Language is more than words.
Last week on Morning Edition there was a segment on the challenges of translating President Trump’s speech into a foreign language. American idioms like “showboat” are challenging to convey, for example, in Farsi according to Siavash Ardalan, who works as the BBC’s Persian service host. Ardalan says, “Literally, it – well, you could say attention-seeker. Then if you – see, that’s another problem because if you say attention-seeker, then that wouldn’t sound like Trump, would it? That’s not what he’s saying. He’s using a completely different term. So you have to use that street term as well. You try to look at that context and then translate it accordingly.”
Translation requires careful attention to context, both that of the speaker and the hearer. The implication, the tone and even pauses and filler words, which Ardalan says Trump uses a lot, must be considered and translated if the meaning is to be correctly conveyed. Confusion abounds when a literal word-for-word transcript is given and, as the phrase goes, something important is “lost in translation.” My daughter was trying to tell a friend from France who was headed to the zoo in D.C. to be sure to see the pandas. The friend didn’t understand so after some back and forth and some frustrating repetition, my daughter looked “panda” up on Google translate. The word in French? Well, it is “panda,” but pronounced differently. Proof that translation is tricky, even with something as simple as “panda.” Language is more than words, after all.
Language is so much more than words. Willie James Jennings in his stellar new commentary on Acts says this, “The followers of Jesus are now being connected in a way that joins them to people in the most intimate space – of voice, memory, sound, body, land, and place. It is language that runs through all these matters. It is the sinew of existence of a people. My people, our language: to speak a language is to speak a people.” He goes on to say that “God speaks people, fluently” and God wants Christ’s disciples “to speak people fluently too.”
The miracle of Pentecost is this radical joining of people. Jennings says this miracle isn’t so much about new revelation as it is about new relationships.
Those Jews gathered from every nation are hearing about deeds of power in their own language, as if these strangers from Galilee spoke each person’s mother tongue. It isn’t so much the message that they don’t understand, it is the meaning of this message being conveyed with every nuance of each one’s language from those they know don’t know them. The wind and flame, the words and speech patterns took everyone by surprise, disciples and gathered crowd alike. We don’t know each other like this. How is such immediate and full knowledge of language and all it entails possible?
I took Hebrew for about six months with a Jewish woman from South Africa. I loved her lilting accent. I took private lessons and I also took the beginning Hebrew class she taught at her synagogue. I was the only gentile in the class and even though all of us were beginners in Hebrew, I was way behind on everything else. On the evening the holiday of Purim was being celebrated, it was loud and rowdy in the halls outside our classroom. No one else even seemed to notice, but I couldn’t help but look toward the door wanting to see what was happening. My attentive teacher noticed me noticing the commotion and stopped the lesson to explain the holiday and why there was intermittent stomping of feet. No one else needed this translation but me. I could learn the alphabet and the vocabulary as well as anyone else in the room, but I needed much more help with the meaning, the context and the culture in which these words resided. Language is more than words and the miracle of Pentecost is much more than words, too.
The miracle of Pentecost is, as Jennings says, “a revolution of the intimate.” There is a knowing that occurs that opens the door to relationship – a Spirit-driven, Spirit-defined, relationship that transcends the barriers of culture and nation and language but does not erase their distinctiveness or importance. The Spirit celebrates the myriad of languages by speaking through them all – not forcing everyone to speak the native language of the apostles, but instead putting the language of others into their mouths and bodies.
That’s a miracle we need repeated in our time and place. When we pray “Come, Lord Jesus” or “Spirit of the living God fall afresh on me,” is that what we are really asking? The coming of the Spirit will put other people’s words in our mouths and other people’s cultures, too. Remember, before too long Peter will be eating foods he swore he never would. This Spirit-driven, Spirit-defined joining will not stop with other Jews; gentiles will be included, too. Are we open to speaking whatever people the Spirit sends and to whom we will be sent?
It may well be that the Spirit will place in us what culture, language or people we find most troubling, confusing or off-putting. The Spirit may well put their words and their culture and their customs in us so that we can speak of God’s deeds of power and Jesus Christ’s saving work in ways that will not be lost in translation. This means so much more than words, it means joining, joining until we don’t just speak the words but love the language and even dream in it with the old and young alike.
Theologian and poet Pádraig Ó Tuama tells a moving story in his book, “In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World.” He is Irish and lived for a time in Melbourne, Australia. He took a walk late one night, wandering the city in grief after learning of the suicide of a childhood friend. As he walked he says,
“I saw a man who seemed distressed. I stopped to ask if he wanted directions, and as he replied it was clear that he was Deaf. I owned a Sign Language dictionary and had perused it for years, and so I was delighted to practice my limited knowledge. He told me he was French and had only arrived in the city that day. … He was looking for the train station and I said to come with me.
“We walked, and I stumbled through his fluent language. He was happy to have met someone who could speak a few words of his language and I was delighted at the happy chance to talk. … When we said goodbye at the train station, he grabbed both my slow hands in his and I felt his warmth and fluency and we shared a joy of being human in the city.”
I feel like I am stumbling through God’s fluent language of faith. I want badly to connect, but often I feel foolish, especially with those who speak a different language. I don’t yet speak people fluently. Nonetheless there are moments, Spirit-driven, Spirit-infused moments, when I feel the warmth and fluency of being human and being siblings through Jesus Christ. There are moments of understanding and connection that both defy and transcend any words. That’s a Pentecost miracle, too. When we pray, “Sprit of the living God fall afresh on me,” we are praying to have the courage to practice speaking a language that sometimes makes us look and feel foolish. But when that lanugage is overwhelmed by the fire and wind of the Spirit, it somehow gets translated into new relationships. Then we know exactly what it means.
- Have you learned a foreign language? How did you feel speaking it? Or have you ever been in a situation where you didn’t speak the language? What was that like and how did you communicate? Did anyone help you?
- What people are we being called to speak in our context? What “languages” do we need to be open to learning in order for the Spirit to join us with one another?
- Imagine a gathering of Christians from all nations. What would it look and sound like? Would it be possible to have such a gathering in your community?
- Jennings says that as a result of Pentecost, we should be asking ourselves, “Where is the Holy Spirit taking us and into whose lives?”
- Read the passage from Joel that Peter quotes in his sermon. Notice how it turns the world order upside down. Read it again and consider who in our day and time are the people the Spirit is speaking to and through. Are we listening to them?
- Pray the breath prayer “Come, Holy Spirit” every day this week and pay attention to the images you see, the people you encounter and the conversations you have throughout the week.
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