I was sitting in a coffee shop talking with a new acquaintance who was relating a recent struggle in her life. During the story she casually said, “I believe everything happens for a reason” and because apparently she had no reason to doubt that I agreed with this common pablum, she continues her narrative without even a pause. And though I don’t agree, I tried to tame my philosophical mind from stopping her story, and criticizing her assumed metaphysical claim. Instead, I employed a trick I sometime use to stay connected and listen to another person’s story: that trick is to do what I call a “generous translation”.
I find the face value of her common claim to be utter nonsense. I don’t believe in a world controlled by an intelligent being or some karmic calculator. I certainly don’t believe that humans have different types of fates than animals. The event of a road-kill squirrel, for example, must be explained similar to that of a road-kill human: I call this roadkill theology. But I didn’t want to bring up my crass worldview into my conversation with this new acquaintance just now. Heck, I am just listening and trying to get to know her. So instead of stopping our conversation to talk about this issue, I generated a “generous translation” so that I could keep listening patiently to her thoughts.
The generous translation process went like this: I took her sentence:
“I believe everything happens for a reason“
and translate it to say something like this:
“When bad things happen to me, I try to rebound and see if I can turn something good out of something that is obviously bad.“
Wheeww, with that translation there are no divine plans and no anthropocentrism. With that trick, my analytic, cynical brain could relax and I could listen to my new acquaintance with sincerity!
Now, this may not be exactly what the woman meant, I imagine — or maybe it was. Or maybe she indeed believed in a puppet master in the sky who cares for her and has big plans for her well-being. I can’t tell by her one statement. But at that moment, I settled for my generous translation.
Now this may have an arrogant nuance to it, but trust me, I mean no such thing. Yes, of course, my cute way of phrasing the non-generous translation stinks of some arrogance perhaps, but the generous translation itself is meant to do the opposite.
My view of self allows this translation to be sincere and I use it to find overlap between the speaker and myself. The translation seeks to find some statement which I think the speaker may agree with and which I can agree with even if the new translation does not capture as much as the speaker would want nor as much as I would want. A generous translation seeks common ground.
Here are some other generous translation examples:
- “God only gives us as much as we can handle” –> “I will hope that though hard times may come, that I will find strength to move beyond them.”
- “God speaks to me through the Bible” –> “I feel inspired with I read books I value. They help me to emphasize the virtues that I value.”
- “Life without God is meaningless” –> see my post on that stinger.
So you see, when I do a generous translation, I don’t buy into speaker’s literal words. I actually think most of the time we really use language or ideas in non-literal senses anyway, though we may think we don’t. For if I told my listeners how I was translating their sentences, though they may agree with the translations, they may insist that they meant much more and that they actually meant what they said. But I would quietly doubt that.
So here is the key. We should try to seek the generous translation not only of those with whom we disagree, but also of ourselves. We should take time occasionally to see, at a deep level, how our web of beliefs is actually functioning, how they actually support our lives beyond the analytic meaning of our words.
Generous translations is a technique. Sometimes it is OK to be frank with folks too! But it is good to have a flexible tool kit.