Reading in Translation: Four Lessons for Secular/Religious Debate

Reading in Translation: Four Lessons for Secular/Religious Debate June 23, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. I was at a school bazaar as a small child, playing on a hill a little ways from the outdoor festivities, when suddenly an angry woman grabbed me by the arms and shook me. “Michael,” she shouted, “What have I told you about running–”

“I’m not Michael!”

It took her a split second to realize that I wasn’t, in fact, her son. But rather than apologize, she did that thing we humans so often do when we make mistakes: she got defensive. “Then why are you wearing a boy’s–oh, never mind.”

(Michael, by the way, was fine. He was playing nearby.)

I had been wearing my Ninja Turtles t-shirt. I had a wild mop of hair. I was roughhousing with some of the other kids. It was my first experience with how reductive people’s views of gender were–because… really? That was it? A small child tussling with others in a popular cartoon’s T-shirt… that was enough to make me a boy in this woman’s eyes?

But this isn’t a post about gender. This is about how quickly we fill in the gaps–because the same check-boxing that frazzled mother did when I was young, we’re all inclined to do. And–more than assumptions about gender or ethnicity or orientation–we tend to get especially lazy about the check-boxes needed to make something a “debate”.

How does it so often go on secular/religious infotainment channels? [X] person says/writes [Y], and either [Y] is itself worthy of contention, or else [X] is an absolute hypocrite for saying [Y] due to their beliefs. Either way, we then eagerly await or seek out [A] (a sharp retort) from [B], a well-known person on the opposing side, and repeat.

And if these check-boxes are ticked off, if these factors show up in relation to a given, pressing issue, do we have a thriving discourse?

Eh, close enough.


Don’t you tire of it? Because I tire of it. And when I’m most tired of it, I’m thankful for a lifetime’s reading in translation–because there’s nothing like a dip into other cultural discourse to remember that ours is not the be-all and end-all. That there are other ways to advance collective knowledge–and some that might just be more humanist.

Stumping for Translation

Now, maybe you don’t remember the last book you read in translation. Maybe you didn’t realize when a book was in translation. Maybe there’s a permeability to the writing world that makes you wonder what the hell difference really is. If a piece of writing is eventually in English, then it’s part of our culture, right?

Well, yes and no.

I’m currently finishing a book review for the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist, which contains work in translation; and prepping a second-novel project, which will be an homage to work I read in translation; and sifting through interviews with people in Spanish, to write an article in English. Likewise, I recently received a version of one of my stories, in Polish, that I’ll just have to trust was translated well. So, granted, my life involves a little more exposure to translation on a daily basis than most.

But if your own routines don’t involve reading more in translation–and if you, like me, are tired of the check-box cadence of North American discourse, especially around secular/religious issues–I’m going to push you to explore what this practice offers.

Here are four lessons I’ve gleaned from reading in translation, to add to your global-humanist arsenal.

1. Loss Of Meaning Is The Status Quo

A Colombian-U.S. writer I admire, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, recently published a piece in The Paris Review that better depicts this lesson than I ever could. In “Translation as an Arithmetic of Loss“, she discusses (among other things) her calculated choice to write Colombian-Spanish expressions directly in English for her first novel, even though a native English speaker will only ever see this as poetic flourish. Why? Because, for her, the more important audience is the reader-in-translation who will recognize the original and immediately recognize, too, what the act of translation destroys. As she notes, in response to queries about why she didn’t write Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018) in Spanish: “Language is one of the things you sacrifice when you migrate. I wanted to be true to the toll of that sacrifice by making visible what exactly was being lost.”

[You can also get a taste of her writing style, as a storyteller, in “The Best Thing My Psychic Mom Taught Me Is No One Wants To Hear The Truth.“]


Loss of meaning isn’t something we’re used to in North American discourse–and sure as heck not in secular/religious online debate, where part of the thrill among atheists often seems to be going for the jugular of absolutist religious figures, frequently by making similarly declarative statements of our own. You get this sense of loss more, I find, among the people who fell away from extremist religious positions–folks like the recently deceased Rachel Held Evans–who then found themselves negotiating how to use the language of their first communities in a changed ideological landscape. Granted, that struggle to reconstitute vocabularies (terms which once held such definitive power, but now feel murky and uneven) doesn’t make for good click-bait. It does, however, better reflect how day-to-day human discourse proceeds.

Just imagine how your own conversations with loved ones have changed over the years–how you’ve developed sensitivites around certain topics, learned to avoid certain words, learned to doubt the sufficiency of others. Maybe you’ve changed the way you argue. Maybe you recognize that the point with loved ones is not, in fact, to win. Also, maybe the words of your youth don’t resonate as well with others now. Maybe they leave you uncertain about your connection to associated ideologies, but heck if you even know how to begin articulating the attendant fear.

Rojas Contreras is an especially good example of loss-in-action, too, because even the blurb for her first novel (not copy she has control over) reveals how little the publishing world thinks of North Americans’ capacity for nuance. It begins,

In the vein of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a mesmerizing debut set against the backdrop of the devastating violence of 1990’s Colombia about a sheltered young girl and a teenage maid who strike an unlikely friendship that threatens to undo them both.

…which is as good as saying to a North American reader, “Aw, hell, you don’t know any Latinx writers, do you? Well, let’s name-drop the two you have the best chance of recognizing.” Even though Allende wrote about multigenerational family trauma set against government violence in Chile. And Garcia Marquez wrote about late 19th and early 20th century multigenerational histories of (predominantly) coastal Colombia. And both wrote what we commonly know as “magical realism” today, while Rojas Contreras’s first novel is not written as magical realism. Rather, it’s a coming-of-age story negotiating class disparity and childhood fragility, far closer to Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend or Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner than Allende’s House of the Spirits or Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

But to understand that, you have to be ready to let go of easy (commercially lucrative) binaries. And, well…

2. Categorization Is Cultural

The thing about the Western secular/religious debate, especially online, is that it does more work than simply pitting secular figures against religious figures. Every time we play into it, we are also reinforcing rigid and reductive notions of Western identity. This is our discourse, we tell ourselves every time we feed into it. This is where we are as a civilization. And these are the positions worthiest of our critical attention. Namely:

  1. Secular discourse–everything from anti-theistic to inclusively humanist.
  2. Christianity (both as an umbrella term and in relation to specific, usually more rigid/literalist denominations).
  3. Islam (as an umbrella term, only rarely by specific denomination.)

Does Judaism get much of a mention, outside our lumping of the term in with Christianity? Does Hinduism? Sikhism? Baha’i? Taoism? Paganism? Indigenous spiritual practice?

And yet, funnily enough, reading outside English-language materials often illustrates how selective our identity-building about Western culture truly is. Maybe you’ve read Haruki Murakami, and recognize how much European classical music and pasta are forged in his texts as markers of aspirational class identity. But–maybe you haven’t. So let’s jump from Japan to Mainland China, and look at Western capitalism through two Chinese counterpoints: Yu Hua’s Brothers (2005, trans. Eileen Cheng-yin Chow and Carlos Rojas) and Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak (2012, trans. Canaan Morse).

From From
[NPR excerpt from Brothers here. Choice excerpt from The Invisibility Cloak here.]

Brothers employs a familiar narrative arc in Chinese literature and cinema, by showing how the madness of multiple epochs of Communism’s rise and transformation played out in smaller familial contexts. This piece follows two brothers from a poor village, and has their fortunes change wildly in lockstep with the community’s steady integration into a larger Communist whole.

The Invisibility Cloak, meanwhile, follows one man whose life has been treading water, but who uses his specialized skill–setting up esoteric sound systems for the rich–to maintain a sense of superiority over those who have more.

Both struck me on two accords that challenged my sense of Western culture. The first is their stark approach to women’s narratives (in the former, we’ve got “virginity”-renewal surgery and reductive plot use of a brother’s wife; in the latter–spoiler!–the protagonist finds himself a partner who consents to hiding her scarred face during intercourse so they can both make the best of a bad situation). The second is the deft way in which both texts illustrate how even communistic policy creates capitalist enterprise (especially in relation to capitalism’s key driver, the coveting of material goods).

In both cases, these texts made me question the strenuousness with which our culture wars are waged as profound ideological divisions–for as ugly as the use of women in these books was, I recognized hundreds similar in Western tales, as I also did with the ways that each protagonist strives to uphold class distinction. And why not? How different, truly, are our problems as human beings? Do we not still objectify, reduce, and covet, from wherever in the world we each might hail?

Secular vs. religious discourse, as routine readers of this column already know, likewise categorizes in some precariously artificial ways. But scratch the surface for common believers/disbelievers, and you’ll find folks with similar drives, by and large–and similar behavioural failings, too. Which lends itself well to the question: who is best served by upholding rigid notions of us vs. them, in-group and out-? Is the infotainment war we’re so often waging with our heated rebuttals the right one?

3. Meaning Arises From More Than Content

The artificiality of categorization gets especially chewy when one remembers that, even within a given culture, there is never perfect consensus on the meaning of shared terms. Indeed, the aim often seems to be to throw out a marker of tribal inclusion, and simply allow those who resonate with that code-word to rally behind it–even if their actions belie differing ideas of what that code-word’s actual content is.

(And yes, this is as true for the code-word “humanist” as it is for “Christian”–which is why I’m trying to shift my practice to “global humanist” and “compassionate humanist”: hoping for a little more convergence on actual meaning in the process!)

As such, books within Western culture, but not English in origin, can sometimes be the most glorious reminders of how far our debates in North America have shifted to exercises in ticking off check-boxes and dogwhistling allegiance. Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language (2015, trans. Sam Taylor) and Michel Houllebecq’s Submission (2015, trans. Lorin Stein) both illustrate this point well, if in wildly different ways.



[Choice excerpt from The Seventh Function of Language here. Brief excerpt of Submission here.]


In the former, we imagine a world where Albert Camus was murdered, then dabble in the sordid feast of 1980 French philosophy–a puckering mess of academic sophistry, predatory hedonism, and general fuckwittery (all the more pleasurable if you recognize names of those involved, like Derrida, Eco, Foucault, Butler, and Kristeva).

In the latter, we imagine a France under sharia after the election of an Islamic president, and follow an academic weighing Islamic conversion to further his career.

The first is expressly about semiotics–a linguistic subfield that explains how even the idea of a word, its symbolic power, tells us things about the world, such that the mere dictionary definition of any term is only the beginning of its cultural impact. (To this end, there’s a nifty conversation in this book about how understanding all the potential uses of language might have significant sociopolitical consequences.) But there’s also the viscera of the philosophers themselves to contend with–their pettiness, their humanness, their grotesquery–and that’s the far more important philosophical discourse here. That’s the part of Binet’s text that undermines the idea that any discourse is ever a clean battle between specific words upon the page.

Meanwhile, the author of the second, Houllebecq, is plainly the enfant-terrible of European literature, and was roundly condemned for fanning prejudice by writing a book imagining a post-sharia-law France amid so much active racism towards (brown-skinned) Muslims. (You might remember it as the cover on Charlie Hebdo at the time its offices became the site of an al-Qaeda attack.) And yet… Submission is a well-executed indictment precisely of those worst fears. By outlining that “worst case scenario” and then, within it, illustrating the persistent self-serving pedantry of average French citizens, Submission mocks both those racist fear-mongers and the self-contented intellectuals who are ultimately out to protect minorities-of-one (i.e. themselves).

Held together, these French texts outline a few elements often neglected in North American discourse. It’s not just that we’re often missing a shared theoretical education in our cultural debates; we also tend to overlook the horseshit and piss (if you’ll pardon my French) attached to any compelling quote our greatest intellects might muster. And Houllebecq is a perfect example of what happens after, because when we read solely for “plot”, and when we condemn the “plot” for failing to code explicitly enough for specific allyship, we train ourselves into expecting discourse to come only in one register–surface-level stridency. We train ourselves, in the process, out of using discourse to challenge ourselves, to help us sit in discomfort, and to routinely check in with ourselves about the dogmas guiding our every well-intended action in the world.

This works for short-term activism, I’m sure.

But such rigidity also makes discursive dinosaurs of us all, in time.

4. Incompleteness Reigns

And yet, maybe that’s what’s supposed to happen. Maybe we’re all supposed to sputter out. Maybe the rise and plateau/fall of, say, a Richard Dawkins in the discursive spotlight is the natural way of things. Maybe any righteous cause can only ever be truly righteous for the briefest of cultural spells.

One of the books I’m reviewing for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, a sci-fi prize, was also first under consideration for the Man Booker–and for good reason. This story, first published in Arabic in 2013, makes the most compelling argument I’ve seen for how a Frankenstein revival should be used to reflect contemporary issues–just as scientific narratives of progress amid human primitivism first troubled Mary Shelley.


With Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018, trans. Jonathan Wright), Ahmed Saadawi gives us a patchwork narrative about a patchwork man. Over an array of chapters illustrating the complexity of day-to-day wartime life for a multitude of imperfect neighbours, Saadawi reveals how a local scavenger pieced together post-explosion body parts in U.S.-occupied Iraq, so that something could get a decent burial. Well-intentioned, right? But when a soul abruptly dislodged by a suicide bomber looks for a place to rest, it finds this patchwork body–and with it, a mission: to try to avenge each body-part’s mortal trauma. The problem? A re-animated dead man is still a collection of decaying meat in need of replacement parts, so soon enough those good intentions, that righteous desire to avenge the innocent, blurs the borders of culpability for everyone involved.

[Choice excerpt from Frankenstein in Baghdad here.]


The story is not linear, though, and by involving quite a few other neighbourhood players, the structure of Saadawi’s tale also makes abundantly clear that this patchwork man is a pointed stand-in for a patchwork discourse (global in reach) about the nature of justice and the role of narrative in achieving for each of us a sense of inner peace.

I discussed the problem with endings, or at least the desire for them, in my last essay, before circumstances in my life derailed me from my writing work awhile. Westerners tend to fixate on good endings, and often turn against a story for its failure to provide one. There’s a sense of having wasted one’s time on the journey, if the ends don’t satisfy.

This certainly resonates with secular/religious discourse, wherein the fear of having chosen wrong can often entrench people even more completely in their positions on the spectrum. Secular folk tend to mock the “What if you’re wrong?” rhetoric espoused by evangelizing religious persons, but there’s a critical echo in that question we should pay attention to: the speaker’s own fear of having wasted a life on inaccurate views.

A recent evangelizing cabbie here in Medellín told me his story in the usual dire terms: how he was literally dying from a life of violence, and then found Christ, and then found peace. The high stakes of such narratives make humanist response delicate–because the last thing I wanted to do was leave him feeling like his survival didn’t matter, but clearly the value of his survival has now been tethered to his Christianity. As such, even saying something like, “Cristo es alguna cuenta que ha ayudado mucha gente, pero para mí es solo una historia, uno de milles que nos usamos, como humanos, para mejorar nuestro mundo” (Christ is a story that has helped many people, but for me it’s only a story, one of thousands that we use, as humans, to improve our world)… can read like an attack.

Because when someone wants to believe that they’ve finally arrived at the truth and now can rest within it… any intimation that the truth is always in progress, with no hope of completion in our lifetime, is going to read as an affront.

The Take-Away

And this is why we humanists–religious and otherwise–have before us the Herculean challenge of remembering that our discourse needs to remain dynamic and versatile. We cannot let ourselves rest on a check-box style of critical debate that presumes the definitiveness, ever, of the words we’re using, or the contexts we’re using them in.

We need to remember that words are not simply words–that the vehicles (or mediums) of our messages are an active and potentially volatile part of any social debate. We need to be open to changing them, to adapting our structures to meet new needs and new conversations. And we need to remember that the aim cannot be to arrive at a perfect lock on truth… because human discourse will continue long after we are gone, and all the ends that we thought righteous in the moment might well become otherwise, in time.

When reading in translation–when reading, that is, through the inevitability of loss that comes with work in translation–these lessons become a little easier. Lulled daily online as we are, into a certain, reductive, commercially valuable cadence of point-and-counterpoint, it’s going to take conscious actions on our part to break from the self-congratulatory “fix” of contemporary online discourse.

But it’s doable, dear readers.

And it rewards.

Browse Our Archives