A recent trip to Central America and the annual celebration of Pentecost led me to reflect anew on the nature and practice of translation. Translation is a risky enterprise.
It is hard to translate well. There is more to translation than finding an equivalent word in another language. Translation requires more than dictionaries and verb charts. It requires a good ear, a quick tongue, fluency in both languages and a certain degree of sympathy and understanding of both cultures. Even then translations is difficult business.
The Italian aphorism states it well: “traduttore, traditore.” The translator is a traitor. The very translation of the phrase with the inevitable loss of the word play is an example of this maxim. It is simply not possible to translate something into another language without remainder or accretion. The act of translation involves an act of faith and hope; the core of the message will survive the journey into the foreign language. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does not.
Translations can be dangerous. The translation of “Messiah” into “Christ” unwittingly opened the door to supercessionism. Some of the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth century had to do with whether the Greek term “hypostasis” was translated into Latin as “substantia” or “persona.” Important distinctions can be lost. When I translate for English speaking teachers in Latin American contexts, I warn them that contrasting resurrection with resuscitation does not work in Spanish where the same word is used for both.
Translation is so difficult and treacherous that it might seem pointless. Except that I found Wesley in translation.
As a surprise convert to Methodism, my first encounters with John Wesley in church and seminary left me cold. I struggled to understand what this slightly prudish, Anglican priest had to do with me. It’s not that I was looking for teachers who were after my own image. I loved reading Augustine and was attracted by the clarity of Calvin and the wit of Luther. The problem was that Wesley seemed too much of an intellectual lightweight to make the journey to eighteenth century England worth my while. Not surprisingly, Methodism was my worst subject in seminary and my paper on Wesleyan-Catholic encounters was my lowest grade in my graduate student career.
After graduating from divinity school, I became involved in the translation of Wesley’s works into Spanish. As indexer for the fourteen volume series, I had to read carefully through many sermons, treatises, letters and journals, looking for key words that would help Spanish-speaking readers understand Wesley. At the same time that I was reading more Wesley than I ever had in seminary, I was trying to launch a new Hispanic ministry in my adopted hometown of Durham, North Carolina. The attempt of building Christian community among nominal Christians who were largely poor resonated with my growing understanding of the beginnings of the Methodist movement. Wesley’s approach to theology was “light” because in order to reach simple people nimbleness and humility are the order of the day. The gap between Wesley and me was bridged by the practice of ministry at the margins and also by hearing Wesley speak in my own native language.
Things can be lost in translation. The translation of John Wesley’s works into Spanish included very little of the Methodist hymnody. Partly this was an editorial decision, partly it signaled the difficulty of translating poetry into another language. Literal translations lose the rhythm and resonances of the poetic original. Lyrical translations lose the theological precision of the prose. The result was a prosaic Wesley that is only a pale shadow of the founding vision of the Methodists, which united prose and verse, sermon and song.
Things can be found in translation. In Spanish the first line of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing My Great Redeemer’s Praise” (one of the few Wesley hymns translated into Spanish) reads as “Mil voces para celebrar a mi libertador.” A line that resonates with fiesta and has more than a hint of liberation theology. Wesley’s Aldersgate experience is translated into Spanish as the experience of the “corazón ardiente,” the burning heart, which sounds hotter than “strangely warmed.” In both of these cases, I think that the translation improves the original.
Translation is risky business, but the risk and possibility of translation is intrinsic to the message of the gospel. The gospel rests on a massive act of translation. The word became flesh. God’s first language is Jesus, and the Holy Spirit can take any language, purify, and stretch it so as to be the bearer of a Word that not all the languages of the cosmos can contain.