How Translating Annie Dillard Helps Me Attend to a Dying World
Dillard stalked a world just beginning its freefall into an unprecedented amount of change, and her response was to look, and to look hard.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
And translating Dillard did require a kind of attention I was new to giving. Every other translation I had done was nearly second nature to me—I had grown up in both English and Spanish, and both languages moved through me like tides. A flood of English during the day, at school, would be replaced by the Spanish always lapping at the walls of my house, turning it into a linguistic island in our Boston commuter town. Translating into Latin, on the other hand, felt like walking into the wind, eyes watering. But every sentence that felt as solid and stable in Latin as it did in English felt like a step forward into unobserved lands.
I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.
Cedrum horti, ubi columbae insident, motam et transformatam vidi, quisque atomus cum flamma perstrepens.
When I translate from English to Spanish, I’m translating through time and space: the airplane that brought my parents to the United States before I was born tracking backward across the border, thinking about my great-grandmothers that never left the towns they were born in, never knew another language, my great-grandmothers that did.
I’m also usually pulling the text forward in time: from the Spanish of five, ten, one hundred years ago into an English of today. When I translate English into Latin, I am paring back language—not decades, but centuries—my family tree so far back as to not exist.
So as I ferried Annie Dillard’s anchorhold in Tinker Mountain back through the centuries to rest alongside an anchorhold in a church wall in medieval England, I thought about the world Annie Dillard looked out on in 1974, and the world I looked out in 2019, and the world Latin once described.
Translating into Christian Latin took me into the strange and deeply-felt world that medieval Christians occupied, humming under the surface with the mysteries of God. While many of those reading, writing, and speaking in Latin in the twelfth century were not primarily reliant on the land for their survival, they often led lives intimately connected to it.
Hildegard von Bingen, a German mystic and one of the few women who wrote primarily in Latin, wrote frequently about viriditas: the ability of the earth to sprout, grow, tendril in greenness, as intimately connected to the health of the human body. She drew on an understanding of the world as it was created in Genesis—that all things that grew from the earth, or crawled upon it, or flew in the heavens above, were intended for human use. The body was a microcosm of the earth, and health meant maintaining a balance.
By the time Annie Dillard began her long days of walking the land five hundred years later, pictures of our small blue marble from the first Apollo missions meant that our understanding of our place not only on earth but within the cosmos themselves was radically altered. You can see in Dillard’s prose her desire to pin the world where it is for one moment like a butterfly to a board. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek feels like one long attempt to connect a muskrat’s smooth back breaking the surface of the water for one strange moment to a single atom dancing in a square meter of void out in space to the breath of God as it moves in the world.
Dillard stalked a world just beginning its freefall into an unprecedented amount of change—not just climate change, but a change in understanding humanity, in understanding language and its place in the world—and her response was to look, and to look hard.
Reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I couldn’t help but become a pilgrim in my own time. The gift her attention gave—and continues to give—me was to render everything in my small corner of the world newly strange to my attention. That November, as I worked with Dillard’s translations, I received the gift of late fall in New England. Canada geese flying low over my apartments’ shared backyard, bound for a nearby pond. A loose litter of acorns crunching beneath my feet. A red-tailed hawk, impervious and imperious on the topmost branch of a pine tree, the standing puddles frozen over by cat-ice for the first time that season.
I took a class on contemplative prayer early on in divinity school. In a discussion on the role of the contemplative in modern society, one of my classmates suggested that it might be anyone, going through quiet and mundane tasks. She told us she prayed every morning and evening, not in a darkened room or a stilled church, but when she walked her dog, her attention at once inward and outward: her breath, and the dog’s, and sturdy steps through quiet wooded paths, an everyday walk translated into a conversation with God. I loved this idea, and so walking my own dog or moving between classes became an opportunity for contemplation rather than something to brace myself against. And the longer I kept my attention steady, both on Latin translation and the world outside me, I saw things I did not want to see.
My translation began to feel like a step forward into unobserved lands: a way of taking ownership, of making Dillard’s strange, casual, beautiful language and taking it prisoner in the strictures of Latin. Cicero, a Latin translator and statesman, described translation as an invading general, taking prisoners of war and colonizing lands in the name of empire. I was translating Annie Dillard for an empire of imagined purity, an English that came from the lingua franca of an empire, the language of the victors of history: the popes and the emperors and the statues, untoppled.
Outside, also, close attention unsettled me. I saw a squirrel, unsheathing the arm of a dead companion from its fur and nibbling at the exposed flesh. Dead robins and house sparrows and finches on sidewalks purple and bloated in the lawn. And in a way that I didn’t know how to name, the air, the temperature, the way one day slid into the next also felt wrong.
In the coming years, this sense of wrongness will grow. Crocuses will come up earlier, migratory birds will shift their patterns, settle in farther north. Some of these changes will be painful—the lack of tennis-ball yellow goslings on the pond because their parents were tricked into laying eggs early by a fleeting mid-February thaw, fall foliage will lose its brilliance, the landscapes we know will grow unfamiliar to us, either by the slow changes of moving weather or the disastrous resurfacing of ever-increasing fires, hurricanes, and floods. Other changes will bring us a strange kind of joy, despite understanding their implications. This year, I have seen more monarch butterflies passing through than every other summer of my life put together.
Occupying the world will feel more and more like observing signs and portents of what is to come. Lately, the omens feel biblical in scope: wildfires setting every tree in California aflame, a cloud of ladybugs so dense as to show up on satellite imaging, saguaros older than the border bulldozed to make space for a wall, spiny arms pointing towards a suddenly limited horizon.
Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells un-flamed and disappeared.
Paulatim lumina extinctus sunt in cedro, colores mortuus sunt, atomus inflagravit et evanescet.
In her essay, Weil goes on to argue that the same kind of attention that is turned to a difficult translation or to God in prayer, is the kind of attention turned to the suffering other. This attention, she argues, is nothing short of miraculous.
The miracle is in our desire to believe that affliction only comes down on the afflicted, a category separate and apart from us. Attending to the realities of climate change, the realities of a suffering planet, brings the same kind of deep unease. It may be happening, but not in our time, not to our beloved trees or our childhood beaches, to landscapes distant but not our own.
I imagine that [translation] is also what prayer might feel like, when it really works: like hearing a great resonant echo, tumbling down from the mountains to wrap you up
It’s not just attention that makes translation and geometry proofs one step on a ladder to God—it’s being confronted with your own mediocrity, Weil argues. Translation, especially this translation, was nothing but facing down my own mediocrity and fallibility. Every time I had to turn back to the textbook to figure out how to construct a grammatical structure or look up a word I knew I should know felt like a capitulation to all the hours I didn’t spend studying, to the simple mediocrity of not getting it despite hours of drills and pages and translations.
Translation also has the benefit of being an insurmountable problem. I can’t write as well as Annie Dillard in English, much less reproduce her language in Latin. No matter how much I revise and refine, there is still, and will always be, something that falls just a little flat, a gap between Dillard’s words and my version of them.
So why do it? Because when I’m translating at my best, I can make resonances between Dillard’s words and a long-dead language. Instead of being “utterly focused and utterly dreamed,” the Annie Dillard of the book can be standing on the lawn before her flaming tree, “radicitus focilata et radicitus somniata,” that is, dreamed and focused down to her roots, mirroring the tree.
I do it because this translation, like Weil’s geometry problems, has become a kind of spiritual practice. There’s a feeling in the best moments of translation of letting yourself sink into someone else’s ways of thinking, in broadening your horizons and giving yourself over to another person’s mind, of reaching beyond your own limits. I imagine that this is also what prayer might feel like, when it really works: like hearing a great resonant echo, tumbling down from the mountains to wrap you up.
I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
Campanam fueram per vitam meam totam, et numquam scivi hoc usque illo momento levatus et percussus sum.
In this time, climate change also feels like an insurmountable problem, a problem we cannot—or will not—solve because of our own mediocrity. We are too stubborn, too intractable, too attached to our cars and our malls, and cheap goods and food shipped from around the world, too set in our concept of the nation to collaborate with one another across borders.
Here in the United States, we know that it’ll be a while before we really begin to feel it. It won’t be until Bangkok is underwater, until droughts will have created widespread famines everywhere but here, that we’ll look up and realize that the suffering other is never just “other,” and that the damage we have sown is coming for us.
And so here we are, sitting on our hands at the end of the world, unwilling or unable to do anything to stop the oncoming storm. Paying attention now, when it is very nearly too late, may be the last chance we have to be struck once again, like bells, at the beauty and wonder of this world we inhabit, to learn how to mourn what we’ve scarcely been able to see.