Generous Translations

dialogI 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.


Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy & Religion

13 responses to “Generous Translations

  1. Pop theology dies hard. I always loved working with self-professed “unreligious” people who also offered up this platitude of “everything happening for a reason.” Once referring to a situation where they didn’t get the apartment they were looking at!

  2. Perhaps, then adhunt, you could learn to do Generous Translations too. Tell us, as a religious person, do you feel everything happens for a reason?

  3. I wouldn’t presume to understand what I would call “God’s sovereignty” in detail. It is something I am still exploring and learning about.

    But from what I understand to be “God’s plan” for the future, it has mostly to do with the “big picture” of reconciliation to himself to share in the active love of the Trinity.

    As far as, what most want to do for a career, or if a tire goes flat, or things of that nature. It seems that we have a certain amount of freedom to act in ways that do not have divine consequence or cause.

    But, if you haven’t noticed, I’m quite vague about the details.

    I think the “spiritual but not religious” people I know would attribute it to a sort of “force” that they have a tacit belief in.

  4. Interesting concept. I’ll have to think on it.

  5. Well answered adhunt, for a vague bloke 🙂 Indeed I think it is important to be able to say, “I don’t know”,or “I am still thinking about that”. I wish more people would.

  6. I dont think its illogical to suppose there may be meaning or purpose to the events in our lives. So long as I dont impose that belief on someone else what does it matter if someone believes it?

  7. TitforTat,

    Doesn’t purpose imply personality? Where would the belief in a personal force with intention come from?

  8. adhunt

    Words are limited, so I use them in a limited way. It may or may not have personality. I, like you, have no clue what it entails. So with that said, I just trust my instincts on it. If it turns out I was wrong I wont know it anyway. 😉

  9. Ian

    This post has been wandering round my mind since you wrote it. I saw an interesting example of generous translation ‘gone bad’ today, and I thought it would give a new angle.

    The generous translation was being performed by a sophisticated, intellectual Christian on the inane and unreasonable spouting of a fundamentalist Christian. Asking the reasonable Christian how they can side with the fruitcakery, they described a process of generous translation. They heard language about creationism, about a patristic and feckless God, and about an institutionalized revenge fantasy (the Rapture). And they translated it into vaguely deistic terms of ‘spiritual formation’,’God who speaks to our culture’, ‘a mysterious deity’ and ‘our potential to fulfil our earthly purpose’.

    And try as I might I couldn’t convince them that they were just about as far from the fundamentalist’s religion as I am.

    Generous translation allows beleagured evangelicals to think that Karen Armstrong is defending their faith. It allows fundamentalists to think their doctrines go right back to the early church. And it allows the government to carve ‘one nation under god’ on state buildings.

    In short, although I sympathise with its power to build bridges when done consciously, unconsciously it seems to me to be kindof the problem.

  10. @ Ian, I totally agree with your point. Generous translations only serve us when we use them consciously for good intents and purposes. Otherwise, destructive bullshit has to be take to task when possible, eh?

  11. Earnest

    Sabio! My good friend! I had no idea we had this love of generous interperetation in common! It’s funny that I have to go on the web to discover what my own neighbor is thinking.

    Or perhaps we are both just mellowing with time. I have begun to think of generous translation as being a choice to be made. Sometimes I listen to an orator who makes claims that I know are only marginally defensible under scrutiny. My new game is to try to establish a way in which the words could be twisted into something that was something one could actually attempt to believe if certain truths held. Then whoever comes up with a durable restatement makes everyone else take a drink!

    Hey wait a minute I thought this was the blog about drinking….

  12. @ Earnest — glad you felt free to imbibe

  13. TWF

    That is an interesting tactic, and I have probably used it myself a dozen or so times, but I find the tactic which works best for me is (for lack of a better expression) “Generous Origin.” In other words, I try to understand how I could have the same perceptions as someone else if I have been raised in the same micro-culture as they were and had the same experiences that they did. For me, this shifts their beliefs from being “owned” (in the sense of fully and rationally investigated and concluded upon) to being “produced” (in the sense of being a product of their environment, upbringing, mental chemistry, etc.). That way, if I can managed to get beyond my own emotional triggers in whatever they’ve said, I can bond with them in the understanding of our common human natures.

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