In a lecture a few weeks back, a student in great consternation asked the professor how an evidently smart and Christian man like Columbus could have approved of enslaving the Native Americans. What was up with that? Columbus was a Christian!
The professor’s response was very interesting. He basically said that despite all our education and literacy today, we still have a really serious problem with not being able to truly meet another’s mind when that other is separated from us by so many centuries and cultural differences. The professor held up his copy of the translation of Columbus’ log which we were all reading and pointed out that it was precisely because we were all reading Columbus in translation and in a mass-produced book formatted all neatly and nicely in crisp black letters on sparkling white paper, we just did not have the real insight into Columbus’ mind that the mere act of reading him seems to imply.
Columbus didn’t speak English. He didn’t think of Christianity the way we think of Christianity. He didn’t live in a world of democracy, capitalism, and industrial mastery of the external world. He sailed seas that weren’t even fully mapped – and indeed, couldn’t even in principle be fully mapped since at that time there was no way to determine longitude. Having lived only a couple of decades after the invention of the printing press, not just a book, but the very act of writing a record for others to read, were very different things for Columbus than they are for us. Indeed, his very mental picture of the world was radically different from our own, leading him to a radically different understanding of what he himself was doing than we, living 500 years later, think he was doing. All of these things shaped the original text of Columbus, written in late 15th century Spanish and conveyed a whole different worldview held by a man whose mind bore a fundamentally shape and texture than our own.
But this fact and its tremendous importance for how we view the past and our own relationship to it tends to be obscured by translation and technology. We pick up our nice, neat, pretty little translations in our $9.95 mass produced paperbacks, sit and read it in the comfort of our climate-controlled homes, in a culture created as one result of Columbus’ deeds, and just by reading the book we think we that because it’s all right there “in black and white” that we understand Columbus and his world. But we don’t – or at least, understanding doesn’t come that cheaply and easily. This is not to say, I hope, that some degree of meeting another’s mind is totally impossible. It is to say, however, that it just might be a lot more difficult than we tend to think it is. Translations and cheap books make it very easy to spot the cultural assumptions of other people who lived a long time ago, but precisely because we are us, our own cultural assumptions are not so easy to spot.