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The Art of Translation

There is something which I seemed to understand as a child but keep trying to ignore as an adult: the Christian life, for the casual observer, requires translation. Since I was raised in a tradition with a greater emphasis on separation between Church and world than I’m used to now, I expected people who weren’t Christians to see the world differently. I simply assumed that some of the things I did would appear foreign and require an explanation.

Recently, however, I was on my way to a fundraising dinner for a new boiler at our church and was shocked when a student remarked, “Man, I feel so sorry for religious people. They’re always being asked for money.” What?? I thought to myself. Doesn’t he realize that the Church is a family, that we’re taught not to see our money as our own, that this is as much about building community as it is about my pocketbook?

Mulling this over, I realized that there is a sense in which, as a Christian, I’m living in a different world from my students who aren’t part of the Church. As a kingdom-citizen, I’ve been called to see the world through different eyes, to subscribe to different kinds of goals and values which sometimes make no sense at all to the casual observer.

What I’m learning odictionariesn campus, however, is that it isn’t enough to believe in the coming Kingdom, to tithe my paycheck, or to submit my days to seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. No; the way we see the world as Christians needs to be translated. And, I hate to say it, but we “religious people” tend to be pretty sorry translators. You know those signs translated into English in another country which make no sense at all? I fear that, sometimes, our attempts to explain why we do what we do appear just as ridiculous.

Christian translators, in my experience, have the tendency to fall into one of two categories. Either they don’t actually speak the language of the listener and end up calling a bible a toothbrush, (and I’ve run into many of those in my day!) or they don’t speak their own language well enough to explain it to anyone else. In my hurry to avoid the former category, I have sometimes been guilty of pretending we all really speak the same language after all and no translation is required.

Yet as we approach the season of Advent, I cannot deny that I am speaking a different language from many of my colleagues and students. I declare that I am watching and waiting for the great Hope of the Nations, pushing off the whirl of the season to sit in silence with a pregnant Virgin. My Christian students join me just as they enter the busiest time of the semester. A new world is coming, we tell the world, one which was born 2000 years ago but will soon come in its fullness.

It makes no sense at all.

How will the world know of our great hope if we do not tell them? How will they hear us if we do not speak their language? Only the art of translation will welcome them home to this great story.

Allison Chubb

About Allison Chubb

Allison Chubb is a chaplain at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba and a youth coordinator for new Canadians in downtown Winnipeg. She is particularly interested in how youth engage what Robert Webber called “ancient-future worship,” those rituals of old practiced in a postmodern context where a new generation finds itself searching for rootedness. She describes herself as “paid to hang out with God and hang out with people.” On the side she loves to create by cooking, gardening, crafting, and balloon-sculpting.

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13 Responses to The Art of Translation

  1. It’s literally true, too. This week’s Agnus Day cartoon highlights your point: the sheep that usually doesn’t get it responds to “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares” with the question “what’s a ploughshare?” It’s not just theological language that is often inaccessible but some of the metaphors, too!

  2. We joined with the diocese of the Arctic this summer in celebrating their translation if the Bible. Last week I received a gift at the office: a package of all of their Inuktitut liturgical texts – translation of BAS Eucharist only just recently completed, others done in years past. Very cool.

  3. Allison Chubb

    Brad, that’s a good point! Sometimes the things are big and sometimes they are very small. I fear that, as someone who’s been immersed in the story my entire life, I sometimes miss what those things might be and find it remarkably difficult to explain them (even to church people sometimes).

  4. Allison Chubb

    Eileen, that’s one group of people where there are examples of both great enculturation and terrible translation. I love some of Bishop Mark’s stories about the early catechists who carried their prayer books everywhere and fit the Gospel in their own context. We should study those stories!

  5. Kyle Norman

    Wonderful post. I am reminded of a book I read a long time ago at the start of my ministry. I think it was called ‘Generation Next’ by Ron Martoia. It said that it’s all fine and dandy to feel that you have the right answers, but if you are speaking the answers in a language different than the questions being posed, then your missing your mark.

  6. Allison Chubb

    Sigh. Kyle, how often do we do that without even realizing it?

    • Allison Chubb

      Though I shouldn’t be all doom and gloom. There are some pretty exciting translation processes happening across the country! I’d like to see people share more of them.

  7. I am one of those tongue-tied translators. Sometimes when you are so familiar with something you forget that others don’t know what you are talking about. My heart is full of the gospel, but my tongue doesn’t know how to explain it. You are on to something, Allison, hope you go further with this!
    p.s. glad to hear you are doing well, we miss you at Wycliffe!

    • Allison Chubb

      Thank Virginia- I hope I go further too, because at the moment I’m stuck saying silly things that don’t make much sense 🙂

  8. Allison, well said ! You have a wonderful insight when you say “the WAY WE SEE the world as Christians needs to be translated”.
    As a back country traveller I know it is common for experienced guides to see things (animals in the distance, tracks on the trail, the best places to ford a river etc, and make sense of their significance) far better than those who are unfamiliar with the terrain. It takes time and effort (and desire to see) for less experienced trekkers to see what the guide sees.
    One of the problems with popular pluralism is that people don’t even try to see things from different points of view because we have been taught that every point of view is as valid as the next so, why bother? It doesn’t help that the teachings of Jesus did tend to turn this world’s values (perspectives) upside down. I don’t know if there is anything other than our own enthusiasm for what we are “seeing” that will motivate anyone else to even try “looking”.
    With reference to the electron microscope (Enrico Fermi institute) it has been said that “new ways of seeing allow us to see new things”. Perhaps helping someone become a follower of Jesus isn’t so much giving them (translating) new information as it is helping them learn to look at and see everything in a new way.
    I think the translation you are calling for is even more difficult than searching for equivalent words or concepts because, as you have hinted, many concepts in a Christian worldview only seem reasonable within the context of that entire worldview. And so part of the translation challenge is attempting to gain credibility for the value of seeing what is largely considered intangible and invisible or too “subjective” to constitute common ground.

    • Allison Chubb

      Thank you for those helpful analogies, Dell. That is what I’m thinking of precisely. It makes me think of Jesus’ words, “For those with ears to hear” (or eyes to see). But sometimes this can turn into arrogance on our part (“I have a special view of the world and am somehow better than you because of it”). Perhaps we fear being perceived this way (I know I do!) and so just give in to the myth of relativism which says it’s all really the same anyway. I’m not sure how to move forward between the two extremes, but perhaps naming it- as you have above- is a good place to begin.

  9. I agree. It seems most of us are apt to be turned off when someone says: “I can see something that you can’t!” even if they don’t add “nyah, nyah!”. We can actually diminish the desire and chances of someone beginning to see, if we make an issue of what they cannot (yet) see.
    Even if, as individuals, we don’t fully deserve it, the reputation for arrogance on the part of those who claim to know something about spiritual realities is a real part of the translation challenge you have identified. As a Christian apologist I hate it when the arrogant attitudes and arguments of others make my work even harder. (But perhaps others feel the same way about me).
    Having spent time trying to communicate across language and cultural barriers, it seems that translation functions when there is a desire to understand, but fails (naturally) when the is no interest or value placed in what is being said. One way I am trying to do move the work of translation as you say “forward between the extremes” is by using categories of Beauty or Goodness rather than Truth.
    With an either/or approach to truth, any lack is labelled as ignorance, error or deception (and who wants to admit to those?). But I think folks are often more willing to be led into an appreciation of ideals or values such as beauty and unity since they are considered “subjective” and can grow and change without having been “wrong” to start with. A person is less apt to be accused of arrogance for simply liking enjoying or appreciating something different. Perhaps here we work “with the grain” of relativism.
    So perhaps in translation of viewpoint we look for parallels (equivalents?) in what is already valued or desired rather than concepts that are simply “known”. In your original example about the church fund raiser perhaps it could be asked “Can’t you imagine something in your own life that you value so much that you really delight in giving to it?” I think translation works best by enhancing and building on what is already “seen” not by discrediting it for something yet unimagined. Even then I don’t think we can predict who will have “ears to hear or eyes to see” until they begin to report for themselves what they can hear and see.

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