The Lesson of the Hummingbird
Years ago, I took part in a course on Voluntary Simplicity developed by the Northwest Earth Institute (www.nwei.org). One of the readings was “The Lesson of the Hummingbird,” by Eknath Easwaran. Below is an excerpt:
“Often, as I eat my breakfast, I see a flash of iridescent orange zip by the kitchen window and hover in midair at the lip of a flower. A hummingbird threads its long, delicate bill into the center of the flower, not even touching the petals, and sips its breakfast. A moment later it is gone, having drunk only what was necessary and leaving the flower pollinated. Precise, efficient, agile, respectful: I think humanity can find no better teacher in the art of living. To me, the hummingbird holds out a promise: this is how we all can live, gradually outgrowing a way of life in which we gulp down all the nectar, spoil the flower by pulling off the petals, and finally uproot the plant.”
When I read this, I found it very inspiring, and perhaps even a summary of my thoughts about architecture and sustainability. It combines beauty with efficiency and respect, suggesting we do only what is truly necessary, without damaging the environment. I like to think that my translation work is also “precise, efficient, agile, respectful,” and that therefore there is a certain beauty in it.
Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas
Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (born c. 80–70 BC, died after 15 BC), commonly known as Vitruvius, was a Roman author, architect, civil engineer and military engineer during the 1st century BC, known for his multi-volume work entitled De architectura, which is considered the oldest book written about architecture, if not the first. Vitruvius is famous for asserting in his book that a structure must exhibit the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas – that is, it must be well built, useful, and beautiful. If it is beautiful, but not useful, it is art, but not architecture. If it is well built, but not beautiful, it is mere construction, not architecture. And so on.
Shouldn’t this also be true of a translation? Well written, useful and understandable, pleasant to read? I think so.
Steen Eiler Rasmussen
Steen Eiler Rasmussen, Hon. FAIA (1898–1990) was a Danish architect and urban planner who was a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, and Visiting Professor at M.I.T., Yale, Pennsylvania, and the University of California, Berkeley. He lectured widely at universities in Europe and the United States, and was also a prolific writer of books and poetry.
Even before I started architecture school, I was told to read his book Experiencing Architecture (1959). In its preface, he wrote:
“When my previous book, Towns and Buildings, appeared, the learned English historian of architecture, John Summerson, wrote that the preface should have contained some reference to whom the book was written for. The reader should have been warned so that he would avoid being disappointed and annoyed when he discovered how elementary the book actually was. Therefore I now hasten to state that I have endeavored to write the present volume in such a way that even an interested teenager might understand it. Not because I expect to find many readers belonging to that age-group. But if it can be understood by a fourteen-year-old then certainly it will be understood by those who are older. Furthermore, there is also some hope that the author himself has understood what he has written -- which the reader is by no means always convinced of when reading books on art.”
Hopefully, that is also true of translators. I endeavor to translate, to the greatest extent possible, using words that will be understood by most readers in Spanish-speaking countries. If I don’t understand the original, I will ask and research. Otherwise, how can we be sure I got what the author meant?