicist view that sees the variety of languages as a product of chance and accident and nothing more. The production of language is a direct result of the mentality of the people who produces it, and there are so many languages because there are so many ways of thinking. This fact normally proves itself by the production of so many vernacular tongues even where a common root language is established, so that villages or regions struggle to understand one another’s languages. However, thanks to its obsession with uniformity, the West has succeeded in suppressing even such a human production as the vernacular, and since it has achieved an enforced uniformity of language, it thinks that the thoughts of men in various places is actually uniform. By this self-imposed illusion it thinks that all language throughout history is simply an accidental diversity imposed by time and place; when in fact it is the modern uniformity of language that is ‘accidental’ and, in a very real sense, inhuman.

Trust the translator and not the translation

The obvious implication of what has been said above is that, when reading a translation, you are either implicitly or explicitly placing yourself under the tutelage of the translator of the work. The idea that a person who speaks only English can pick up a ‘literal translation’ of the Bible and then proceed, by means of a concordance and a Greek or Hebrew dictionary, to ‘draw out’ the original meaning of a passage on his own, is childish nonsense. A little boy with a chemistry set may be ‘doing chemistry,’ in some sense, but he is not a chemist, and in the end he is only playing, imitating the more serious work for which he is in no way equipped. Likewise, contemporary Christians, with their self-defeating preference for private interpretation and endless Bible studies, are children playing at the interpretation of sacred texts. Yet unlike the child with the chemistry set, the materials they deal with are far more powerful, and there is no one around to stop them from poisoning themselves.

In the end, if one wishes to truly learn from a spiritual text written in another language, there are two options: learn the language, or else to accept as a mentor someone who speaks the language who can translate it properly for you. In nearly all cases, the latter is the superior course of action, provided that the person in question has truly assimilated the ideas of the text and has a deep understanding of the ‘ways of thinking’ on both sides of the translation. Only he can tell you what the words of the passage say and what they actually mean. But let it not be misunderstood: when this is done, you are the student who is learning from a teacher, and as offensive as this may sound to Christians who have, since the reformation, flattered themselves that it could be otherwise, it can be no other way without giving rise to the most ridiculous notions.

Linguistic aptitudes match mental aptitudes

Consider the Gospel passage in which Christ asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ In virtually all English translations, he repeats this question three times, each time using the same terms. What is the English-speaking reader to draw from this? Where lies the meaning? The repetition seems strange. Perhaps Christ is trying to emphasize that Peter is a bit dense? Or maybe he is testing Peter by muttering absurdities at him? As silly as they seem, these are ‘interpretations’ that we ourselves have actually heard offered for this passage. Now we admit that in many cases Peter is a bit dense, but the profundity of the passage does not lie there. The English reader has been misled, because the same question is not repeated three times. The third time, an entirely different word is used, and while this word is translated as ‘love,’ just as in the previous instances, it is a very different word with a very different meaning. The problem lies in the fact that the Greek language, being a language of subtlety (in other words, being an expression of the Greek mind, with its obsessive desire to expose all levels of meaning), has a host of distinct terms that wind up being ‘funneled’ through translation into the single English word for love. Unless we assume that the original Greek was unnecessarily nuanced, and that details do not matter, which would be a strange approach to sacred scripture indeed, then we must admit that this passage cannot be ‘translated’ into English and retain its meaning. The English language does not have the ‘range,’ with respect to subtlety, to express it faithfully. This leads us to two conclusions: first, that we were correct in saying earlier that, in order to retain the meaning of the text, we must have at our disposal a commentary created by an authorized representative of the tradition in question; second, it shows the inherent limitations of the English language, which is simply not adapted to the expression of the transcendent. ‘Love’ is but one example. Whenever we come to ideas, particularly metaphysical notions, which escape precise definition and are susceptible to numerous points of view, our native language seems inept at conveying the idea. This should not be surprising in any way. As we said, a language reflects the mental life of those who speak it. English-speaking peoples have never been concerned with metaphysics, and so it follows that, just as they do not have a notion in their mental repertoire that corresponds to the Hindu idea of karma, they also have no vocabulary for it. That is why, when it comes to ideas like karma, which are unfamiliar, and even more so with ideas like ‘love,’ which seem familiar but aren’t, translation is a lost cause, and the only real means of acquiring the desired understanding is to subordinate oneself to a master. This is because the task at hand it not the carrying out of a formula, something any technician with a dictionary could accomplish, but rather it is a process of growth in understanding. It involves the introduction into one’s mind an entirely new concept, and this is a very delicate procedure.

Vernacular and official language

The existence of vernacular tongues, which correspond to ‘sub-groups’ within a single ethnic population and enable localities to express themselves in their unique way while still basing themselves off of a single language, is something that is becoming foreign to Western peoples. In the United States, for example, there is almost no such thing. In the interests of compulsory education and the needs of a capitalist labor system, language there has been ‘standardized’ to the highest degree, which is very efficient from a production standpoint, but very inhibiting from the point of view of human expression. In one way this transformation in language could be seen as a greater unity, but in reality it is a result of communities having lost any sort of communal creativity, by which those living near each other bond to develop organically a set of characteristics that is uniquely their own. The ‘need’ for a ‘national language’ that is everywhere precisely the same could only exist where individuals have to suppose that everyone they speak to is equally distant from themselves in thought. No one is ‘close enough’ to use a vernacular, with the single exception in larger cities of African American groups who have indeed developed something like a vernacular of their own. This, however, warrants more clarification which we will not enter into here. Suffice it to say that the elimination of vernacular for the sake of linguistic standardization is another mark of the tendency toward ‘atomized uniformity’ of the modern world, as opposed to the ‘unified diversity’ of the traditional.

The advantage of co-existing vernacular and official languages

Among Eastern peoples there is often a wide range of vernacular tongues. In this aspect, language in the East is less formal than in the West. However, at the same time, there is always an ‘official language’ that is preserved for the sake of doctrinal exposition. This has the dual advantage of isolating a ‘static’ language for the expression of metaphysical principles, which are by nature immutable, holding them above and beyond the changes that are bound to occur in the everyday languages of the people. This prevents distortions in doctrine. This is why certain tongues are sometimes called ‘dead languages’ by the West. Western civilization does not generally concern itself with metaphysics and, on the contrary, seems to worship the chaotic ‘development’ in its languages. That is why Latin, the last ‘official’ language of the Western world, was happily discarded as ‘dead’ at the end of the Middle Ages. Nor has the West retained a concern for the full expression of thought in everyday language, which is the purpose of vernacular. Since the 17th century, the main concern for the West has been of the economic order, and for this all that matters is that the means of expression be everywhere the same, even if its subtlety and range of expression is significantly diminished thereby. We can say that English, as spoken in the United States, abhors both the heights and the depths of language as traditionally used. It prefers straightforward mediocrity, so that an instruction manual for the latest cellular phone can be read just as easily on the East coast as on the West. The result is what some have called a trader’s tongue, appropriate for the life of the technician, and necessarily only within the context of industrialism.

Theory of meaning in literature

The poverty of the English language with respect to things transcendent is perhaps to blame for the rise of such outlandish literary theories that suggest that the true meaning of a text is given to it by the reader. We cannot help but see this as evidence that these theorists have lost faith in the ability of their own language to convey meaning, and in the presence of this realization have written much nonsense. In contrast, a language geared toward metaphysics could never present such problems, and the individual who utilizes it could never arrive at such a theory because for him the words he speaks convey precisely what they are intended to convey. When, as is often the case, the meaning of a profound concept is conveyed only partially, he understands this ahead of time and so his faith in the terms themselves is not undermined. He simply conveys the part he wishes, and if he needs to convey another part, other terms likely exist in his language which will allow him to do so. We mention again the example of the word ‘love’ used in the gospel. The author of that gospel, if moved by the spirit he was, employed the terms he meant to employ, and it is to the detriment of the English-speaker that he does not have at his disposal a language capable of receiving what was expressed. And it is further to the detriment of the English-speaker that his way of thinking drives him away from the one solution to this problem–humble submission to an authorized interpreter of the scripture in question. In fact, his proclivity for individualism, of which ‘private interpretation’ is but one aspect, ensures that he will only increase the distance between himself and the truth he desires, the more he tries to get at it by his own means.

Dante’s use of the vernacular

Another advantage of the demarcation between official and vernacular tongues can be seen in Dante Alighieri, who composed his greatest work, The Divine Comedy, in the Tuscan dialect, in this way playing a significant role in the establishment of the Italian ‘national’ language. This subject is complex, however, and it should not be hastily interpreted as some sort of ‘populist’ rejection of the highbrow Latin. Dante’s work was profound and susceptible to interpretation on a number of levels, which he himself explained in his epistle to Can Grande della Scala. Clothed in an exoteric narrative, Dante’s masterpiece is contains much esoteric meaning, and his choice to use the vernacular could easily have been his desire to speak in a manner such as to reach each reader on their own level. Popular works of this kind can more easily be adapted to the vernacular, given a competent interpreter. In short, Dante was not making a doctrinal work, or at least the doctrinal aspects were not on the exterior, and so he did not need to restrict himself to the official Latin.