A Sense of Wonder

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I happened to be "talking" with another friend in the translation business the other day (I say "talking" because we were actually emailing each other as time permitted, so a "conversation" might take half a day...), and we mentioned the words awe and wonder.

Neither is especially unusual... you can hear them all the time, in one form or another. "Awesome!" is pretty common on the streets, and the "sense of wonder" is one of my own key themes. But the way they are used today is a bit different than what they used to mean, I think.

Consider for a minute what awful means. And then ask yourself what wonderful means. Why the difference?

The Collins English Dictionary defines "awe" (the noun) as "...the feeling of respect and amazement that you have when you are faced with something wonderful and often rather frightening." Look at this quote from Mark Taylor's article about the 9-11 disaster, "Awe and Anxiety," though:

"the reality confronting us is not only visual but, more importantly, visceral. There is only one word I know to describe the response to what we saw: awe. A strange religious atmosphere pervades Ground Zero. There has been much talk about the role of religion in this conflict but very little understanding of what religion--either our own or the religions of others--involves. There are, of course, many gods and many faces of gods believed to be one. While religion often gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in times of personal and social crisis, its symbols, stories and rituals also carry people to the edge of life where unmasterable power always threatens to erupt. Religion is associated as much with terror and anxiety as with love and peace. For a few brief moments on September 11th, the veneer of security was torn to reveal a primordial vulnerability that neither defense departments nor advanced technologies can overcome. The encounter with this awesome power is a religious experience that leaves nothing unchanged."

This quote deals with a very modern situation – terrorism – but reveals quite nicely what "awe" really is. It is in a sense religious, but actually quite a bit more fundamental than that: it represents something outside our understanding, something big on a "visceral" level and incomprehensible, and for that reason frightening.

Wonder, on the other hand, is something outside our understanding or at least outside daily life, but not frightening. Remember the "Seven Wonders of the World"? Again, according to Collins English, "Wonder is a feeling of great surprise and pleasure that you have, for example when you see something that is very beautiful, or when something happens that you thought was impossible."

By now you're probably wondering what all this has to do with translation. Well, now that I've talked a bit about what these words used to mean, go back to my original point: the difference between awful and wonderful. They are generally used with quite different meanings in modern English, but fundamentally they are quite similar. They both refer to experiences outside our understanding, experiences that offer a glimpse of otherness beyond daily life.

The ability to capture awe or wonder in writing can make an author a master of the art. Expressing the wonder of a view or an event in a way that the reader can follow is the key to writing great literature. Last year I was lucky enough to watch the film Perfume, and was enormously impressed with how the whole world of scent, as a sense above and beyond what "normal" people use, was presented so that the viewer can really understand it. I haven't read the book it was based on, by Patrick Suskind, but I look forward to it when I get a chance. I suspect it will deliver the same sense of wonder.

No doubt this is why I like Ray Bradbury so much. PS Publishing in the UK has been putting out exquisitely-produced editions of some of his earliest and best works, like Dandelion Wine, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the same company also publishes Zoran Živković! No doubt the publisher, Pete Crowther, feels the same way I do about glimpsing "otherness" through cracks in reality.

And finally, to bring it all into focus by relating it to translation: The Vikings were awed by Thor chucking lightning bolts around, but we would probably find the image a bit amusing, rather than frightening. Many visitors to cathedrals feel awe at their surroundings, reinforced by the silence of the vaulting roof. Shrines deliver a quite different sense of awe, to me less of organized religion and more of saintly individuals. The point is, they are all different, and they are all so intimately related to our cultural backgrounds, and our experiences and beliefs as individuals.

Taking something as seemingly simple as a visit to the family grave on Obon, for example, could be astonishingly difficult to translate well, because what just about every Japanese learns in grade school and never has to explain – the awe inherent in a family grave and the Buddhist temple where it is located – are not mentioned in the text at all.

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