A Fabulous Translation…

Or I should say a fabulous translation conference, which was this, last weekend. Why it was so good is, I think, a measure of the organization, skills, and experience of the sponsors at the Center for International Education at the translationUniversity of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Lydia Liu’s presentation on Thursday night technically preceded the conference proper, but the organizers, who have obviously done things like this before, knew to connect it as a sort of pre-conference keynote, encouraging the twenty invited presenters, the eight panel moderators, and the five year-long Global Studies Fellows at the Center to be there. In other words, they guaranteed an interested and engaged core audience and kick-started the conference before it had even begun. This worked marvelously well, and Liu’s presentation struck just the right note of archival research, detailed translation analysis, and big ideas–human rights, Post-WWII international politics, key figures and words in the construction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–to start us all talking and comparing notes. In particular, she spoke about Article One:

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

In even greater particular she spoke about the composition of the core working group (one American, one Canadian legal scholar, one secular humanist Chinese, and one Lebanese Thomist) that generated the drafts, argued through the language and the assumptions behind it, and also the larger group of international representatives who approved the final version. She laid particular emphasis on the relatively large number of women and the relatively large number of non-Westerners who helped to shape the document, casting doubt on the often encountered assumption that the document reflects purely “Western” values. Especially fascinating was the analysis of the manner in which the word “conscience” made it into the document, an odd word on first glance, especially given its absence from any of the historically preceding documents that might have been used as antecedents. By looking at the records of the proceedings, Liu was able to determine that the origin of this term in the English document was the Chinese term ren, which was suggested by Zhang Pengjun and translated for the other delegates as “two-man-mindedness.”

According to Zhang, “Stress should be laid upon the human aspect of human rights,” and people need to be constantly conscious of the others with whom they live. (A description of this episode can be found here). But the term conscience is not what one might expect from ren, unless it is taken in a rather narrow, medieval Christian sense, the sort of sense that a Lebanese Thomist might want to take it in (though why “compassion” would not work for this I’m not knowledgeable enough to even guess at), and, even more fascinating, the term in the eventual Chinese version of the Declaration appears to be a translation of the English “conscience” back into Chinese, rather than the “compassion,” let alone the “two-man-mindedness” that was the originally Chinese-inspired suggestion.

The idea that episodes of translation lie at the heart of world history came up several times during the conference. Another from East Asia, which Naoki Sakai discussed during his Saturday presentation, is the notion of “nationality,” which was translated from the work of John Stuart Mill into mid-19th-century Japanese with two Chinese characters, one for country and the other for body. This idea, like the idea of a national language itself, was a new discovery or invention that would have long-term consequences for both the region and the world, as this notion of nationality, or kokutai, would ironically shift from its liberal democratic origins to become linked with the Japanese Imperial system.

These moments, of which there were many more, far too many to summarize here, were drawn together by a strong, personally inflected atmosphere. The topics were all over the place in terms of subject matter, which could have easily spun out of control and made the entire enterprise feel disconnected. The reason it did not, I think, was again due to smoothness and savvy of the organization. Everything was held in the same building–a historic old house with enough rooms to spread out but not enough to get lost–and the conference was the only thing in it for the two days it took place. Breakfast and lunch were brought in. The participants came to all the presentations, as did the fellows, most of the moderators, the organizers themselves (hats off to Patrice Petro and Lorena Terando, as well as Mark Brand for the impressive logistical and tech support), and then colleagues, students, and a handful of interested community members. What became possible as a result was a conversation with a shared vocabulary, shared experiences (of the previous presentations), and shared understanding of key concepts, historical encounters, and disciplinary trajectories.

In other words, the participants came in the end to have a good feeling for one another’s work, not to mention good feelings for one another. I have encountered administrators in the past who tried to encourage collaboration by looking at resumes and attempting to match specialists up with each other. This rarely works. The truth is that fruitful collaboration, when it happens, happens on a foundation of affinity, respect, and shared purpose, and these are exactly the foundation that was laid at this remarkable event.

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