Translating as an opportunity to make friends
The secret ingredient of European Culture
This week I attended the presentation in Cologne of a translation and commentary of a part of the Summa Theologiae. During that presentation, I discovered how translations could help you to make friends.
The prestigious book presentation took place in the reading room of the library of the Archdiocese of Cologne. When this room was built in 1983, the architect proposed to call this room the Albertus Magnus room (Albertus Magnus was the friar who taught Thomas Aquinas at the Dominican house of studies in Cologne). Unfortunately, however, the room was never given the proposed name. And yet, today, the works of both theologians can be found on the shelves in the room, so they made it there in the end!
Notes made by Thomas Aquinas in: Köln, Codex 30 fol. 16 (Photo: RS)
On display in the back of the room was a medieval copy of the Corpus Dionysiacum, a book of Christian mystical writings (Köln, Codex 30 fol. 16). In the margins of the book, you can see notes made by the young Thomas as he was preparing materials for his master Albertus. The notes are notoriously difficult to decipher (see picture), but part of them deal with different possibilities for the translation of the text.
Pondering that Aquinas was interested in the different options for translating certain words, I remembered a passage from the work of Umberto Eco on the importance of translation for European culture. According to Eco, European culture is based on the awareness that it is a multilingual civilisation. Instead of saying that Greek or Latin are the basis of European cultures, he argues something very different. The starting point for his argument is the story of the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles. There we can read how the Holy Spirit enables the disciples to speak in many languages about Jesus to the visitors in Jerusalem who had arrived from different countries (Acts 2:4). Eco suggests that one of the critical influences of Christianity on European culture is the idea that a multiplicity of languages is not a wound, but a blessing. Every translation allows for the possibility to reach out to new people and befriend them.
Later that evening, the translator, Professor Dr Klaus Jacobi, confirmed Eco’s argument. During his work on the text, he kept in mind that he was translating for readers who probably would not have had the opportunity to learn Latin to read Thomas. So, he had to make a translation that would do justice to both Thomas and the lives and cultural context of his readers today. Furthermore, the translator had no illusions that they would read his translation from the beginning to the end. But he hoped people would feel free enough to dip into the text whenever a particular topic interested them.
In a way, Professor Jacobi’s translation enables people today to become friends with a friar who lived many centuries ago. I think this power of translations is astonishing. They allow us to make friends in the present and the past.