On the Perils of Translation

A friend of mine (who prefers to remain anonymous) who blogs about Middle-English word studies related to The Cloud of Unknowing has posted a wonderful and thought-provoking meditation On Translation. He considers the challenge of living in a society where the market pretty much decides what does and doesn’t get published, which means that some pretty dicey translations (and paraphrases) of literary and sacred texts end up getting disseminated.

He uses Rumi as a case study, and his attack on the “highly commercialized franchise” of contemporary Rumi translations/paraphrases is particularly interesting. The key question seems to be this: at what point, when a “translator” so radically tampers with a text that its meaning is significantly altered from the original, is it unethical to even pass the text off as the work of the original author? In a market economy, who gets to say what is and isn’t a responsible translation?

Obviously, I am an advocate for the dissemination of the writings of the Christian mystics as far and wide as possible. But nearly all of the mystics wrote in languages other than English, and the most important English mystics wrote in middle English. So unless you are a polyglot scholar, the question of translation will hover over anyone’s attempts to read the mystics. It’s worth considering, even if most of us will be left with a humble recognition that we have to trust the good will and integrity of the translators, editors and publishers whose work we read.

Once again, here’s the post: On Translation.

Monastic Life from the Inside
Mainline Neo-Monasticism?
A Beautiful New Bible and a Contemplative Request
Seven Essential Thomas Merton Books


  1. Since I’m about to embark on the task of translating (and admittedly paraphrasing) some Gaelic folk hymns collected in the late 19th C. into metric, rhyming English, this matter of translation is one of great interest to me. Thanks for the link to the essay.

Leave a Comment