Crossed Lines
The Importance of Translation in an Era of Growing Political Difference
Peter C. Meilaender

Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east,
they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another,
“Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and
bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its
top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the
face of the whole earth.” And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons
of men had built. And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one
language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to
do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language,
that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from
there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was
called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the
Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Genesis 11:1-9)

In Book XIX of The City of God, St. Augustine reflects upon the many sources of discord in human life, among family members, friends, fellow citizens, and nations. Commenting on the last of these, and the challenges that international misunderstanding poses for peace, he wryly observes:

The diversity of languages separates man from man. For if two men meet, and are forced by some compelling reason not to pass on but to stay in company, then if neither knows the other’s language, it is easier for dumb animals, even of different kinds, to associate together than these men, although both are human beings. For when men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, simply because of difference of language, all the similarity of their common human nature is of no avail to unite them in fellowship. So true is this that a man would be more cheerful with his dog for company than with a foreigner.

His observation is funny. It is also probably all too true. The difference in language among human beings, as Augustine says, is an impediment to “fellowship.”

To explain this unfortunate situation, Christians have for centuries looked back—whether literally or figuratively—to the story of the Tower of Babel. The division of humanity into language groups—into separate tribes of limited mutual intelligibility—is a punishment. There was a time when all spoke the same language. But this ease of communication and cooperation was such a spur to human ingenuity that it prompted grandiose dreams of ascending into the heavens. The Lord, apparently sensing that the tower was only a foretaste of even more hubristic schemes, decided to put an end to this overweening human urge. And the remedy he chose was linguistic division. Scattered over the face of the earth, human beings would no longer attempt to storm the heavens, remaining instead in their own distinct camps, indifferent if not hostile to one another.

I was prompted to reflect on this over the summer by a substantial piece of leisure reading I decided to undertake: the recent collection Found in Translation: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Translated, edited by Frank Wynne and published in 2018 by a British publisher named Head of Zeus Press. The volume may pull together “short” stories, but a hundred of them still make for a hefty tome of more than nine hundred pages. The anthology is a kind of literary effort to reverse the consequences of the Tower of Babel, bringing together the peoples of the world not in one city, to be sure, but at least between two covers.

It is an impressive effort—perhaps not quite as ambitious as building a tower with its top in the heavens, but still, as Wynne remarks in his introduction, “the task of selecting one hundred from the countless stories translated from any language, from any country is—to say the least—a daunting task.” He has brought together a wide range of tales, from Europe, Asia, the Middle East, North and South America, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. Two “A”s are not represented: Australia (perhaps surprisingly) and Antarctica (not). Still, this sprawling miscellany opens windows onto a remarkably wide variety of literary traditions.

One would have to be extraordinarily well read to be already familiar with all the gems in this collection. One story new to me, for example, “It Snows,” was written by the Italian Enrico Castelnuovo (1839-1915) and translated by Edith Wharton. With gentle understatement and humor, Castelnuovo describes the relationship between a father and his young daughter as it is tested by the tempting presence of an attractive young widow on the lookout for a promising second marriage—a temptation the father ultimately resists, with a bit of encouragement from his little girl. Another, “Sorrow-Acre” by Karen Blixen, under the pseudonym of Isak Dinesen (1885-1962), is translated by the author herself from Danish into English. Dinesen mixes reflections upon patriotism, love, and justice into this tale of a landed nobleman, one of whose peasants has been convicted of arson and sentenced to death. The young man insists upon his innocence, and his aged mother comes to plead for him, whereupon the nobleman offers her the chance to save his life if she can complete the impossible task of mowing a large rye-field all on her own between sunrise and sunset. Incredibly, she completes the task, only to collapse in her son’s arms, dead from exhaustion but apparently satisfied. I knew of Dinesen but had never read anything by her; “Sorrow-Acre” will make me look for more.

Moving beyond Europe, I had certainly never heard of the Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), whose story “All That Is Gone” was translated by Willem Samuels. It is a remarkably sensitive story in which the narrator recalls and attempts to piece together scattered memories from her girlhood. These reveal her dawning awareness of loss and desertion as her youthful self comes to realize that her father’s frequent absences—which cause her significant anxiety and plunge her mother into bouts of tears and fervent prayer—involve more than simply “an extreme deal of work,” as he routinely explains. We as readers piece the story together gradually, along with the young girl, in a fashion that is all the more moving because our intuition of the situation exceeds her own limited understanding.

One final example of a story previously unknown to me is “A Woman Like Me” by Xi Xi, pen name of the Chinese author Zhang Yan (b. 1938), and translated by Howard Goldblatt. Xi Xi offers another first-person female narrative, this time of a woman wondering whether a budding romantic relationship can survive her boyfriend’s pending visit to her place of work. Previous relationships—of all sorts, not only romantic—have foundered on this very rock; people have trouble relating to this woman who spends her days as a “cosmetician,” but one of an unexpected kind: she is a cosmetician to the dead, preparing them for their coffins. Her situation is humorous, but her hopes and fears are touching, and they prompt the reader to reflect upon the social position of all those who do work that is necessary but perhaps unappealing.

It is tempting to continue rattling off new discoveries—Máirtin Ó Cadhain, Ismail Kadaré, Satyajit Ray, Paweł Huelle, Teresa Solana. It is equally tempting, with a collection like this, to begin looking for telltale characteristics of different national or linguistic groups. That is a dangerous game, because it lends itself all too easily to cultural stereotyping, and in any case the sample size of even a well-represented language in this volume is too small to draw any reliable conclusions. Even so, the Italian and French contributions have a marked note of social realism; the South American samples are imaginative and fantastical; the eastern European ones pleasantly quirky and eccentric. Or was that perhaps merely my own imagination? Interestingly, one group of stories did stand out to me as noticeably alien: the Japanese examples. Again, the sample size is small—six stories—but at least five of the six felt very much as if they were coming from a profoundly different cultural context than my own. Several exhibited a kind of fascination with darkness and even violence. One, a story by Yukio Mishima with the disconcerting title “Patriotism,” describes in unsettling detail a husband and wife’s double suicide in the name of honor. Another portrays a geisha’s transformation into a sexual predator through the acquisition of a large and elaborate black widow spider tattoo upon her back. A third, considerably less disturbing, nevertheless culminates in a poor and hungry servant’s beating an old woman and stealing her clothes. Even Shūsaku Endō’s “Incredible Voyage” is a bizarre blend of coarse humor and science fiction. Reading these, I truly had the sense that I was catching a glimpse of a different mindset, an alternative way of seeing the world. The task of translation has not concluded but only begun with the move from one language into another.

But that “task of translation”—what is it, exactly? One of my ulterior motives in reading this collection was to ponder precisely that question, or perhaps a slightly more specific one: what is the task of translation in our world, today? For we should not forget that Found in Translation is not merely an anthology of world literature; it is more specifically a collection of stories in translation. As Wynne notes in the introduction:

[W]ith the exception of those few authors who have translated their own work…the words you are reading are those of translators. If, as Susan Sontag says, translation is the ‘circulatory system of the world’s literatures,’ then translators are the beating heart that makes it possible for stories to flow beyond borders and across oceans.

Without their work, few of us could access more than a handful of the stories that Wynne has collected. And I suspect it is no accident that this volume appeared when it did. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago, it appeared for a while as though the world were on the cusp of a new age of international friendship and cooperation. We spoke of the “end of history” and of a “new world order.” That confidence was shaken by the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror; it is being shaken again by the wave of populist and nationalist sentiment sweeping the West, and more ominously by the rise of nationalist authoritarianism in countries such as Russia and China. Migration and refugees are among the hottest of hot-button issues; tariffs on trade once again threaten international commerce. Dreams of global cooperation and solidarity seem hopelessly outdated.

Indeed, it seems clear by now that the defining political division of our age is no longer the familiar right-left, conservative-liberal divide. Instead, democracies throughout the West now find themselves torn by disagreements over nationalism and identity politics. This has driven political realignments, new partisan coalitions, and, in Europe, the decline of many traditional parties of the center-right and center-left. President Trump’s tariffs are the perfect symbol of these new battle lines. Those tariffs would have been unthinkable under previous Republican presidents, but the old debate between free trade and government regulation has been reframed in terms of arguments about the national interest. Similarly, the agonizing Brexit debate in Great Britain has turned on the issues of migration and, more fundamentally, national sovereignty, in a way that has sparked internal disagreement within both the Tory and the Labour parties. The inchoate gilets jaunes movement in France—the yellow vests—has been largely a populist protest against establishment elites for ignoring the concerns of ordinary voters. French socialists can agree with the right-wing Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) that France needs to regain sovereignty lost to Brussels, a surprising common ground that remains highly disorienting for anyone whose political memory reaches back more than a decade or so.

The public arguments surrounding this new nationalism are frequently unsatisfying. Too often they degenerate into a shouting match between what one might call the rootless cosmopolitans on the one side and the jingoist, my-country-right-or-wrongers on the other. Indeed, the two sides feed off of each other in a perverse symbiotic relationship. The new nationalists like nothing better than to stick a rhetorical finger in the eye of distant, out-of-touch elites in the government, economy, media, and professions. Incensed by such populist provocateurs, their opponents lash back with accusations of far-right populism (which is often code language to signal fascism or neonazism), racism, or merely reactionary antediluvianism. Each time the rhetorical ante is upped, the other side has to retaliate in kind. The result is that large numbers of ordinary citizens—those, for example, who support state-regulated immigration but oppose mass deportations or separating children from their parents, or those who generally embrace a free market but are concerned about the hollowing out of middle-class and especially rural America—increasingly feel themselves politically homeless, or simply tune out altogether.

It should be clear enough, I think, that neither of these alternatives offers a very appealing perspective. Christians especially should strive to articulate a richer and more nuanced point of view. Christians know that we have special obligations toward those with whom we share special bonds: husbands and wives; parents and children; teachers, students, and colleagues; friends, parishioners, neighbors, and our fellow citizens. But we understand also that all people are our brothers and sisters in Christ—his children, made in his image. Thus we feel an interest in the lives of all persons, everywhere, and in the diverse cultures they create. Indeed, we do not simply feel an interest in them—that is too neutral a phrase. From within our own cultures and obligations, we seek to understand others, and we feel affection for them. We wish each other well.

In a political context such as this one, the labor of translation becomes almost a kind of political act, perhaps even an act of faith. A commitment to translation occupies precisely the middle ground in that unsatisfactory debate I just described. Translators are anything but rootless cosmopolitans. Their goal is neither escape from nor obliteration of the local, or national, or parochial. On the contrary, translation aims precisely at conveying strange or alien thoughts and expressions into the local idiom. Were our particular languages and dialects to vanish, translation would be entirely unnecessary—a notion to which I shall return shortly. Translation presupposes the existence of a multitude of particular vernaculars. At the same time, translation always bursts the confines of the merely parochial, expanding its horizons and challenging it through the encounter with the unfamiliar—not, I think, out of a mere desire to be critical or any universalist longing for enlightenment, but due to a genuine interest in the other. Good translators are always, it seems to me, simultaneously lovers of the local and of plurality—“global pluralists” and “local loyalists,” to borrow a pair of terms from Michael Walzer. Something like that combination is precisely what Christians should be striving for, and indeed it may be a contribution to our public discourse that Christians are uniquely well-situated to make.

But perhaps, you might retort, I am indulging in an overly romantic image of translation. Consider two ways in which one might raise such an objection, one linguistic and political, the other theological. First, one might argue that translation is simply becoming irrelevant, in much the same way, and for the same reason (so the claim goes), that the teaching of foreign languages is becoming irrelevant. We can do without learning foreign languages and without the effort of translation because computers can handle all of this for us. We don’t need translators, we don’t need translations—we just need Google Translate.

It is certainly the case that software programs like Google Translate have made great strides in recent years and are likely to improve even further. My wife teaches German, and every semester she is certain to catch at least one student using Google Translate to cheat on homework. Sometimes she catches them because the program’s translation is too bad; but more often than not, it is because the translation is too good. When a first-semester German student produces sentences that correctly use the subjunctive, one knows that something is amiss. Clearly programs like these have tremendous utility, whether for getting a rough sense of a text or document, for travel and tourism, or for other ordinary uses.

Still, if we recall the Tower of Babel, we might pause for just a moment. For Google Translate represents in some sense the aspiration to overcome Babel’s consequences. “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language,” says the Lord, “that they may not understand one another’s speech.” And he “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth.” Unchastened, however, Google Translate says, “Let us ensure that they all understand one another’s speech, that confusion may vanish.” There is something almost uncanny in the way that software like Google Translate strives almost perfectly to undo the effects of Babel. One would not for that reason want to condemn online translators, which surely have their uses; but perhaps one might hesitate before the hubristic notion that they could entirely remove obstacles to mutual human understanding or make the hard work and effort required for its achievement obsolete.

Perhaps, though, we might push the argument a step further and even claim biblical sanction for the replacement of translation and translators by Google Translate. For—at the risk of seeming flippant—don’t we see a kind of divine Google Translate at work in the New Testament? The counterpart to the Tower of Babel, after all, is Pentecost. As we read in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.... And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in their own tongues the mighty works of God.”

It is as if everyone present has a tiny Google Translate app plugged directly into his ear! Before there was Google Translate, there was Paraclete Translate. And one might be tempted to conclude from this picture that the ideal is not a world of translators but rather one in which no effort at translation is required any longer.

Surely this is too hasty, however. Perhaps it is sufficient to answer flippancy with flippancy: when you find the Holy Spirit whispering translations directly into your ear, then indeed you may dispense with the effort of translation yourself. More seriously, we might observe that what we see in Acts is not a merely human action. Rather, it is a foreshadowing of the Kingdom and the direct work of God himself, answering to his earlier act at Babel. The Lord confused human languages at Babel, and it is the same Lord who undoes that confusion at Pentecost. (Though not, it is interesting to note, by obliterating the multiplicity of human languages and replacing them with a single one, as if the ideal were a kind of paracletian Esperanto.) If the Old Testament story is a warning against human hubris, then it would be further hubris to suppose that any mere human contrivance could replace divine intervention in the New.

Yet perhaps this response is still too easy. We can and should say more. This way of reading the story of Pentecost, as a divine analogue for Google Translate, oversimplifies the work of translation. It treats it as though it were the purely verbal substitution of a set of words in one language for a set of words in another. But the kind of translation we need—at least until the day when the human race is once again “one people” and no longer scattered over the face of the earth—is considerably more than that. For good translation is never a literal one-to-one substitution of one word for another. Rather, it is an effort to make available in one cultural and linguistic milieu thoughts and ideas that originated in another. Anyone who has ever attempted a translation knows that this is a difficult task, calling not only for knowledge of both cultures and languages but also for sensitivity, judgment, and—since the most faithful translation is not always a literal one—creativity. And also, I would add, charity. Only a true lover of both the source and target languages and cultures is likely to produce a rich, resonant, faithful translation. In Josef Pieper’s reformulation of a well-known sermon by Augustine, “Only the lover sings.”

I would add that only the lover is a faithful translator. We today need more such translators—more people with the kind of curiosity and good will that motivates them to move outside their home culture, and with the kind of love that inspires them to return to it again, bringing with them the fruits of their travels. Not all of us need to be such translators, but all of us should honor them, and we should want our public life to be enriched by their work as intermediaries, go-betweens, ambassadors. At its best, that work embodies a form of intellectual virtue that holds out the promise of mutual understanding without papering over genuine difference. It accepts the consequences of Babel while maintaining the hope that division and confusion need not be the last word, the ultimate and incorrigible fate of humanity. It calls us to sing a polyphonic new song, with multiple languages in counterpoint and in harmony.


Peter C. Meilaender is a professor of political science at Houghton College.


Works Cited

Augustine, Saint. 1972. The City of God. Tr. Henry Bettenson. New York and London: Penguin Books.

“Let Us Sing to the Lord a Song of Love.”

Pieper, Josef. 1990. Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation. Tr. Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

Walzer, Michael. 1983. Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books.

Wynne, Frank (ed.). 2018. Found in Translation: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Translated. London: Head of Zeus Ltd.

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