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2012-07-01 issue:

In praise of translators

Global Anabaptism: Stories from the global Mennonite church

by John D. Roth

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In May, I spent nearly two weeks immersed in a profusion of languages—a wonderfully diverse, sometimes confusing polyglot of tongues that has left me marveling at the miracle of communication.

The encounter started May 17-20 with the Mennonitische Europäische Regionalkonferenz, or MERK (Mennonite European Regional Conference), in Sumiswald, Switzerland. Every six years, Mennonites from throughout Europe, speaking at least five different languages, gather for worship, workshops and conversations. Many of the nearly 1,000 participants were sufficiently fluent in two or three of these languages to forgo the headsets that provided simultaneous translation into Dutch, French, English, German or Spanish. But others listened attentively to the electronically mediated interpretations, nodding, pondering or laughing just a half step behind the rest of the audience. Our singing sometimes included verses in all five languages, and conversations between sessions unfolded in a beautiful cacophony of blended idioms.

Similar linguistic dramas unfolded during several days of subsequent meetings, first with the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) General Council at St. Chrischona, near Basel, and then at a gathering of international Mennonite educators at nearby Bienenberg. In all these settings, people from many different countries gathered to share their convictions, concerns, ideas and dreams. We did so in the naïve hope that we were indeed part of the same body, despite the fact that at one of the most fundamental levels of human interaction—meaningful speech—we were often not able to communicate directly with each other.

That our worship and conversations could go forward in spite of these linguistic limitations was made possible, in no small part, to the presence of gifted translators. For hours on end, a team of translators provided nearly instantaneous interpretations to prepared speeches and spontaneous discussions, adjusting to new languages on the fly as speakers from various countries went to the microphone. Though usually hidden from sight in soundproof booths, the power of the translators was immediately obvious on those rare occasions when something went wrong and a whole wave of people suddenly put their hands to their headsets and looked around anxiously.

At such gatherings, translators offer the church a profound spiritual gift. They must listen with acute sensitivity and empathy, attending to the essential meaning of what is being said. And then, in an instant, they reformulate that meaning in a new idiom. On the one hand, as faithful messengers in the service of other people’s words, translators are obliged to add nothing new to the message; yet without their capacity to reframe the message in words they invent, communication across linguistic groups becomes impossible. This gift of “double vision”—to enter empathetically into the reality of the speaker and then move graciously across the seemingly impermeable boundaries of speech and meaning into the new reality of the listener—is a small sign of the kingdom of God breaking into our world. It points to the miraculous possibility of unity even within the colorful variety of our cultural and linguistic diversity. It gives me hope that the vision of a global church, united by the koinonia of the Spirit, is a genuine possibility.

On the Sunday following the conclusion of the MWC meetings, the Christian church around the world celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Later that day, as we gathered for devotions, participants were invited to pray aloud in the language of their mother tongue—the language of their soul. One after another, prayers went up in languages my ear could not identify. Yet the shared tone of praise, vulnerability, supplication and intimacy with God was unmistakably familiar—a foretaste of the vision described in the Apocalypse of St. John (Revelation 7: 9-12) when people from every nation, tribe and language will be united around the throne of God in the offering up of their praise.

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