Maybe a month ago I am at a Bible study hosted by a handful of people I have come to love very much.
There is a moment when it is off-handedly offered that someone read recently in an article that biblical translators, facing difficulty in communicating with inuit peoples in Alaska, were having to be creative in translating some of the Bible’s phrases for a people group with no context to otherwise receive them.
What does Lamb of God mean to someone who has never seen or heard of a lamb, who has no concept of a lamb?
The translators settled on seal.
The Seal of God.
Seals are defenceless, as close to a sacrificial creature as the inuit group in question comes to understanding.
This fact comes up in the first place because we are discussing 1 Peter and have come to the verse about Satan being a roaming lion, another animal the inuit people did not have a concept of, so the translators had rendered it polar bear.
It is offered as interest, but it is by the majority received incredulously. It is not, if I am reading their faces correctly—and here I am becoming a translator too, and perhaps a poor one—it is not a faithful rendering of the biblical text. These are scholars of the Scripture. They are the ones who want to know.
The Lamb of God is a very different kind of thing than The Seal of God and the roaming of Satan as lion very different than as polar bear.
Everything is an act of translation.
We are constantly translating or mistranslating the Divine.
Maybe a year ago now, I was sharing a meal with a good friend and his family. They had spent much of their lives in Nepal, working as Bible translators, producing the Scripture for the first time in the unique language of the native people.
His grandmother was there, a woman who to think of is to think of slow and knowing grace, enfleshed, with a mind that pierces through all your own self-doubt and certain uncertainty and brings forth from you your truth, then leads it on the way to Truth.
“Did I ever tell you about when we were trying to translate the word for forgiveness?”
She asked this while passing the yoghurt for the curry. I told her no. She had, actually, and I don’t think she had forgotten that she had, but I wanted to hear it again.
“They had no conception of forgiveness. None. There wasn’t a word in their language that meant to forgive. They knew about retribution, about revenge, but not about forgiveness.” She leaned back in her chair. “But as we were talking with them, we came to understand that for them, to hold a grudge was to string a person up in their hearts. That’s how they phrased it they strung people up in their hearts.” She offered a small shrug. “So we introduced the concept of forgiveness as the act of unstringing a person in your heart. Loosing the chains. Freeing them.” She smiled. “So when they think of Jesus and His power to forgive, they have a visual sense, an icon that they were once strung up in the heart of God, but now they have been set free.”
She smiled slant. “And you better believe that changes how you think about forgiveness when you’re thinking about forgiving others.”
She’s right. I have never thought about forgiveness the same way.
The Internet ruined us.
For all the good of online community and online spirituality, it has most notably disturbed the fundamental good of regional and contextual theology. You can’t have the Seal of God when someone in white, well-educated, upper middle class America with a Twitter account can instantly denounce it as heretical.
Without regional identity or regional context, the listening for a common language is harder to do, it is harder to find the shortcuts that are still echoes of orthodoxy, or harder still to navigate the careful line between what may be right and true for the church and right and true for the Church.
There is, you know, a difference between those things.
I need myriad translations.
This past Sunday was Pentecost. Pentecost is the day when all the prepositions should be used. In the Incarnation, God is with and among us. But at Pentecost, God is not only with and among us, He is in us, He is through us, He is accomplishing by us, He is within us and without us, He is above us, below us, beside us, He is despite us and He is for us, He is past us and before us and amid us, He is around, between, beside. This is the day when all the words mean something new. This is the day when language itself may be called incarnated.
Is translation so different, after Pentecost?
When the gathered disciples were given those diverse tongues by which to proclaim the Gospel to those diverse peoples outside those walls, do you ever wonder what it would sound like in this language or that, how this word means this or these handful of words mean that. How it takes three words in Greek but one French?
I grant the belief that the Holy Spirit was inspiring them, but I have to marvel, a moment, that God should trust us in this: God trusted us with language and language about Him.
Isn’t that everything?
Do you ever wonder what language Mama Mary spoke in? I’ve wondered more often than not if it was the language of the first humans. She would be prophesying to the earth. The new Eve speaking in the words of the old Eve.
There’s no fact in that. But there is truth.
Good translation is still important. Not every translation is right or every context good. But there needs to be some room for the wild mercy of grace. We need to interpret well, but we also need to want to hear the interpretation. We need to be careful in the how, in the how we go.
And I am thinking here of ideals. And I am unsettled by how rarely we consider ideals nowadays.
Everything is not, in fact, terrible. Everything is not, in fact, gone to shit.
I am thinking of Maximus the Confessor.
“The three young men condemned no one, when they refused to adore the statue everyone else worshipped, … nor did Daniel condemn anyone, when he was thrown into the lions’ den—he simply preferred to die rather than offend God.”
“Aren’t we all working with seals and polar bears?”
She asks the beach this more than she asks me, because that is the way of her. We are walking down from a long lunch, along the grey of a Sunday afternoon, and I have told her the story about the seals and the polar bears.
“All our Bibles are translations, after all.” She stops me, taps me on the shoulder a few times. “Did you know that all the places in Genesis where it says ‘God will provide’ in English, it really says, ‘God sees’?” She shakes her head and we resume walking. “Something about how we can’t understand. We. Well, we want seeing to be about God providing for us, but seeing is more than that. God sees my neighbour. God sees tomorrow. God provides, but God provides in a way that bends the whole of the cosmos to the good He wills. It’s so much more complicated than ‘God will provide.’” She shrugs. “But do I get mad when they say, ‘God will provide?’” She is holding her palms out to me, open, welcoming. “No. Because God sees.”
We keep on after that in silence, along the beach.
The Lamb of God is a very similar kind of thing as The Seal of God and the roaming of Satan as lion very very similar to as polar bear.