This is my last semester at BYU–last week, actually–and as happens with any big change, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting and a lot of speculating about what the future will bring.
In my poetry class, our most recent assignment was to translate a portion of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which we’ve been reading throughout the semester. Though our class is anything but an Italian language class, our professor assured us that the task is, in fact, possible without a working knowledge of Italian. When explained, the task seemed simple: Find many different English translations of Dante and use those to get to the heart of what Dante might have been saying in his original Italian. Then, rewrite the passage in your own words.
I’ll admit–I plugged the stanzas I chose into Google Translate just to see what would happen. I was looking for some kind of “exact” translation of what Dante originally wrote, but what resulted was almost unintelligible. The nuances of language that come with poetry were not only gone–the resulting English was barely understandable, and I don’t think that Google Translate’s subpar software is entirely to blame. After searching around online, I finally faced the fact that there is no such thing as a perfectly exact, word-for-word, English translation of Dante. Dante’s text is made up of context and history and language that simply can’t be replicated by a translation machine.
So, I went back to searching for as many English translations of the poem as I could find, discovering how different poets had interpreted Dante’s masterpiece. Then, I set out to create my own. While the resulting stanzas may have been a weak attempt compared to the original, it was somehow more meaningful to me because it had been filtered through my own head and written by my own hand. While I’ve typically viewed translation as a strict process of trying to convey something exactly as it is in a different language, I learned that translation is better described as a creative endeavor.
As my poetry professor often reminds us, poetry represents life as it really is, and life as it really is can only be expressed through poetry. So perhaps, in some ways, my creative translation of Dante might somehow resemble what I’ll be embarking on as I face the changes that graduation will bring.
I’ve always found translation studies fascinating. When I was studying Portuguese, I was constantly translating from Portuguese to English and back again when I’d converse, read, or write in class. In my many English classes, we’ve talked about literary studies of translation and what it means to translate a work from its original language while retaining its core attributes. Ultimately, I think the question at the root of translation is, “What does it mean?” Once we can conceptualize an answer to that question, we can begin to turn it into words.
But I think we can expand the concept of translation far beyond language. Dean Scott Miller once wrote: “Translation is not just a verbal activity; the word ‘translate’ is rooted in the sense of something being ‘carried across’ from one place to another, and our lives are filled with such transportive acts.” I find myself “carrying over” events in my life on a consistent basis, always asking the question “What does it mean?” and trying to “translate” my life in small, yet meaningful ways.
Sometimes it’s a straightforward process, but life-changing events or decisions can push our abilities to translate to the limit. What did this experience mean to me, and how will it affect me moving forward?
As I’m approaching the final days of my time at BYU, I’ve been reflecting a lot on these types of questions. What does it mean to be a BYU graduate? What does it mean to have an English degree, to have studied humanities? What does it mean to have all of these years of schooling behind me?
Change and translation are creative moments. Both require you to discover new ways to perceive your environment, communicate your thoughts, and reflect on your past and future experiences. Moments of change are rich with translation opportunities–opportunities to decide what stays and what goes, to interpret events that span years or seconds, and to carry our life experiences over from one context to another (for me, from student to alumna).
Dante was first translated into English in 1782 and has since been translated into English by hundreds of different poets, now including me. And it will continue to be translated because there will never be a perfect translation. Poetry is life as it really is, and life as it really is shifts and changes as quickly as we can wrap our fingers around it. Translation is simply a creative means of harnessing some of that meaning and giving life to it with words.
While I’m not sure what life after BYU will look like, I know that I’ll forever be engaged in the work of translating the experiences I’ve had here to whatever comes next.
This essay was written by Heather Bergeson, a Humanities Center undergraduate fellow.
 Scott Miller, “Life Translated.” Fall 2020, Humanities magazine. https://hum.byu.edu/life-translated/