So it turns out that C.S. Lewis was not only a writer. He was also a translator. And his partial translation of Vergil’s Aeneid has finally been published, a half century after his passing. Before reading on—about his even greater translation work—you should take a minute to read the initial post on this subject.
Many people are frustrated that various works are not available in their own language. This is even true in English, where thousands of ancient Christian documents and manuscripts are only available in their original language or perhaps German or French.
Surely, we think, there are many people who read those languages and English. Why don’t they help the rest of us out by making these works accessible for the linguistically-challenged?
Naturally, translation is a more complicated task. First, one must have the rights to translating a given work. Then they must have an incentive, which is only occasionally pecuniary. And, if we are to receive a good translation, they require skill.
C.S. Lewis knew that he was not a translator in the literal sense of the word. This awareness did not frustrate him. On the contrary, he commended translators based on his perception of their talents. He chose to focus on the role of theological translation God had appointed for him.
Lewis astutely recognized that due to gradual changes in word meanings and cultural norms, even effective translations can grow ineffective over time. He discussed this in an essay on why the English Bible needed periodic re-interpretation to remain vital. As one Lewis blogger says:
[Lewis] compares refusing to change a translation to attempting to buy clothes for your child “once and for all.” That is a pointless exercise because the child will grow and change. The clothes are designed to only fit them at a certain stage of their life.
The same is true for a translation. It was translated with a certain audience in mind—those that were alive and speaking the language when the translation was first released.
No translator can make a version that is perfectly suited for an audience 100 years in the future. He translates for his own age and trusts those coming after him to do the same.
Lewis did acknowledge that he had a divine appointment as a translator of ecclesiastical religion into the common faith language of the average person. His brilliance in this work made him the preeminent Christian apologist of the twentieth century. He described this work in a letter in 1945, soliciting work for the Christian Workers Union.
I agree that it is essential for all ‘literature’ [the CWU] issues to its members to be a translation into the actual current speech of the people (It has always seemed to me odd that those who are sent to evangelise the Bantus begin by learning Bantu while the Church turns out annually curates to teach the English who simply don’t know the vernacular language of England).
But of course I can’t write a book for workers. I know nothing at all of the realities of factory life.
If one of you will write the book, I will translate it: i.e. instead of a book by me edited by you, you need a book by you edited by me. That is, if you really need me at all. But are you sure you do?
People praise me as a ‘translator,’ but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.’ I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors?
Lewis continues, describing the process and emphasizing that any motivated person should be able to do as he does.
Anyone can learn to do it if they wish. It only involves first writing down in ordinary theological college English exactly what you want to say and then treating that just as you treated a piece of English set for Greek prose at school . . .
[He uses a contemporary example.] I read ‘There is no need for me to enlarge upon the wide-spread ignorance of Christian truth which is characteristic of our age and generation.’ The moment you started to consider ‘doing this into Greek prose’ you’d see you’d have to get rid of the noun ‘ignorance’ and that ‘characteristic’ would have to be ‘turned.’
So in turning it into the vernacular. It would finally come out something like ‘I need not waste time in telling you that very few people in modern England know what Christianity actually teaches. We need not at the moment ask why this is so or who ought to be blamed for it, etc.’
It is inconceivable that there is no one among you who can do this quite as well as I could: and it is far better that it should be done by those who know at first hand what needs to be said. So my advice is that you get on with it at once (it does one endless good of all sorts as a mere bye-product) and use me as a mere reviser if you want me at all.
(Remember that in the Vernacular creature means ‘beast,’ a being means a ‘person.’ Personal often means ‘corporeal,’ Primitive means ‘crude’ or ‘barbarous’, and avoid words like Challenge, Tribute and all newspaper clichés).
I feel I’m talking rather like a tutor—forgive me. But it is just a technique and I’m desperately anxious to see it widely learned.
Years later, during his debate with the liberal theologian Dr. Pittenger, he elaborated on how he interpreted his Christian vocation.
My task was therefore simply that of a translator—one turning Christian doctrine, or what he believed to be such, into the vernacular, into language that unscholarly people would attend to and could understand.
Lewis’ Invitation to You and Me
It’s certainly an interesting piece of correspondence. The most impressive part of the letter is Lewis’ deep hope that others would follow in his proverbial footsteps.
What I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation . . .’ Where are my successors?
I need to conduct more research into this concept. I am curious as to whether Lewis developed it more substantially during the final two decades of his life.
I believe we can honestly say Lewis accomplished this goal. Thousands of writers have been inspired by his example and encouragement to attempt to communicate the Gospel in words others can understand.
Lewis has been our tutor. And I, for one, am honored to proclaim that I’m a graduate of the C.S. Lewis School of Translation. Actually, emulating his honesty, I should more correctly say “I am honored to presently be studying at the C.S. Lewis School of Translation.”
I hope you will enroll alongside me. (Monolingualists welcome.)
The C.S. Lewis Institute has a brief discussion of the letter quoted above. They end with a question.
What about you? As you share the gospel with non-believers, or write or speak about Christian doctrine or current issues from a Christian perspective, do you “translate” what you have to say into the language and vocabulary the people you are communicating with understand and use?
19 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis’ School of Translation”
I wasn’t aware of the publication of this book! I definitely want to look into it!
It’s still only available in hardback, and probably won’t have the “audience” to get into paperback or kindle soon. You could get it through your local library though. Inter-library loans are quite useful in cases where we will probably only read an expensive book a single time.
Ooh, good point about the library! Especially since I’ll probably be moving apartments soon and should probably try to stop acquiring things before then. ;)
C’mon. What’s more fun than moving lots of boxes loaded with books!?!
Rob, outstanding and timely! I meet with a Baptist seminarian friend today do discuss Trans/Consubstantiation and other matters partly doxological. Yes, we’ve done some “translation” in our discussion. Gonna pass this along to him. Thanks.
I love theological translation work where the participants are not reactionary or argumentative.
These two things caught my eye/brain – timeless and so important to realize.
“No translator can make a version that is perfectly suited for an audience 100 years in the future. He translates for his own age and trusts those coming after him to do the same.”
“…instead of a book by me edited by you, you need a book by you edited by me. ”
Translation is so tricky – language has complex faces and a translator is being trusted with an author’s words and thought. Impressive work.
You’re right. Those are both astute points. As for the first, I think that language is evolving at an ever more rapid pace. The acceleration of this phenomenon only reinforces the truth of Lewis’ observation.
Now that you mention it and surely because of Lewis’ influence, I think I am constantly approaching all my communication with the view to adapting it to the reader/hearer’s age, culture, openness, emotional, spiritual and mental capacity to understand–even if in some cases it may amount to “dumbing down.” (I know that may sound patronizing or conceited, so in writing to this audience I may be failing at this very attempt to translate well.) I love it, though, when a lot of translation isn’t necessary, when the words can be as big as they want to soar and get truth and beauty across.
It’s all about our audience, as you point out. Sometimes we need to “simplify” our terminology, etc.
The more we know about who we’re trying to communicate with, the better. For example, I always try to learn the religious background of the people with whom I interact. It gives me an instant insight into their probable worldview. Likewise, I can tweak my vocabulary itself. Baptists and Roman Catholics, for example, have very different understandings of what the word “baptism” means.
And grace. And saint. (Baptists would go by inferences in the Bible, Roman Catholics by definitions given by their church.) So yes, you do need to know what common terms mean to each party in the conversation.
Well, one could argue that Roman Catholics also get theirs from the Bible with the church and clergy as mediators.
And you could also argue the same about Baptists. Their interpretation of doctrine comes via the channel of their churches, pastors and writers of the past.
That’s not a bad thing. Many times when people sever themselves from the Christian Church, including fundamental doctrinal norms such as the Trinity, they end up with their own version of heresy. (Many cults form this way.)
Yes, breaking down the truth of the Gospel by translating into the language of your audience. We both do that. You break down the Inklings and we take on geeks and nerds. Two different languages with the same message!
Exactly. My problem in teaching is that I’ll ill-suited to teens. I can communicate better with small kids and adults. But, from my observation, that’s not a rare problem.
Thanks for this, Rob. I’ve been meaning to blog about it and am glad you got this into my mind again. I’m going to think about it a bit more.
I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it returned the subject to your thoughts. As a fellow journeyman in the Lewis School of Translation, I look forward to reading your much-more-indepth research on the subject.
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