Savage cruelty – the easy option

What could be worse than being trapped in front of a television set on a Saturday night? Ant and Dec, followed by The Cube, followed by Jonathan Ross.

Well, lots of things of course. Being trapped in a rugby scrum. Or living in one of the countries that underwent the Arab Spring and discovering that, as a Christian, you are now more likely to be killed than you were when the dictators were in power.

What could be quite as frightening as being confronted by a mob of wintry Arabs with misconceived religious beliefs? Perhaps being confronted by a mob of mad Englishmen with misconceived religious beliefs, as we have demonstrated quite convincingly in the past. As novelist Petru Dumitriu put it, there is nothing quite like “the savage cruelty of people who are sure they are right”, especially when there are a lot of them.

Part of the fear (on both sides) stems from an inability to understand what is being said by those who are foreign to our way of thinking. Language barriers are fearsome things, and translation is not an easy art.

I come fresh from a translation workshop led by Dr B J Epstein of the University of East Anglia, where the difficulties of getting all the meaning of a piece of writing across from one language to another were expounded clearly.

We tried to imagine how a passage from Alice in Wonderland, with its extremely English wordplay, could possibly be conveyed into Swedish (or anything else). My rather esoteric view is that it is impossible, just as it is impossible to translate poetry into another language, because there is too much involved: precision, rhythm, context, nuance, word play of many kinds.

And as much religious belief was expressed originally as poetry – or at least in a poetic language like Hebrew or Aramaic – it is not surprising that we may not quite “get it” when it is transferred into a modern, more literal tongue. We tend to end up with chopped up religion instead of the whole body. I’m not sure how this works with Arabic, but no doubt the opportunities exist.

Getting the spirit of a piece of writing is something we seem ill-equipped to do in the modern world, with its knee-jerk journalistic view of things and its painful self-righteousness and eagerness to cast the first stone, with many more to follow.

Perhaps the answer is to be aware that you may not quite understand the other person’s point of view, and to give him or her the benefit of the doubt – or at least listen as hard as you can.

The shorthand term for that is love, but maybe that would take too much time and effort. Much easier to throw something. A quick fix: it might make us feel better. Switch channels – there may be something better on the other side.



*After attending the workshop on translation, I wrote the following poem, which is of course not about translation but is helped by some of the ideas discussed there.