Lost in Translation


A while back I was wandering around a store with my daughter and I came across some toys that had some interesting descriptions on the packaging. One in particular caught my eye. It was a cheap Transformers knock-off. But you would never have known this from the glowing description on the box: “Simulating the true styles and making careful.” What?

I got to tell you, I found this bold assertion so funny I made an intentional effort to remember it so that I could write it down when I got back in the car or arrived back home. I figured that this mangled but amusing bit of syntax might come in handy someday. I could already envision the sermon title, “Lost in Translation.” Admittedly, we preachers try to be clever. That’s also why we like using alliteration to make our sermon points more memorable (so, really, it’s a mnemonic device, not just an attempt at being clever).

But reading that garbled sentence, it wasn’t hard to discern what it was trying to say. I gather that the product is being advertised as having been carefully and sturdily constructed (of cheap plastic, no less!) and that in “simulating the true styles” the manufacturer was either admitting it was a knock-off (it simulated the better constructed and much cooler Transformers) or was trying to claim that the toy would, once transformed, look like a realistic vehicle (or robot). I think. I don’t know. Who could make heads or tails of that poor grammatical construction?

One thing is sure: the English of the sentence is the English of someone who doesn’t know English. The phrase neatly placed in the corner of the package tells all: “Made in China.” So it’s true. This is not the English of anyone who has been through our public school system or to one of our esteemed institutions of higher learning (If so, the spelling and grammar might actually have been worse and made even less sense).

What’s interesting is that this Chinese to English sentence gets it right but so badly. I mean, we know what they’re trying to get across. More or less, anyway. Yet, enough has been lost in translation that it causes a little confusion, not to mention a good chuckle. The one responsible needs to sign up for an ESL class immediately.

To speak to someone in their language, you need to know their language, to have an intimate association with it. You can’t use one of those tourist foreign language phrase books that teaches you to ask where the bathroom is or how to order a sandwich and hope to have a meaningful conversation. Forget any sub-text, you won’t even get the text right.

And the truth is that you can even be speaking to someone for whom English is also a first language—your neighbour, classmate, or boss—and still find that something is lost in translation. You think you’re clearly communicating but all they hear is “simulating the true styles and making careful.” I’m sure the Chinese guy who wrote that description for the box thought he was communicating clearly too.

We all know that communication involves a lot more than words: there’s body language, tone of voice, facial expressions. A pause or moment of silence between words can hold just as much meaning as the words themselves. This makes communication—understanding and being understood—a subtle, relational reality. Those of us who are able to regularly finish the sentences of those close to us know this to be true.

If we want to understand someone, to communicate effectively with them, we have to get to know them, enter the world of their thoughts, get to know their world of verbs, nouns, and predicates. The same is true if we want to be understood—we have to let someone get to know us. We have to let someone else become intimately acquainted with our grammar and syntax, our particular colloquialisms. Language is nothing if it’s not personal.

The Gospel of John begins with some alarming words. Verse 1 reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And in verse 14 it tells us: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Only if we’ve become all too familiar with these words do we yawn as we read them. This is mind-blowing, earth-shattering stuff—that is, if it’s true, and the Christian tradition holds that it is.

This “Word” is described as both being intimately acquainted with God and as God. And this same “Word” is described as having become “flesh and lived among us.” Whoever this “Word” is, we’re being told that it took on body, blood, and bone. Somehow—mystery of mysteries—the divine became human, God became man. Or at least this is the claim at the core of the Christian faith.

These verses from the Gospel of John are essentially John’s Christmas story. He’s talking about Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant Rabbi that walked the dusty roads of Galilee more than two millennia ago. And what he’s saying is that this Jesus is the divine—God—become human. And in calling Jesus the “Word” he’s also saying that in Jesus God is fully communicating himself. It’s as if God is saying, “If you want to know who I am and what I am like, look at Jesus.” Elsewhere in the Bible we read that Jesus is the “reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3).

Like we want to communicate with one another, God wants to communicate with us. He doesn’t remain afar off, distant and cold, like a benevolent but indifferent being. What we have here instead is a picture of a God who is intensely interested in us—in having a relationship with us—to the point of becoming like one of us.

Many images of God fill our culture. Opinions vary because most people have one. But something is always lost in translation. Parts of the sentence are missing. The syntax is awkward at best. When it comes to communication between two human beings, there will always be some degree of miscommunication. Making sure that we do understand one another is always a work in progress to one degree or another.

But if we’re to believe or to at least consider John’s words about the “Word” and other biblical statements about Jesus, it would mean having to consider the possibility that not only does God try to communicate with us, but that he actually gets it right. All the parts of the sentence are there. The syntax is perfect, the grammar impeccable. And all of this is so because God doesn’t want us thinking “simulating the true styles and making careful” when what he wants us to think is that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). When it comes to communicating himself, we can be thankful that nothing is lost in translation.

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