A few weeks ago, I was not looking forward to my morning class. Family health care issues had gotten me down, and I had little energy or inspiration for Sophomore Language. The translation assignment I had given them I did not think would take too long to go over, and I couldn’t count on it provoking interesting discussion. The passage they prepared was from the first chapter of St. Anselm’s Proslogion, which is a beautiful prayer arousing the mind to contemplation. I want to discuss it with students because it is one of the few places in our curriculum, which is ordered to contemplation, where they can see what contemplation really looks like. This is a topic I find fascinating, but I never know whether students will respond to it, whether they will see much of interest in it or not. So I had to have a backup plan for other things we might do with extra time. I really hate not knowing whether I will be able to generate conversation.
It turned out that we never got through more than one sentence, never got to the questions I might have wanted to discuss, and never had a lull in the conversation. I had asked them to compare a Latin paragraph with the English translation on the facing page of the edition they would use in their Theology class next semester. I wanted them to pay careful attention to the Latin forms, and be able to account for them syntactically. When I asked how it went, they were uneasy. They had had a difficulty with this sentence:
Fateor, Domine, et gratias ago, quia creasti in me hanc “imaginem tuam”, ut tui memor te cogitem, te amem.
When I asked one of them to translate it, he did it correctly: “I speak, O Lord, and I give thanks, because you created this your image in me, so that, mindful of you, I might think of you, I might love you.” I said that was fine. But the uneasiness persisted. The English translator had rendered the last part of the sentence, “so that I might remember you, think of you, love you.” What puzzled them was that they thought “memor” is an adjective in Latin, but “remember” in English is a verb. At first, they thought they must have misunderstood what part of speech “memor” is. Having confirmed their knowledge, I then asked whether the Latin expression is significantly different from the English. One of the students pointed out that, while the English presented the three acts as on the same level, the Latin suggested that “being mindful” is a condition for thinking and loving the Lord.
Now this was getting interesting; I thought we might start exploring Trinitarian implications in St. Anselm’s description of the image. But then one of the students blurted out, partly in astonishment, partly in indignation, “But that’s against the rules!” It was an ingenuous expression of the feeling of a student who had been trained for some years of her young life to memorize all the rules for correct translation, and had often lost points on quizzes and tests for making the very mistake that this published translator was making. How could he dare to translate an adjective by verb? Or was he so bad that he didn’t realize he was making a mistake?
This question determined the rest of the conversation. We started to explore what translating really is. We discussed what language, especially in the hands of a masterful author like St. Anselm, is able to convey, and the students saw, seemingly for the first time, how many difficult choices a translator faces. As the conversation developed, I was delightfully surprised at the students’ genuine, intense, even invested interest in the question. Perhaps it struck them so because translating has formed a prominent part of their education, and they were realizing for the first time that they had never really understood what they were doing. Several of the students lit up as they were able to voice their appreciation for the contextual and emotional aspects of language, which most often had to be pushed aside to achieve technically correct translations.
At some point, I noticed that my own temporal anxieties had vanished; for just a little while I myself was enchanted with the question, and with witnessing my students’ minds open onto a small but not insignificant stream leading into the ocean of wisdom.