This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

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.

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