"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


lost in translation

I've been thinking about translation lately, and it's not just because I went to see my sister in Waco yesterday (although that was wonderful). It's not just because Betsy gave me a beautiful copy of a letter about Ann that included a John Donne quote on translation (although I'll definitely be sharing that quote later). And it's not even because I spent the whole summer jumping between languages, trying to find the right way to express what I meant (although that certainly has something to do with it.).

Translation is hard. It's difficult to convey meanings across cultures and contexts, especially when it really matters that you get it right. One of my good friends is a legal translator by profession. I can't imagine how difficult and stress-filled his job is - one tiny mistake could make all the difference in a multi-million dollar business deal, or in a criminal trial. If he errs up, the consequences are grave.

My sister is preparing for a career doing something even more challenging: translating the word of God. For the next few decades, she'll be in the middle of nowhere, learning a language spoken only by a few people, figuring out how to write it down, and then translating the New Testament into that language. Talk about pressure! What happens if you mess that up?

One of the problems my sister has been thinking about for years is how to translate words for which there are no words in another language, or words for which there is no meaning in another culture. What, for example, do you put for "snow" if you're translating for a desert culture, in which people wouldn't have a concept of what that is or what it signifies? Does "Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow?" make sense to a desert nomad who's never even seen a lake or other large body of water, much less ice? If you change the words, are you changing the meaning of the message? If you don't change the words, will you be speaking right past the people for whom the translation is intended?

I'm not qualified to answer those questions, but talking past one another is something I see Baptists doing all too often. By now you have probably read that some prominent Southern Baptist leaders have retracted their support for SBC Outpost, a popular blog whose discussions, these leaders feel, have become lacking in Christian love and discernment. Debates over every minute aspect of Baptistness you can imagine continue on the BaptistLife.com forums. Others argue over whether the BGCT is too liberal, American Baptists keep on discussing their reorganization, some Baptist churches are dealing with congregational insurgencies, and on and on and on. Some of these discussions are respectful and open, but far too many degenrate into name-calling, or, worse, into two-sided discussions in which both are so busy grandstanding for their agendas that neither is actually responding to the other. We have so many agendas to set in stone and nits to pick that we might as well be speaking different languages.

So many times I feel that we need a translator in Baptist life. I felt the same way watching the 2003 United Nations debate over going to war in Iraq. I was taking an international relations course at the time, and the stark contrast of the approaches to foreign policy we were studying were clear in that debate. Colin Powell made the Bush administration's case, the Europeans and others argued their positions, no one listened to anyone else, and off we marched to war. The message got lost in the trappings of diplomatic language and private agendas. They needed a translator.

What was needed even more, though, is someone who was willing to listen. You can't translate if you don't listen. It's so obvious, and yet so often forgotten when we are debating those whose points-of-view are radically different from our own. If you can't hear what the other side is saying, you can't translate it into something you can understand.

(No doubt there are some Baptists who don't want to translate, who don't want for us to understand one another, who see dialogue itself as compromise. I find those people sad, but if they're not willing to listen, there's not much to be done.)

For the rest of us, though, there is an opportunity. I've already written that the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant offers us a chance to reconcile. But it also gives us an opportunity to listen, and to maybe begin to understand the different languages in which we have been speaking to one another for far too long. What a testimony it would be if, just for a couple of days, we could manage to put aside our agendas, our cultural differences, and all the barriers that divide us. What amazing things we could do if we were united by the call to practice love for the oppressed and hope for the downtrodden. What songs we could sing if we didn't need a translator, but were instead united by the common language of our Lord.

I don't know about you, but I'll be there to try.


Blogger Gary Snowden said...

Don't know if you've managed to catch any of CNN's special the last 3 nights on the Armies of God by Amanpour. Tonight in her focus on Christian fundamentalists she interviewed Jimmy Carter and made reference to next year's Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant. They used some video footage of the announcement made about this several months ago that featured several well-known moderate Baptist leaders in the background behind Carter and Clinton.

Thursday, August 23, 2007 11:29:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

Gary, that's fantastic that the NBC is getting such good exposure. I really wanted to watch the series, but unfortunately my cable was only hooked up this (Friday) morning. I'm hoping they'll replay it soon.

Friday, August 24, 2007 10:11:00 AM


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