A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania

A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania

A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania

A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania

Synopsis

In early Pennsylvania, translation served as a utopian tool creating harmony across linguistic, religious, and ethnic differences. Patrick Erben challenges the long-standing historical myth--first promulgated by Benjamin Franklin--that language diversity posed a threat to communal coherence. He deftly traces the pansophist and Neoplatonist philosophies of European reformers that informed the radical English and German Protestants who founded the "holy experiment." Their belief in hidden yet persistent links between human language and the word of God impelled their vision of a common spiritual idiom. Translation became the search for underlying correspondences between diverse human expressions of the divine and served as a model for reconciliation and inclusiveness.

Drawing on German and English archival sources, Erben examines iconic translations that engendered community in colonial Pennsylvania, including William Penn's translingual promotional literature, Francis Daniel Pastorius's multilingual poetics, Ephrata's "angelic" singing and transcendent calligraphy, the Moravians' polyglot missions, and the common language of suffering for peace among Quakers, Pietists, and Mennonites. By revealing a mystical quest for unity, Erben presents a compelling counternarrative to monolingualism and Enlightenment empiricism in eighteenth-century America.

Excerpt

In a manuscript report written in 1819, Moravian missionary John Heckewelder (1743–1823) outlined a controversy among Moravian missionaries about which translation of the passion story from the Gospel of John should be used in the field: the translation by the late David Zeisberger (1721–1808) or a more recent one by Christian Frederick Dencke (1775–1838), who had criticized Zeisberger’s translations for inaccuracies in the Delaware language. Heckewelder had sent a circular letter to all missionaries and then summarized the responses. Heckewelder and his respondents credited Zeisberger with nothing less than the discovery of spiritual correspondences between the German and Delaware languages. Missionary Johannes Renatus Schmidt (1784–1852), for instance, argued that Zeisberger’s work was created “with much prayer and pleading to God, and under the guidance of his spirit.” Much like the ancient translators of the Septuagint claimed divine inspiration in translating the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek, Zeisberger’s followers asserted a similar rationale for a linguist they termed “the first, the best translator.” These and other responses harked back to seventeenthcentury linguistic projects such as Jan Amos Comenius’s attempts to create a universal language (panglottia) and the Rosicrucian claim to have discovered a new language. Heckewelder and other missionaries believed that Zeisberger had tapped into or even created a pure, spiritual language. in a new nation increasingly seeking to remove native Americans west of the Mississippi, Moravian missionaries such as Zeisberger and Heckewelder pursued a utopian program of linguistic and religious community building with and among Indian groups like the Delawares; crucially, their vision relied on early modern theories of linguistic and spiritual correspondences facilitated through translation.

1. John Heckewelder, “Pro memoria; an Br. Seidel gerichtet, nach belieben zu gebrauchen [Comments on translation of passion story from Gospel of John by Zeisberger and Dencke], May 9, 1819,”

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