LOST IN UNTRANSLATION

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When it comes to communicating with people with different languages most Scots belong to the “if you say it loud enough and repeat it often enough” the daft foreigner will eventually understand it school of linguistic theory. The number of us Scots who actually take the time to learn another language so that they can actually communicate with people from another culture is very small. We expect “johnny foreigner” to enter our culture and learn our language Now those of you who read my meandering thoughts and occasional rants will know where this is heading, straight to church.

I fear that for much, perhaps most, of our contemporary culture a great deal of what we say in church is like a foreign language. Yet we continue to believe if we just “say it loud and often enough” the sinners will finally get it. You see this attitude outside churches with their “wayside pulpits” which they think are communicating with the public but which joe public probably thinks may as well be in double dutch for all the sense they make. I saw one recently that proclaimed “REPENT AND BELIEVE THE GOSPEL” If I was a betting man, I would lay a wager that 9 out of 10 people who read that sign had no idea what it really means. But hey it made the people inside the church feel better, they were proclaiming the gospel! The best one I have ever seen was in Belfast it proclaimed in giant letters to the passing public ‘THE BRIDEGROOM COMETH” I dread to think what people thought that was about but I am suspecting it might have had something to do with Scandinavian pornography.

All joking aside, its difficult to overestimate the importance of this issue in Western culture. The words we within the Church use to convey the meaning of what it means to become and live as a Christian are largely incomprehensible to the average person in the street. We have got several generations now here in the UK who didn’t get the basic understanding of Christianity that previous generations did through attending Sunday School. Words like, salvation, repentance, faith, church etc are either largely misunderstand by the average person or not understood at all. Its no wonder people are not responding to the Christian message, the truth is they have no idea what it is. I really believe that our religious vocabulary is a major barrier to the growth of the Kingdom of God in our culture. I was in church a while back when we sang “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” I couldn’t help but wonder what somebody who had no previous contact with church thought that hymn was about.

Rom Martoia has written a book, “STATIC: tune out the Christian Noise ..” about how we might go about translating some key words and concepts from the New Testament in ways that would both be faithful to what the original authors meant and speak to our contemporaries. Its a good book in many ways, though Ron could do with learning a bit of self-deprecating humour as he comes over as a bit smug and “smart alecy” for me. Anyway its got me thinking about what words and concepts I need to work on translating for my culture here in Edinburgh. Here are two I have been musing on

REPENTANCE …. Would RADICAL REORIENTATION better express what the NT means here? The word repentance isn’t really understood outside church and inside church it is often taken to mean little more than regret. The NT idea seems to be about a change of thinking that leads to a whole change in direction in life. Repentance involves reorientating my beliefs, values and behaviour to those of the Kingdom of God.

GOSPEL … Gospel is a style of music as far as most of my contemporaries are concerned. Even if we use a literal translation, GOOD NEWS, I am still not sure that we are getting the impact that was intended in the NT. My suggestion here is TRANSFORMING MESSAGE. I am not sure I am all that happy with this one, but I am trying to get away from the idea that the Gospel is Good News, in the sense of a little story to make us smile and feel a bit better about life, rather than information which has the potential to radical transform us as individuals and ultimately all of our creation.

DISCIPLE …. One of the most important tasks for contemporary church is developing whole life discipleship and yet the word disciples is a word which is little understood even in the church. Most people connect it to the original 12 followers of Jesus rather than being the description of someone who is intentionally allowing Jesus to shape their lives by his teaching and example. With the current reemphasis on apprenticeships in the job market, would people understand discipleship better if we started talking about being “apprentices of Jesus”?

So what about you, what do you think?
What do you think of my attempts at translation?
What words and concepts do you think really need translating from the language of Zion? Any suggestions for your own translations?
What words in church confuse you or your friends?

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