The other day I found myself in the unexpected situation of serving as a translator in a coffee shop. The woman ahead of me in line spoke with a thick British accent, and since she was carrying her passport with her wallet, I assume she was a visitor with us. She asked a question at the counter which the young African American attendant, speaking with a strong urban dialect, couldn’t understand. I didn’t understand the question either until she’d repeated it a couple times. She was asking “Do you sell half bagels?”, but “half’ sounded like “hoff.” I finally stepped in to pronounce it with the flat, US southern sound we’re more accustomed to, saying, “She wants to know if you will sell “haff” a bagel to her.” Everybody smiled, and the transaction continued smoothly. I’d translated English to English using English!
Translation involves the intentional effort of expressing the ideas, feelings, and will of one person to another person across a language, cultural, or social barrier. When I served in South Texas I occasionally helped as a language translator for visiting mission teams as they explored work sites in Mexico. My Spanish is far from fluent, so I had to pay careful attention to those speaking Spanish to get it right for the English speakers and give careful attention to the English speakers to communicate correctly with the Spanish speakers. I didn’t want to further misunderstanding.
Translation is hard work. Do you translate the intention only, choosing your own words and expressions to make the thoughts known? Or do you translate literally, word-by-word, even if some expressions don’t make much sense across cultures? Translators have to focus on the speakers to know their minds and hearts. And they have to know the audience they are translating for in order to anticipate their context, their questions, their points of confusion.
We have inherited our faith through generations of translators. The scriptures we rely upon to reveal the heart and mind of God are the result of dozens of translations across hundreds of years. Moses was a translator. He translated the commandments and will of God for the people of Israel and for the Pharaoh of Egypt. The first disciples of Jesus were translators: they translated their experiences with Jesus into stories that carried the message of God’s grace to the next generation. The women at the tomb on Easter morning were translators: they translated the message of resurrection and new life to skeptical and unbelieving disciples. Paul was a translator. He translated the Hebrew-based, Jerusalem-centered stories and theology of Jesus to the Greek world and to Gentiles throughout the Mediterranean and across the philosophical and cultural divides of his day.
We find the ultimate example of translation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the life he led, the parables he taught, the people he touched, the forgiveness he offered, the justice he proclaimed, the sacrifice he made, the death he died, and the new life he gives, Jesus translated the heart, mind, and will of God for the human family. He became one of us to reach us with the grace of God.
Recently, I was visiting a congregation that offers an extraordinary deaf ministry. The director introduced me to some of the deaf young people, and then he took me to see an Eagle Scout project that was nearing completion. A young man from the church had made an exquisite full-size communion table, beautifully crafted and finely finished. On the front of the communion table there was a symbol engraved with a cross background. On the cross, where you might expect to see the body of Christ in a Catholic Church or a Cross and Flame logo in a United Methodist Church, there was a carving of a hand showing the sign language expression for “I love you.”
How do you translate the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection? How do you translate the meaning of the cross? Translators express the mind, heart, and will of one person to another across boundaries. I cannot think of a better translation than the one found in the engraving on the communion table: “I love you.” That’s what Jesus came to tell us. That’s what was on the heart and mind of God in sending him. That’s the story we continue to translate and re-translate in every generation through scripture, worship, service, sacrament, and teaching. Through the cross, God says, “I love you.”
Yours in Christ,