Translation and the Gospel

A few years back, I read a really helpful article by a sociologist about different cultural communication styles.  Communicational norms were rated on two axes: direct-indirect and formal-informal.  The first axis (formal-informal) is mostly about structure.  Formal communication involves certain levels of decorum, contains some form of hierarchy, and moves at a slower pace.  Informal communication is freer and quicker, but it leaves a little more room for error.  The other axis (direct-indirect) has a little more to do with efficiency and manners than form.  A direct communicator says exactly what they mean, but it’s not always pretty.  An indirect communicator dances around the point a bit, but they don’t run much of a risk of offending anyone.

Everyone has their own expected style of communication based on the norms that they’ve worked within, but when we enter areas with other dominant communication styles, we have to pay really close attention.  It’s easy to misunderstand or be misunderstood!  An example that was offered up involved a German analyst that was working at a British company. His manager stopped by his desk one day and asked if he’d ever considered doing his reporting a little differently.  The analyst said no.  The manager gave a bit of a sigh and wandered away.  A week passed.  New reports were filled out.  The manager was back at his desk.  “Hmm, I really do imagine we’d all be able to read the reports much more quickly if the format was a little different.  Have you ever thought about that?”  The German admitted that he hadn’t thought about that before and went back to work.  The manager walked away.  Again, reports were filled out.  Again, they were the same.  The manager come to the worker and told him that he would have to be let go.  He was shocked!  Why?  The manager told him that he’d been asked repeatedly to change the way he was reporting and he had failed to do so.  The German was legitimately baffled and insisted that he’d never once been asked to change the report!  He’d only been asked if he had considered alternative methods.  It seemed like a really theoretical question to him, but to the British manager, he was practically barking orders.  The German was used to a much more direct style of communication (as Germans tend to be), while the British manager had a comparatively more indirect way of communicating (as is the norm for many Brits).  In this case, the difference in expectations cost the German his job.

Was the story true?  No idea.  It certainly could have been.  And I think it highlights how important recognizing communication styles can be.  Not that this particular model is the end-all be-all of communication styles.  There are all kinds of models out there.  This one seems considerably less arbitrary than some others, but I’m sure there are alternatives worthy of consideration and more axes you could add.  Either way, it made me think of my work in ministry and how I communicate effectively (or ineffectively) because of these expectations.

My speech style tends to be informal-indirect.  This was the dominant way of speaking in the region I grew up (central Ohio), and I think it’s relatively common throughout the midwest.  To us, informal language shows that you don’t think you’re better than anyone else.  You’re just a regular person trying to get a message across without any bells and whistles.  Formal communication seems comparatively stifling.  For example, when I worked in banking, I remember people sending e-mails that said, “Please advise on this project’s status,” and rolling my eyes.  They could  have just swung by my desk and asked, “Hey, what’s going on with this?”  I’m no grand vizier.  No “advising” seemed necessary.  As for the indirectness, it just seems so much more polite than the alternativve.  If you dance around the point just a smidge, you can say something without stepping on any toes.  For example, if you asked if I wanted a slice of pie that you brought over, I might say, “That pie looks phenomenal!  I wish I had room in my stomach, but if I ate one more piece of pie, I’d burst.”  That means no.  Further asking will not result in a new answer.

My move to Appalachia has thrust me into a region where the most common communication style is a little different.  The dominant axis of communication down here is informal-direct, and my words require some translating at times.  I remember someone asking me in my first few weeks if I wanted them to do some task around the church that I didn’t really want them to do.  I responded with the perfect informal-indirect response: “Gosh, I love your energy!  We need more of that kind of passion!  And you’re looking to address something that’s so needed around here.  My only concern is… is this the right time for that?  Because if we do the right act at the wrong time, it may well be worse than no action at all.  Why don’t we hold on that for a while and wait until we can really find that perfect opportunity.”  

The poor congregant just kind of stared at me.  “Soooo… you want me to do it next week then?”

Someone else in the room translated for her: “He says he doesn’t want you doing that.”

I was horrified.  How rude!  I didn’t say that!  I mean, I did, but I danced around and made it way prettier.  A “no” in such uncertain terms was practically a gunshot in my mind, but the congregant didn’t seem to mind.  “Oh, ok,” she responded.  And she went about her day as though nothing had happened.

There’s been a few occasions like that where what I say requires translation from a native speaker.  Which leaves me excited as I’m digging into Schleiermacher’s “On the Different Methods of Translating.”  This is a classic in translation theory and theology.  He opens by acknowledging that translation is far more than just switching one language to another:

Are we not often compelled, after all, to translate for ourselves the words of another person who is quire like us, but of a different temperament and mind?  …Occasionally we must translate even our own words, when we want to make them our very own again.  And this skill is practiced not only for the purpose of transplanting into foreign soil what a language has created in the fields of scholarship and the rhetorical arts, thereby expanding the horizon of power of the mind, but it is also practiced in business transactions between individuals of different nations, and in diplomatic exchanges of independent governments, in which each is accustomed to speak in its own language to ensure strict equality without making use of a dead language.

”On the Different Methods of Translating,” (ironically) trans. Waltraud Bartscht, Theories of Translation, 36-37.

Translation is a vast project of getting an idea to one person to another in a comprehensible way.  How do we do it well?  What are its boundaries?  And is he stretching the word “translation” further than it should be stretched?

There are massive implications here for our Bibles.  More importantly, I think there are massive implications for the way we share our faith.  Are we “translating” Christianity to each person when we share the Gospel, seeking to explain it in a  way that both honors the original intent, yet can exist within the region’s dominant social imaginary?  What constitutes a valid translation of the Gospel message and when has someone left the original intent so far behind to appeal to the dominant social imaginary that their “translation” ceases to be legitimate translation?