Nickel Basins and the Mormon Experience

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?

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11 Responses to Nickel Basins and the Mormon Experience

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    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.

    It doesn’t matter, as long as they get the gist.

    When I read “nickel basin,” I thought of a galvanized steel wash tub (right up to the point where it went white, that is).

    Even within this country there are regional differences of things that someone not from that part of the country would understand.

    I don’t think the point is to translate perfectly so that every English speaker will understand “bread” as that rectangular loaf or that every Spanish speaker will understand “bread” as that baguette-looking thing. Well, I don’t know. It may be the POINT, but it’s not possible.

    In my experience, having presented a “Mormon” novel to a decidedly not-Mormon fan base, their wonder at getting a peek into this new, foreign, sort of hidden world seemed to override any sense of not getting the nuance. They already knew they weren’t going to get the nuance. They were just happy to have a peek and gain some insight, however incomplete.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      Oh, sorry. My point about the galvanized steel washtub is that everybody will have something close enough to understand because presumably, exactly what it looked like isn’t what’s important. What was important was the point that the husband wasn’t a good provider, which you got.

  2. Katya says:

    You may not understand the significance of a Korean nickel basin in the first book you read, but I bet if you read enough stories about nickel basins, you’d start to understand the cultural context, without the authors ever having to sit down and give you a lecture on their cultural significance. (Of course, motivating the public to read multiple stories about Mormons or nickel basins is a different issue, entirely.)

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    In one sense, this is a special case of the general problem of communication: that is, how does meaning actually get from inside one brain to inside another brain in any meaningful way? Barriers of culture and language are formidable, but even in their absence, meaningful communication can be impossible sometimes. (It seems to me, by the way, that the specific instance you cite is more a barrier of culture than one of language — but that’s a hard line to draw.)

    As someone who has made a living out of facilitating communication for something like 25 years now, I remain convinced that communication is a miracle, whenever it occurs: a part of life in which the gifts of God are daily manifest.

  4. Lee Allred says:

    It may be that another danger of cultural translations and assumptions is that the nickel basin has NO cultural connotation. What we think we intuit as significant isn’t. It may be just the respective quality of a kitchen implement is the fictional shorthand the author uses to delineate the husband’s poor providing.

    Quick Digression: living and working in Asia, for both a mission and the military, I grew to loathe the ubiquitous cheap extruded plastic kitchenware (cups, plates, bowls, etc.). The oils and peppers used in previous meals never could be fully washed out of plasticware. Even items keep free of oils and peppers — plastic cups for example — picked up the aromas simply by being washed in the same dishwater. Since then, I make it a point (almost a neurotic point) not to have plasticware in my own kitchen. I _see_ a reused plastic cup or glass and flashback to the oily smells of Thai kitchens. (My family’s now long since resigned to my insisting on drinking from only glass glasses when I visit.)

    Quick Digression #2: I’ve seen Asian celebrity chefs prepare kimchi in stainless steel bowls; I’ve also heard Koreans (or Americans married to Koreans) state quite baldy use no metal! What’s the truth about that fictional nickel basin? Don’t ask me — my majoring in Asian Studies doesn’t help me here!

    Quick Digression #3: Or we could just ask. (That’s cheating, Lee!) The author has been living in the US (at least recently). E-mail form link at

    • Oh, do! It is so cool as a reader to be able to ask an author a question about their work.

      And I’m willing to bet that it’s cool for the author to have someone ask a question. At the very least, it means the author’s work was read and that it created interest enough to generate a question. (I haven’t had an awful lot published, but I always like to know when someone has read something I’ve written.)

  5. Jessie says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone. I’ve been reading a lot of Mormon fiction lately and so it was interesting to read a novel that was so foreign, in every sense of the word. Even if the Mormon fiction I’ve been reading isn’t really reflective of my personal Mormon experience, I am familiar enough with the language that it is comfortable. Like Katya pointed out, enough reading within a particular cultural viewpoint can still create familiarity with the terms.

    I think what I have been pondering is something that Moriah and Jonathan touched on–how do we communicate our worldview to another person? This is, of course, the central problem of language itself. There are some who argue that translation is futile or even wrong, that you should only read authors in their original language or else you are missing something fundamental. I don’t agree with that point of view, and I think the sort of mixing of cultures and languages that occurs with translation to be quite fruitful. One of my favorite books that I’ve read for the Whitney Awards so far is Borrowed Light by Carla Kelly. Kelly is an experienced romance writer and she combines a Mormon coming-of-age story with a historical romance. I really liked it, but it has a fair number of negative reviews on Amazon from loyal readers of Kelly’s work who don’t like the religious elements in the book.

    And Lee, thanks for your thoughts. I think it is entirely probable that the term means nothing partiuclar to Korean readers as well. There is an interesting post up today at A Motley Vision about essentialism, reader expectations, and authenticity that covers these sorts of issues well. When we ‘translate’ our Mormon experience for other audiences, do we feel a need to fit into certain ways of saying things or certain topics simply due to reader expectations?

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      FWIW, Carla Kelly has a HUGE fan base. Romancelandia nearly kisses her feet. Before that book came out, all they knew was, “Carla Kelly’s got a new one coming out! *froth*” and didn’t pay attention to the change in direction or the publisher. IMO, it was a bit of a self-inflicted ambush (although why they’d think to check, I don’t know).

  6. Wm says:

    Aside: Three Percent is a good resource for finding out about literary translations and exploring the issues pertaining to the act of and the market for translation.

  7. Th. says:


    My new thought is that perhaps if we can make Mormon books a little foreign to Mormon readers as well as nonMo readers, we might be on to something. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any examples of national breakout Mormon literature to test my poorly defined theory against so, you know, who knows?

  8. Dennis Clark says:

    And here I thought that Brady Udall had broken out into national literature. When I read Phil Roth or Ike Singer I don’t sweat the small stuff; if I don’t understand something in Walker Percy, I read on, figuring that someday I will.

    The last thing Mormon writers should be doing in fiction is reporting and explaining. If you need the reference, the story will make it clear. I may need some help with Moriah’s high finance or art references, but usually the story is sufficient to the use of the reference. Write, write, write — the readers will take care of their own needs.

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