Saturday, 11 September 2010

Notes from the Hall of Uselessness - words of adieu for a dear colleague on retirement

Next Tuesday my very dear colleague Rosemarie Dönch will retire, technically she doesn't retire until the end of the month but she has much deserved holiday before then. Rosemarie has been the WCC's German translator for 39 years and is like a walking terminology database. It is a little bit like having our dictionaries walking out of the door. Below is some of what I said at her leaving party. She herself wrote and read a lovely poem in French (the lingua franca as she said of our small and now smaller language service) and Theodore Gill also prepared a very funny poem which I'll share later.

While I was in London I came across the "Cahiers Series" from the American University of Paris center for writers and translators. I bought two of them as a small present for Rosemarie. The title of the first booklet became the focus of some of what I tried to say ... is our writing and translating just years of notes from the hall of uselessness ... perhaps ... anyway you can raed more about the Cahiers here and here.

“Notes from the hall of uselessness”

You and I know that
“Übersetzen ist wie dichten aber schwerer“

And I realised how true this is just trying to translate this one short sentence:
“Translating is like writing poetry just more difficult.”

I think it would be fair to say that most of what we receive to translate here is not very poetic but I also know that over the years some of the translation you have most enjoyed doing and coordinating has been of poetic texts.

For thirty nine years you’ve been doing this difficult job in this wonderful and difficult place, and as I consider that I say in French “chapeau”. I recognize the extraordinary discipline and attention to detail that represents, the years of discretion and humility spent trying to get a good German version out of other people’s texts (often, very often, improving the original English on the way). Today I want simply to say how much I admire your calm, rigorous professionalism, your staying power and also the pleasure you obviously have in doing an interesting job well.

When you leave we will all have to hunt high and low for quotations and footnotes, you simply know not only which assembly people are writing about but often which chapter of which report they are quoting from. I’m not sure how we’re going to cope. We always knew that you were irreplaceable now we have the proof.
I am however delighted that in recent years you have been able to train and share your extraordinary knowledge with a younger generation of professional translators particularly as we prepared the terminology project.

But at the same time as I say “chapeau” I also admit to wondering what it is that has kept you going over all these years and realized – perhaps rather theologically - that it was the word or rather words that gave you energy. Love of language, love of trying to sculpt accuracy and readability. Translating is both a skill and a vocation, it is sometimes frustrating but often both calming, satisfying and intellectually stimulating – we are always looking for the right word, learning new words. Translating keeps the brain young and I am sure that love of language will also be something that continues to give you energy in your retirement – though I am sure you will be delighted to never have to translate the changes to the WCC’s constitution ever again!

There is only one constant truth in translation – however well and however much you translate, people will only ever notice the mistakes!
I need to be careful how I put this - but I have a sense, based on several years experience now, that some German church people notice mistakes more … I think I won’t say more other than to add that I am glad that I have not been having to translate into the mother tongue of one of our general secretaries! Once more “chapeau”!

And now for the Notes from the hall of uselessness
The translator and writer Simon Leys (the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans) has put a name on his study door “the hall of uselessness” – saying something profound about keeping an essential humility about all the words we try to produce, all the translating and communication between cultures and ideas we try to achieve.

And at the same times as that reminder of humility I also wanted to give you something rather more transcendent, Translating Music by Richard Pevear, a promise that there will be time in retirement for new languages, new melodies, new words … the two books might encourage you to perhaps take up classical Chinese or Russian.

However today I noticed that you have renamed your office and have put the fire escape notice with your day of departure on your office door!

Hmm … we really do not want to see you go. Please come back from time to time, eat with us and tell us about the new words and worlds you are discovering.

May retirement bring you time for reading, for poetry, for writing and for many walks in the botanical gardens. Many thanks for your contribution to the ecumenical story.

Leb wohl liebe Rosemarie!