One of my majors as an undergraduate (yes, it was one that I actually completed and got a diploma in) was Spanish Translation. I thought it would be a great way to find a practical use for the second language I picked up on mission, but it turns out that I enjoyed the theoretical aspects of language much more than the skills I would need to actually make money as a translator and I went to grad school instead of doing anything useful with my degree. I still remember a paradigm-shifting moment in one class when my professor gave an example to illustrate the difference between denotation and connotation. He pointed out that if you were to have an American draw a picture of ‘bread’ on the chalkboard, he would most likely draw the sort of rectangular loaf with a rounded top that is so ubiquitous in American kitchens. If you were to ask a Spaniard to draw bread, or pan on the board, they would most likely draw a long, tapered loaf of the sort of crusty bread that you pick up at the panadería on your way home for lunch each day. Despite the fact that the sentences “I went to the store and bought bread” and “Fui al mercado y compré pan” are functionally equivalent, you could argue that they still create completely different meanings for their readers. Thus we have what Jose Ortega y Gasset famously called “The misery and the splendor of translation.”
I had another encounter with denotation and connotation recently while reading a novel from South Korea that has been translated into English as Please Look After Mom. As I was reading it, I realized that I do not read very many novels in translation. Most Americans don’t; when it comes to literature, there is a serious trade deficit, with America exporting much more literature than it imports. I also don’t know much about South Korean culture and nothing about its language. I actually really loved the book and recommend it to most people I know who are looking for a good read. The story of a family struggling to deal with the realization that they only come to miss their mother after her disappearance is rendered poignantly but without maudlin sappiness. The writing is innovative and the author does unique things with narration (I’m assuming that the narrative structure and voice are similar in the original Korean). I felt generally connected to the story, but every now and then there were moments of disconnect that reminded me that what I was reading was foreign. Take, for example, this passage from the book:
“Kyun got along well with your wife…he brought home various things for the house whenever he had the money. They were all things that your wife needed. Kyun was the one who bought her a nickel basin. He explained, a bit embarrassed, “This is what the other women use, and my sister-in-law is the only one who uses a heavy rubber bin…” Your wife made various kinds of kimchi in the nickel basin and used it to carry lunch to the fields. After she used it, she would polish it and put it up on the top of the cupboards. She used it until the nickel wore off and the basin turned white.”
As I was reading this, I understood it on one level. The husband regrets his poor treatment of his wife and the fact that another family member was more aware of her needs. The nickel basin is still in their home and serves as a constant reminder of how poor a provider the husband had been earlier in their marriage. And yet, I feel as though on some level I don’t really understand this passage at all. The term ‘nickel basin’ feels foreign to me. I can picture what this term most likely refers to, but there is a nagging feeling that I am missing some kind of deeper significance. The term ‘nickel basin’ means nothing to me; there is no connotation in my mind and I know that there must be deeper significance for readers in the original Korean.
Volumes and volumes have been written about the difficulties of translation. Is translation really possible? Does it exist? Can you really translate a text without destroying it and rendering it meaningless? I am bringing these thoughts up in this forum because I wonder if my “nickel basin” experience is analogous to something that non-Mormon readers experience when they read Mormon literature. No matter how well terms like “patriarchal blessing” or “sacrament meeting” are explained in the text, it is possible that there is no way to truly convey their connotation to readers who are not versed in our language. Of course, this could just be a pessimistic way of looking at things. Without translation, no matter how rudimentary it is, the world would actually be a much smaller place. Even if we can only imperfectly share ideas with one another, we are still sharing something. Sometimes a translation will meet in the middle and create a new text that somehow transcends both source and target languages. I hope that is what we can do with Mormon literature.
What do you think? Is translating the Mormon experience impossible? Is there really a unified Mormon language or are the connotations of terms too varied even among individual members?