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A Mistranslation Thanksgiving: From Waltham to Plymouth
December 10, 2010 - By: - In: In the News / Awards - 13 comments

The last of the turkey was sandwiched weeks ago, the pumpkin pie long gone moldy in the back of the fridge, but I just can’t get out of the Thanksgiving spirit.

That’s what happens when you write long and late like I do. . .

But now that the dust has settled on the ruins of war-torn Berlin and the American Translators Association conference in Denver, discussed in my last two posts, it’s time to talk turkey about Thanksgiving, late in the day as it is.

When Squanto came for dinner on that first Thanksgiving, regardless of whatever was going on under the table, and there was a lot of that, the central point of that feast was to put food on the table. In this age of abundance, sustenance is underrated because it remains the core activity for most of us, whether entranced by the screen and keyboard, slamming the horn behind the wheel of a taxi, or walking a beat, our very lives joyfully or grudgingly offered up for our families and our dreams. For me, there is no higher calling.

Thomas Merton said, “You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”

As I made the rounds this year before Turkey zero-hour, I was struck by the number of people I met whose holidays had been trashed by ridiculous Black Friday retail hours. Greg Richards, president of P.C. Richard & Son, a local retailer, was quoted, “There are certain things that are more important than money and one of them is family values. Retailers who choose to open show no respect for their employees and families, and are in total disrespect of family values. You wonder if the executives of those large companies are working on Thanksgiving. More likely they’re sitting home enjoying time with their families while their employees are working.”

Absolutely correct. But sustenance is a pretty important family value too. And that takes customers, paying on time, for which we must give thanks. I mean, much as you love your families, when was the last time you got a check in the mail from one of them? (I’m speaking from personal experience here; your own may be different.)  Yet every day, our mailbox is stuffed full of checks from people we barely know who place a high value on the work we do. For which we must give thanks.

And in turn, we write our own checks and send them around the world to all those who earn their sustenance in partnership with us. Commerce has a bad name in our age, but I’m Lockean enough to consider it a cornucopia rather than a curse. Profiting by it is no disgrace; but for all but a fortunate few, it is our highest calling. So for the companions in our company who put their shoulders to the wheel on our behalf, who keep the caissons rolling along, well, for that we must give thanks too.

It would be sacred if I wasn’t so profane. Look, those who know me know I try to drive a hard bargain, and I struggle for every penny on every word, same as the rest, and put as much in my own pocket as I can, but I am profoundly grateful not to be in the position of those of my competitors who must push their vendors and employees to outrage and enmity. Perhaps I do, but just don’t get the press. I don’t know. Most everyone tries to do their best by others, we witness it every day, and for that we must give thanks for the trustful bonds that tie us together in commerce.

Years ago, I used to teach English to these employees of an ancient kimono shop in the ancient city of Nara, Japan. After each weekly lesson, I would join them for their weekly dinner in the owner’s house (ancient of course). There is this kind of hum of infinite compassion about people from Nara, I guess on account of Tōdai-ji Temple, that I always found very moving, and thirty years later, I can still remember the kind affection shared across my boss’s oversized table like it were yesterday.

So here’s my belated Thanksgiving gift to you. Next time you pitch a client, remember your gratitude for all he or she has done for you. Next time you are having a “teachable moment” with a colleague, lower your voice and remember the sacred/profane mission of sustenance you share. And let your vendor take you out and give thanks when he grabs the check.

I want all my days to be Thanksgiving Day, and hope that all your days will be too.


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