Translator as Pilgrim: Are We Alone When We Translate?

What is a text? Someone, a human being, sits down and puts pen to paper and, if he’s lucky (if he’s inspired), first letters and, with the requisite spaces, then words come together in such an order that they are amusing or insightful or tell a story. But where does the text start? Does it start with us? Is it a stream of unconsciousness which we dip into? Has it been forever told and forever will be?

If writers are said to be inspired, to wait for inspiration, this would imply the text comes through them, and not from them. I wonder how many writers would claim to be the origin of what they write. To what extent are we the origin of anything around us, including air, land, ideas, food? Aren’t we quintessentially all translators? In order to raise the profile of the translator, it is fashionable to talk of the translator as writer. This is a travesty of justice. It is the writer, and every human being, who is a translator.

We translate things that come to us. We live in the era of the I, the ego, which in English is a straight line. We have to count down from that straight line to make a zero, the O of recognition. So it is we are accustomed to work two-dimensionally. We draw a line on the ground, a fence or a border, and say from here to here is mine (despite the fact that we never were and never could be responsible for making the land we stand on). In the same way, as translators, we draw a line between the text and the translation. But lines, like walls, have a habit of being unstable.

If, however, we make reference to a third point, if we translate in the spirit, we make a triangle, which, like a pyramid, is much more stable. I am talking about the still small voice in our heads that prompts us, our conscience if you will, the one we are guilty of ignoring so often. How many times have I searched for a solution to a translation problem, and the still small voice has been screaming the answer in my head, inasmuch as it screams at all?

It is the same with coincidences. Have you ever translated something, a word or a phrase, only to find that same word or phrase later on the same day in a book, in conversation, on a wall or clothing, sometimes expressed in a better way than you have managed? Have you ever looked up a word in the dictionary and found another word or phrase from the same sentence in the word’s definition, as if confirming your intuition?

I would like to say that we are not alone when we translate. Translation is a journey in which we give and receive meaning. I believe this is why God scattered us at Babel. We had one language, and no need for translators. We were ready to make ourselves gods with a tower rising into the heavens (that straight line again!). But it is only through translating the other that we will learn who God is – the English word other and the Greek word for God, theos, being linked by the difference of only one letter.


In this world, the translator is confined to the margins. He is forced to live on the very line whose existence he denies. But as he carries meaning from side to side, stitching the wound that is man’s ego, he is not alone. And this has practical implications. My translation was transformed when I opened myself to the spirit and made reference to a third point, as someone who walks orients himself using landmarks.

In the same way as things come to and then through us, I would argue that we are not the source of language. I would also argue that words are a living entity, that they, like the whole of creation, speak a language of their own, a language we may be unaware of, which we as pilgrims should learn if we ever hope to discover meaning beneath the surface, beneath the horizontal line of time and appearance. This opens up two possibilities: that the translation we’re working on already exists, we only have to rub at the surface, as when we make a brass-rubbing; and that what writers are doing is translating invisible texts, bringing them to the surface, something akin to translating from an unknown language.

Being a translator is as true as we can be to the human condition. A translator acknowledges that he is not the author. His patron saint is St Christopher, for like St Christopher his task is to carry Christ, meaning, over the river.


This is the text of a talk by Jonathan Dunne delivered in Bulgarian at the Second International Meeting of Translators of Bulgarian Literature in Kremikovtsi, Sofia, on 21 May 2009 and later published in the summer 2009 issue of the Bulgarian magazine Hristiyantsvo i Kultura