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Jewish Journal

Knowing Oneself: The Art of Translation

by Beit T'shuvah

April 29, 2013 | 2:09 pm

By Matt Shapiro

“Communication is always an act of translation.” The words ring in my head, lingering. It’s Friday at Beit T’shuvah, and I'm sitting in on a seminar with the Center for Collective Wisdom, discussing organizational spirituality and how to access the deeper wisdom we all share. The discussion continues, but that short sentence continues to provoke further thought. I mull over the concept that I’m always having my own experience, and when I communicate, through words, gestures or, of course, blog posts, I’m attempting to translate an element of that experience to someone else. Translation is also, of course, fraught with error, impossible to be completely accurate and always missing at least some minimal element of the original “document.” Simultaneously, translation is also an act of faith, expressing the hope that though the language might be different, the core message of the original can still be shared and understood.

With those words still echoing, this weekend, a friend of mine came to LA to attend a wedding, and crashed on our futon during his trip. Three years ago, we both lived in Israel for the year, studied together and spent a lot of time exploring Jerusalem and each other’s music collections; the only time I have seen him post-Israel was his wedding. Since then, we have both experienced major changes in our lives, most significantly that we have both become fathers. Going into this weekend, I couldn’t help wondering: “Are we still really friends?” Fortunately, the answer has been an unequivocal yes. We’ve enjoyed catching up and have been completely comfortable with each other, despite the very different parameters of our lives.

It would seem surprising that this is possible- our lives aren’t the same, so aren’t we different too? In one sense, that’s true, but once a translator knows how to move through a text, that skill remains. I’m still able to translate my experiences to him, and vice versa, through the shared language we’ve developed. True, the communication isn’t perfect, but that’s overridden by the joy of recognizing another with whom my internal life can become external, a partner in the experience of sharing selves. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” I need to have a clear sense of who I am. “If I am only for myself, what am I?” If I don’t make the effort to translate that experience, I will be isolated and alone. “If not now, when?” In each moment, the potential for translation and, in turn, connection is there.

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