There is an Italian proverb: Traduttore, traditore. It means, “translator, traitor.” It is the observation that no matter how hard one might try, the translation of one language into another is never more than approximate: there can be no “literal” translation.
Every language is, within itself, a universe of relationships between words. There are shades of meaning and associations that simply cannot be moved into another language. When we study a new language, we learn vocabulary, but with the immediate betrayal of the words we want to learn. For, most often, we are given one, or two meanings in our own language to use in understanding. But the meaning(s) of our word can never be an exact rendering of a word in another language.
Imagine trying to translate a pun.
I came up with my first Russian pun recently. The Russian word for theologian is “bogoslov” (Bog=God, and Slov=word, or logos). The pun was to refer to myself as a “Blogoslov.” Russians sitting around in our coffee hour thought it was hilarious. The Americans didn’t really get it.
I love languages. I studied Greek, Latin, German and Russian when I was in college and added Hebrew when I was in seminary. The only thing I can approach having a conversation in, however, is German. And even then, it’s touch and go.
Most Christians live in a world of translation (we can’t all be Greeks). It is interesting that much of the New Testament is not written in very polished Greek. I know this as a second-hand fact. For, although I majored in the language and can read the New Testament pretty fluently, my reading is really not broad enough and deep enough to say, “This is less than polished Greek.” That is the sort of thing any English reader could quickly say about something written in English – even if they couldn’t tell you how they knew that.
And this last point is among the least translatable realities: a child has a “feel” for their native language that only the most fluent second-language speakers can have (and, even then, quite rarely). Those who learn a second language to the level of true fluency sometimes report a strange phenomenon: feeling like they are someone else when they speak the other language, or, a different version of themselves. The gestalt of a language is an inherent part of all that we call personality. Thus, the “other” personality is perhaps not surprising.
There is an even deeper reality about language: it is something we know by communion. At least, that’s the best term I can think of to describe that seamless aspect of our lives. We think with words; we feel with words. And though there are occasions in which our thoughts and emotions seem to lack words, we experience this as a great difficulty and words must be found.
Language is a very useful experience for thinking about true communion. We do not experience language as one thing and ourselves as another. It is part of us. My halting German cannot serve as a vehicle for communion. Flying to Greece recently, we picked up a load of Germans in Munich who were making their way South. In the seat in front of me was a three-year old girl, who quickly unbuckled and turned around to talk to this old man. I realized that my German was somewhere below that of a three-year old, though we laughed and she made fun of my “langer Bart” (“long beard”). My efforts were awkward and clipped. There was me, and there was the child, and my lack of vocabulary stood as an impenetrable wall.
Our faith is expressed in words (among other things). For some, though their own native tongue might be employed, theology and Scripture are a foreign tongue. For the words of the faith belong to a world and a reality that is not a universal experience. It is available to all, but only known by some.
There is a modern phenomenon described as “contextualizing the gospel.” It means paying attention to cultural patterns and to shape the gospel in a manner that can be understood in those terms. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea, and to be consonant with the ancient practice of the Church. But this concept is hampered in that it is employed by modernists. In the modern understanding, culture is neutral and all cultures are equal. In Orthodox practice, local culture has always been respected. It is frankly the reason behind “Greek,” “Russian,” “Romanian,” or “American,” Orthodoxy. Its most obvious application has been the practice of translating the Scriptures and the services into the language of a people. This has always been the Orthodox practice (versus the ancient practice of Rome requiring everything to be in Latin).
But there has always been a subtle “Hellenization” of every culture in which the Orthodox have successfully established the Church. Russians do not become Greeks, but Russian culture cannot be properly understood without seeing its roots in Christian Hellenism. The language of Scripture is Greek (and even the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT is seen as authoritative). All of the major doctrines of the Christian faith were articulated and explained in Greek. This is not a mere cultural artifact: it is normative for all Christianity.
If you are familiar with Orthodox Christianity and its many cultural expressions, then there is no denying the wide variety that can be found. But the core of what is similar can be seen for its Hellenism. As such, there can be no “modern” expression of the Christian faith, at least not in the sense that its terms and concepts will be those of modernity. Modernity represents an alien philosophy, or, rightly understood, a Christian heresy.
The faith not only has a language (with a decidedly Greek accent), but also offers the possibility of “fluency.” We sometimes speak of an Orthodox phronema (or “mind”). That phronema includes a fluency in the grammar of the faith. Not all will have the same sized vocabulary, but all will have one and the same “grammar.”
The translation of the gospel into a new culture (or a non-Orthodox culture), does not consist in changing the gospel to make it understandable. It consists in the more difficult task of embodying one and the same gospel in the flesh of a new language (and the fullness of its expression). With modern cultures, the task is made more difficult by the fact that modernity is post-Christian. It has many essential words drawn from Christian tradition, but it has changed their meaning to enflesh its own heterodox concepts. Thus there will be continuous battles over words in the work of re-evangelizing the modern world.
A number of key words occur to me that mean one thing in classical Christianity and another in modernity:
Of course, the full list is much longer. It is more than words – it is the very grammar of Christianity that must be embraced. Ultimately, the question will become, “Who is speaking whom?”