Leadership Scholars

“Lost in Translation”

By Amelia Britt

As a student in Divinity school, I spend a lot of time working with older texts written centuries ago in different languages. For Christians, we read from a text compiled, passed down, and edited over thousands of years. And our history of interpreting these texts continues to this day! One of my greatest joys in Divinity school has been the experience of reading the Bible anew. With new commentaries, new perspectives, and excellent professors as my guide, I have been able to see things in scripture that I completely missed before. Paying attention means I am able to rediscover the Bible again, and again, and again.

Amelia Britt

Following that excitement, I decided to take Biblical Greek this semester so that I could dive into the New Testament, originally written in Greek. As you may already know, Biblical Greek is a very specific language. There are word endings for different cases, different genders, and different numbers. The one word we use for “the” in the English language has eight different forms for masculine words alone! Then we add eight more forms for feminine words and another eight for neuter words. And all translate into our singular English word for “the.” So, when we read a sentence in Greek, we can learn a lot of details through the grammatical details that we might miss in our English Bibles. Even with these very specific details in the Greek language, we still have endless numbers of translations of Bibles today. And no matter what we believe about what biblical translations are best, we can say for certainty that translation really does matter.

But questions of translation aren’t just limited to our scriptures. Think about how many movies and shows have a plot based solely on a simple miscommunication. Two characters in an argument seem to always have that one friend in the middle who just can’t quite tell the story right, making the argument that much bigger and that much more comical. Even beyond screens, our own interpersonal relationships are filled with misunderstandings that can cause big problems if we don’t address them. A yawn from lack of sleep can be interpreted as disinterestedness in our friend’s long story about their new partner. While someone from the South hears “Bless your heart” as a derogatory comment, someone from the north might hear it as a sympathetic statement. We may be alarmed to hear a scream, only to realize that the person is laughing hysterically. 

In all of these situations, translation (or a bad translation) is at the center of communication. Both in verbal language and in body language, we often don’t get it right. We are diverse human beings that come from different cultures, experiences, and families that all influence the ways that we communicate. We all communicate differently. So how much information is lost in translation when we assume that our neighbors communicate in the same way that we do?

Instead of assuming, what if we took the time to learn one another’s language? What if we spent the same time scholars use in interpreting ancient texts for getting to know how our friends and family best communicate? We might learn that one friend who draws back from us is really in need of some emotional support (and maybe a good old-fashioned casserole too). We might see that the angry mom at the school board meeting is really communicating her fears about her child’s safety. As Baptists who center the Bible in our worship, we can use the same attention to detail we engage with every Sunday in the ways we engage with our neighbors the other six days of the week. Attention to translation doesn’t have to be limited to church or academics. We are called to love our neighbors, and to do so, we have to learn to hear their story, see their humanity, and learn their language. We have to engage in translation.

So friends, I invite you to pay attention to the ways that we communicate and the ways that our beloved neighbors communicate. Pay attention to the ways that we want to be heard and loved, and listen for the same from those around you. We all have different stories, and that means different ways of communication. As a community, we are called to listen intently for what our neighbors need, even if they tell us in ways that are different from our own language. Translation is arduous work, but if we listen closely, ask questions, and commit to learning, we can see our bible, our neighbors, and our faith with new eyes.

Amelia is currently serving as the intern for Baptist Women in Ministry of North Carolina. She is in her second year of pursuing a dual M.Div. and MA in Counseling at Wake Forest University.

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