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[Chalice] Lost In Translation [Chalice]

"Lost In Translation" Was also recorded live.
30 minutes - 28 MB - LostInTranslation.mp3 file.

Presented February 25, 2007, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Last time I asked you to think back when you were a kid and there was a bear in the closet. This time I would like you to think back to when you were traveling in a different country, perhaps trying to speak someone else's language. Remember a time when you were having difficulty understanding another person, or having difficulty making yourself understood by another person. Think back to your own experiences when you felt lost in translation.

Many of these lost in translation experiences are in their very essence comical. I am sure you would have laughed at me many times if you had been able to see me trying to navigate my way around Romania, Romanians, and the Romanian language. There was the time when Michelle and I were having lunch and she ordered what she thought was cucumber salad and ended up with a bowl of pickles. And I got the Romanian words samale and smantana mixed up and was served for lunch not the stuffed cabbage rolls I thought I ordered but a bowl of sour cream instead. And as everyone knows, I have sour cream, or smantana as it is is Romanian. I had several comical moments in the open air vegetable market I often went to. The people who were selling there spoke no English so I was definitely on my own. Most of the problems related to money and the cost of things. Romanian last year adopted a new currency and also still used the old currency. One leu in the new currency was the same as 10,000 in the old currency. You got three lei for a dollar so if the price was quoted in new lei it was not had to do the calculation. Problem was that nearly everyone still calculated the prices in the old lei so a kilogram (and how much is a kilogram?) of capsune (strawberries) might cost 50,500 old lei, so how much is that, and how does that compare to what you might pay for a pound of strawberries at the Hy-Vee?

I am sure you can relate to my feeling of being lost in translation and the humor of it. I wish you could have been with me many times so you could all have a good laugh at me as I tried to orient myself and work my way through those lost in translation experiences. They certainly are comical and are all part of the fun of exploring a different place and a different culture.

Since I lived for most of a year in Romania I have spent a lot of time lost in translation and have had a lot of time to think about these experiences, and I think that though they are often funny there is also something much more, something much more serious to these situations than the comical. They reveal to us how much we don't understand what is foreign, different to us, and how imperfect, and flawed, and provisional is our understanding when we do try to interpret and to know the other.

I have spent enough time in Romania, I think, not to understand it but to understand some of the ways in which it could be misunderstood by an outsider. For example, if an American goes to Romania as a tourist for a few days or a week she will soon notice that when you go to a restaurant or a bar the waiters or waitresses will probably not be very attentive to you, let alone friendly. Compared to our usual very friendly service persons who greet you, smile, say hello, their Romanian counterparts can even seem rude and unfriendly. This might lead the American visitor reasonably enough, based on very limited contact with only a few Romanians, to conclude that they are unfriendly. But the truth is in Romania the waiters and waitresses, unlike in our country, get their money from their employee. Only a small part of their income comes from tips, so they are going to get paid whether they have paid you the attention you desire or not. They don't have the same motivation to be attentive to the customers as our wait persons do since ours are so heavily reliant upon tips. Romanians, in fact, thought our system very strange, and thought it was completely the restaurants' responsibility to pay the waiters and waitresses a living wage.

Americans tend to be fairly open and expressive people, who will make small talk, make eye contact. At least from my American perspective, Romanians can seem closed, shut off, not open, not friendly. People walking by you on the street will generally not talk to you, not make eye contact with you. Most Romanians at least to me do seem closed and shut off from people they do not know. Now is this because of the decades under communist oppression? Is this because Coucescu's secret police, the Securitate, were everywhere, permeating all elements of society, making human interaction with those you did not know well potentially harmful, even dangerous? The Securitate were indeed everywhere, and this certainly affected the Romanian people in many ways. You can say that Romanians are closed and shut off because of these many years of oppression under Caecescu and his Securitate, you can think it, but you cannot really know it. And the moment you think it and think you know it, you know that Romanians are distrustful and shut off from those they don't know and that this is a vestige of communism, just then you have an experience that runs counter to your conclusion, your truth, your knowledge. For example, though Romanians do seem very closed off and even unfriendly in the street, they seem very different if you are on a train with them. If four or five of us are in a train car together, everyone will start talking to one another. Romanians in such a situation always tried to talk to me in whatever language we could; they had a great deal of patience with my limited Romanian, and would try to communicate to whatever extent they could in English. Sometimes we spoke French together. And Romanians together in a train car would always share food with one another and with me. If someone had some cheese or sausages or fruit, it was everyone's food. Frequently, when I was on trains, perfect strangers with whom I could often not converse would reach out and share their food with me. Romanians who on the street seemed closed and unfriendly to strangers did not seem that way at all on the trains. And I wondered what Romanians think when they come to the US. Sure our waiters and waitresses would be a lot friendlier, and we would be a lot more open walking down the street . . . but what do Romanian visitors think of Americans when they ride our trains and everyone sits there eating his or her own food and no one passes the food around for everyone to have? Do Romanian visitors to the US then think we are closed and unfriendly, and do they then tell themselves something about our CIA or FBI, or do they remind themselves of something they were probably taught about us during communist times, that Americans are selfish and materialistic and only care about our things, and this must be why each of us on a train sits there eating his or her own snack? This would probably make sense to them as a way of explaining what would be to the Romanians the strange phenomenon that we don't share.

Because that is what we are all always trying to do: trying to figure each other out, trying to translate each other and make sense of each other, trying to get out of that lost in translation situation that is sometimes funny, and oftentimes serious, and nearly always so uncomfortable that we use our minds to get out of it and get to knowledge, get to truth.

This is what is always happening, but being in a foreign country makes you more aware of it. I thought about this often in Romania when I went to my favorite pub, the Papilion. I had several Romanian friends there I would talk to and have a beer with. The Fulbright Foundation was paying me a lot more than Romanians make and the beer was very cheap compared to America so my impulse was to buy beers for my friends. I thought of this as a way of evening out the disparity of income and the least I could do, to buy a beer or two. But it could also have been perceived as exactly what those Americans are always doing: showing off how wealthy they are, that they have more money than you do and they want you to know it. I didn't want to be perceived that way. I didn't want any Romanian to perceive me as an ugly American, but at the same time some times it was going to happen. You cannot control how other people use their knowledge and their experience to figure you out, to make sense of you. You cannot control how others will translate you. You can hope they do so with understanding and wisdom.

More wisdom, hopefully, than I sometimes showed when I was lost in translation during these many months in Romania. I was at the Papillion with some Romanian friends and I was telling them about my trip to the post office. There was only one place in Timisoara where you could mail stuff out of the country. It was a very dreary, officious, grey building, completely Soviet style and Kafkaesque. Kafkaesque was the way this strange post office was operated too. Everyone with his or her box lined up behind a huge ugly concrete door. When I arrived there there were probably 15 people lined up behind this closed, concrete door. Everyone was staring at the door in stony silence. Every once in a while the door opened and admitted one person and then shut again in the face of the person now first in line, and then everyone slowly, silently moved up a place. This situation struck me as bizarre. The gloominess, the quiet, the staring, the lifelessness. It was a combination of Kafka and Monty Python. I told my Romanian friends about it at the Papillion and said that in America Americans would not just line up in stony silence, that they would start to talk to each other, maybe about the weather, about sports, something. Something would happen and Americans in that situation would talk to each other. My friends said: the older people during communist times several times a week had to stand in line for hours starting at 4 in the morning to get milk and bread. Standing in a queue for a lot of the older people is still sort of traumatizing.

Without my friends I would not have thought of that! And you can imagine someone visiting Romania for a few days and encountering this strange post office and concluding that Romanians were very quiet and reserved and unfriendly and closed. Because this is what we do. We use our minds to figure things out and understand and draw conclusions and arrive at truths.

Experiences such as these may make us consider whether there is a better way of using our minds. Perhaps we should just stop using our minds and stop trying to figure things out and just admit that we are always lost in translation and let it be at that. This is the approach favored by that philosophical school called skepticism. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, for example, when asked about the existence of God said his mind did not advance to any conclusions on the subject, so there was no position he was obliged to defend. Nietzsche too attempted to but the brakes on our minds by saying that our human problem is not that we believe in God, but that we believe in grammar, we believe in our mind's ability to bring us to the promised land of truth.

The view that we should stop using our minds and stop trying to figure things out and stop making sense may well be too radical for most of us. There might be another way of living with the problem of being lost in translation. We might use our minds and figure things out and come to our conclusions and orient ourselves in our lostness and yet still be very aware as we do so that our conclusions are merely partial and provisional. There might be a way of using our minds and arriving at our conclusions and our answers while at the same time not clinging to them as conclusions and answers and letting them go even as we arrive at them.

Traditional Buddhim consistently teaches this non-clinging to answers and truth. The Buddhist tradition teaches that clinging to answers, arriving at answers is part of the human problem. This thirst for knowledge leads to a lack of compassion for others. Much of the Christian mystical tradition insists that even as the human mind tries to understand God and conceptualize God and actually comes to certain correct concepts of God, like God is love, or God is goodness, even as the mind does this its concepts and its attempts at understanding are undone, destroyed because though we can understand love or understand goodness we cannot understand divine love and divine goodness. The Christian mystical tradition often insists that the divine mystery means we use our understanding and let go of it at the same time; the mystery of God reveals not Himself but reveals the inadequacy of our human ways of understanding.

These experiences of being lost in translation and trying to orient oneself by understanding are comical and important. They are revelatory in this precise sense. They reveal the depths to which another person, another culture is a mystery to you, and you are a mystery to them. They do reveal to us that often the ways we orient ourselves and translate other people and other cultures back to ourselves is often a problem in the guise of a solution. These lost in translation experiences can awaken us to a profound need for another way of living with the mind, with our ability to understand. How can we know and undo our knowing at the same time? What would that do to us, inside of us? What would it do to our relations with others? Would it help us grow toward a spirituality that reaches out for something deeper than, different than answers and knowledge and truth, something that we might call, if we are to combine medieval mysticism and contemporary postmodernism, genuine love for genuine difference?

©2007 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Robert J. S. 2007. Lost In Translation, /talks/20070225.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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