To complete my doctoral degree, I had to prove fluency in a foreign language.
The university offered a few ways to do this. I could have opted to take a set of rigorous classes to get me up to speed. Or, if I felt confident in my ability to self-study (and in my past foreign-language education, which had been stellar) I could simply speak with a professor about taking an exam to prove my proficiency.
I opted for the exam – which involved, among other things, the horror of translating an entire chapter from a stuffy and difficult Spanish nonfiction book within a strict and brief time frame. I somehow passed with flying colors, but when I received the translation portion back from the professor, I laughed.
My writing – which is fluid and conversational in English – sounded so formal and stiff en español. But that’s what happens when you’re not writing in your native tongue.
Think about it. When you walk out the front door with Fido, you might yell, “I’m gonna take out the dog,” to the family members still in the house. But that’s not the sort of English a textbook teaches. Rather, if we’re abiding by proper English textbook standards, we might say something like, “I am taking the dog out for a walk.”
The point here is that to understand a language – to really get it, all of its metaphors and nuances and idioms and the little subtle aspects of it – you need to be a native speaker, or at least a years-long speaker immersed in the tongue. Translation involves so much more than knowing the meanings of words from one language to another; it means understanding context, history, humor, nuance.
This is also the source of one of my greatest Christian frustrations – and assurances, too.
Because the Bible as we have it is a translated book. I don’t speak fluent Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic. I can look up the original words, sure, but that’s not the same thing as being fluent – as being able to read them in context with other original words, in sentences. And even if I was fluent in those languages, I wouldn’t be fluent in the same way as the people of the time period in which those languages were spoken.
It’s strange to me to resign myself to that – to realize that there is undoubtedly material in the Bible that I am not fully understanding to its entire capacity because of the inevitable translation gap, that there are nuances and meanings and probably jokes or puns or moments of cultural history that are shooting right over my head. Because I live to read and learn and know, and the idea of some part of the Bible being fundamentally inaccessible to me is a little daunting.
It’s also comforting. Because, even with that knowledge gap, God has provided everything I need to know to serve Him here. “Go into all the world,” Jesus said (emphasis mine), and He must have known that the world could not all or would not all forever speak Hebrew and Aramaic, or even eventually Greek. In the Garden of Gethsemane He prayed for believers He would never meet face to face, those scattered from country to country in a far distant future. I don’t know all there is to know in the Bible and I won’t ever fully grasp it, but Jesus anticipated that we would all know precisely what we needed to learn to find Him.
We see this illustrated in Philip’s meeting with the eunuch in Acts 8:34. The eunuch is reading Scripture, but he lacks the context to understand what he’s reading. Philip, starting with the passage he’s on, explains the gospel. The eunuch is saved and goes on his way rejoicing. We’re each given what we can handle from the Word; we’re each given what we need to know what matters. And though I long to know so much more than that – though I long to know everything and to understand it all, every bit, in every way imaginable that it can be understood, and though I lament I will never be a native speaker of those ancient tongues – I also know that the great message of God is so simple that it can be translated into every tongue without loss and without dilution.
What an assurance. And what a hope for the future, too. I don’t know what you hope for when you get to heaven – I think everyone hopes and dreams about different things. But what I long for the most is that understanding I can’t have here, the explication of the Word that has given itself to me: to know as I am fully known.
What a great day that will be. But for now, what we have is enough. It is simple and easy, for children and for fools, for the blessed, for the bold, for everyone. And isn’t that a great thing to think about ending the week?