Lost in Translation

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages… — Acts 2:1-21

A friend once told me this story: When she was a teenager, her family took a vacation to Germany. They travelled from city to city, staying in little hotels along the way, but on one particular night they found themselves lost, driving around in the pouring rain looking for lodgings, while her father – the driver – became more and more frustrated. Frustrated with the rain, frustrated with the traffic, frustrated with his inability to understand the German street signs. Finally they somehow found their way to a little pension with a vacancy sign in the window, and so they went inside and her father stormed up to the desk and banged on the bell. When the night clerk appeared, her father said, slowly and loudly, “WE… ARE… AMERICANS.”

To which the night clerk replied, “Congratulations, sir.”

We live in a multilingual world, and in a multilingual world, if you want to travel beyond your borders, you have two choices: you can demand that the rest of the world speak your language; or you can learn theirs.

Anglo-Americans tend to choose the former. English, after all, is a dominant world language; pretty much anywhere you go in the world, you can count on finding someone who speaks some English. Which is lucky, because most of us speak only our own language. In Luxemburg, nearly every citizen speaks four languages. The same is true of Aruba. But here in the US, seventy-five percent of us are monolingual English speakers. Because why learn another language, when the whole world speaks yours?

Today is Pentecost Sunday. Each year on this Sunday we celebrate the birth of the church – the moment when the Holy Spirit first swept through Jesus’ disciples. The Spirit swept through like a great wind, like tongues of flame, bringing with it the gift of tongues. Not mystical tongues, not supernatural languages; but ordinary human languages. Peter and the other disciples – native Galileans, all of them – were somehow empowered to share the gospel with travelers from around the world, in their own languages. The Spirit’s first gift, was the gift of translation.

Let’s think about that.

I travelled to Ghana a couple of years ago, and while I was there I had the opportunity to stay with a local pastor, who brought me with him to his church on Sunday. This church met in a school classroom, the only room in the village large enough to hold the congregation. The service was conducted mostly in the native Ewe language. English is taught in school there, and many of the people I met spoke at least some English, but in these small village churches many of the older folks had not been formally educated. So I was sitting next to my host, enjoying the people, and the music, but understanding nothing of what was said. And then, about halfway through, the pastor leaned across to me and said,

“We have a bit of extra time today, why don’t you preach a sermon too?”

The next thing I knew I was standing in front of a group of friendly, welcoming, expectant people, none of whom could understand a word I was saying. The pastor stood next to me, and translated as I went. At least, I assume he did; I of course could not understand a word he was saying.

It was a slightly surreal experience. I had to let go of my sermon in way that I don’t normally have to, because I didn’t know, really, what my words would mean to the congregation — what they would sound like, in their language. And so I had to trust. Trust in my host, trust in my listeners, and trust in the Spirit’s gift of translation — the power of the Spirit to transcend boundaries that I could not cross on my own. So I stumbled along through my improvised sermon, and as I did, I watched the expression on Rev. Dzanku’s face, and on the faces of the people in the congregation.

And I had the distinct impression that his translated version of my sermon was way better than the one I was preaching.

When European Christian missionaries first travelled to Ghana, they too were confronted with the task of translating their faith into the local languages. And immediately they were faced with a theological dilemma: what was the Ghanaian word for God? There were, of course, many words for God in the Ewe language, but the missionaries were convinced that all of these native gods were at best idols and at worst demons. How could they use the existing native words, without validating the existing native gods? How could their one true faith be expressed in the language of a heathen race?

Or, as the psalmist once put it: How shall we sing the Lord’s song, in a foreign land?

If you want to be a missionary, you have two choices: you can demand that everyone else speak your language, or you can learn theirs.

In the 1800’s, the British colonies of Australia and Canada had policies of removing aboriginal children from their families, to be raised in government boarding schools where they would learn both English and Christian religion. Here in the USA, tens of thousands of native children were removed from their homes for the same purpose, and sent to the government’s Indian boarding schools. While there, they were forbidden to speak their native languages, even to their own siblings. By the time they returned home, some of them had forgotten how.

In a multilingual, multicultural, multigenerational world, we still have two choices: we can demand that everyone else speak our language, or we can learn theirs.

The former may be the American Way; but as the book of Acts reminds us, it is not the Christian Way. Christianity has been a translating faith, from the very beginning. The story of Pentecost reflects a historical reality of the early church. Jesus himself most likely spoke Aramaic; the writers of the gospels translated his teachings into Greek; these Greek texts were quickly translated in Coptic, Syriac, and Latin. True, they got stuck there, for a while, but were eventually translated, again, and again, into every language of the world.

In Islam, the only true Koran, the only true scripture, is the one written in Arabic, the language of Mohammed. But Christianity has no such claim to linguistic purity. Jesus’ actual, original words were already lost by the time the gospels were recorded. For us, the Word of God is not the biblical text, but rather the One whose story it tells. And that One is still speaking.

I understand the concern for authenticity. There have been mistranslations that have sometimes resulted in misunderstandings of scripture. We’ve all played the game of telephone, where messages get garbled as they are repeated from person to person; and those of us raised in the pre-digital era of dittos and Xerox machines remember when a copy of a copy was never as clear as the original. Our sacred texts and traditions are so important to us, it is no wonder that we worry that something might get lost in translation. But what if there is something to be gained in translation?

So what did I tell that welcoming congregation in Ghana?

I told them what the missionaries eventually figured out; that anywhere we might travel in the world, God has been there already. That when we cross the border, we do not bring God with us, but we find God there.

Preaching a way better sermon, perhaps, than the one we had in mind.

(from a sermon preached at Belchertown United Church of Christ on May 24, 2015)

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