This Sunday, Eliza sat next to me in church. She normally attends Cathedral of the Resurrection, it didn’t come up during our conversation why she chose to come to Holy Innocents today. Her little sister attends Easter, I’ve actually been teaching her this year. The majority of the sermon was in Illocano, a dialect neither of us speaks well. As I said to her, I can understand about one word in twenty, and most of that is words like and, but, just like: words that give important linkages in a sentence, but which convey very little meaning. Between her understanding of Tagalog and the loaner English words peppering the sermon, we were able to get at the gist of the sermon.
This happens fairly often in the churches I attend in the Philippines. When a people are nominally tri-lingual, grew up speaking their native dialect and learning both Filipino and English at school, what evolves isn’t always one straight language. They code-switch, bouncing between languages depending on which language has the word that best conveys the meaning. If, like me, you are slow at learning languages without formal instruction, it can sometimes be frustrating to no longer be able to catch all the meaning present. It also gives me greater understanding of the fact that there are very often no good single translations of words, that one language can have a word where there is no concept of it in another language, and that these are the points where translation becomes a fine art, not a science.
But having been here, it makes me understand a bit more of the Bible and the New Testament. The languages of the disciples and Jesus would have been closer to the concepts of Filipino languages: Jesus and his disciples spoke a dialect off of Hebrew, and many of them could read written Hebrew. The surrounding cultures spoke Greek and Latin, and at least some of the disciples, and the apostle Paul, learned Greek to communicate with that wider world.
We do not ever have an exact Bible. We have a multiplicity of translations, and even the earliest versions are translations: the writers of the Gospels and the letters taking a Hebrew and Aramaic speaking Jesus and theology and putting them into a form a Greek-speaker will understand. There are words with subtleties of meaning in Greek or Hebrew that did not translate fully, there are still words we don’t understand perfectly because what they referred to is no longer a part of our world.
But as we keep translating, we re-discover meanings. Each time we have to play with the text to more closely get at a concept in a new language, we go deeper into the richness of the words we were given at the beginning of our faith. We can rejoice that the form of poetry the Psalms were written into can translate across all languages, based more in parallelism than specifics of rhyme, rhythm and meter. We can question again words, looking for translations that get across the poetry or the literal meaning or the sense, and recognize that you will not always get all three in one word or phrase.