The revolution sparked by Martin Luther revolved around a translation: that of the Bible from Latin into the common tongue, German. Until then, the non-Latin speaking populace was read the word of God as understood by clergymen. They were told that God loved them, that Jesus Christ had died for them, that Paradise would await the just at the other side of life, and they had to believe it all on the good authority of churchmen and priests. It was, to say the least, a monopoly of knowledge. At the core of Protestantism lays the freedom to read and interpret the Bible at your own leisure. As such, the interpretation of the Bible is up for discussion, no longer manipulated by a learned minority.
The Vulgata itself was already a translation: from Arameic and Greek. Had the Latin version not existed, the message of Jesus Christ would never have found its way into the minds of the Europeans via the decaying Roman Empire. Like it or not, this formed the basis for our modern Western civilization.
Translation is often viewed as a bridge that unites cultures otherwise separated by language and geography. It brought the classical works of Seneca and Cicero into the reading rooms of the Renaissance. Bolstered by translated works, the printing press stirred the world and changed it forever. Goethe writes the sad story of young Werther, and a whole new literary movement is born. And let us not forget that most enduring of literary figures, Don Quixote, which might not have made its way into world literature, reserved only, and only for Spanish-speaking minds.
Literature does not monopolize translation. Along with the great works of the masters, defense reports and manuals for military armament are translated as well. History tells of the fatal mistranslation that played a part in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And a spec sheet for a piece of hardware hardly affords anyone a new take on reality. Not all translation is revolutionary –just as not all writing is. Some of it is merely functional. We could live without that data sheet or that instruction manual for a toaster. We cannot live without Kafka. No, I could not have lived without Erasmus’ Praise of Folly, Lem’s Solaris, Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment, Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings, books written in languages I am a stranger to, books that changed my way of seeing the world in magnificent ways.
So keep spreading those new ways of thinking, those grand ideas, or even those end user license agreements. You exist so that we can all enjoy that German movie, that anime series, that piece of software, that videogame, and yes, so that we can all put together an Ikea desk. On that desk, perhaps a great novelist will write his or her next world-changing work of art.
Happy Translators’ Day.