This past Sunday I had an interesting event. We had a guest pastor who is a Bible Translator. He has a master’s degree in linguistics, and after church he gave a presentation. He gave several demonstrations. The first one, he put a familiar verse up but not all the words were in English. In fact, NONE of the critical words were in English. He was attempting to give us a feel for reading a passage in our own language but with incomplete translation. Some concepts do not cross language barriers well because of the culture, the idioms, the nuances of languages. Some words we assume are universal in meaning and they’re not. Explain Sin to someone. Good luck. Explain redemption to someone. How do you get across the concept of Heaven? The word choice has to be precise, but it may not be literal.
Another example he had was the familiar passage that quotes Mary outside the tomb. “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” John 20:13. That is fairly straight forward isn’t it? He explained. When the people of this culture talk about a person that has died, they say the BODY of the person. If you say they have taken someone away, that person is still alive. Then when the people of this culture place a dead body, they put it some place. If you say they have laid him, the person is still alive. So in these people’s minds, someone buried Jesus ALIVE! Yikes! What that passage means in this language is that they took the live body of Jesus, stuck him in a tomb and sealed it for 2 days, then someone came in the middle of the night and broke him out and he was still alive when they took him. That makes Easter a celebration of subterfuge, not a resurrection. This would be a monumental error for the translators!
Then the pastor quoted from a letter of John to one of his church leaders saying he could hardly wait to see him face to face. Well, in the Greek, it’s talk mouth to mouth. And if you say face to face in this African Culture, it means they’re getting ready to fight. In their idioms, it would be friendlier toe to toe. In ours, toe to toe sounds like the biggest boxing match of the century.
On Facebook, they were asking questions to determine if you were a true Nebraskan/Southern Belle/Texan or whatever based on your choice of words and pronunciation. If you ask for a Pop in some places, they will get your father. If you ask for a Soda, they’ll get you a box of Arm and Hammer. There are 500 versions of the English bible, each uses a perspective that modifies the meanings and implications of the verses. There was the Good News bible that used contemporary speech (which was new and exciting in the 60’s). There was the women’s bible, the gender neutral bible, the King James, the New International Version, the James Maxwell with leadership notes version…just about any version you wanted to make, and each changed the meaning of the verses ever so slightly.
Each business, enterprise, club, organization, congregation, group of people will have its own idioms, culture, and acronyms. It will have a culture-based communication system that may not apply anywhere outside of the group. You will get 2 different interpretations of the words “break down” to scouts and to truckers. “Sucker” means something completely different to a child than to a carny. “Hey Rube” might get the waitress’ attention when you want your bill, or start a riot at a carnival.
Be aware of the culture when you speak. Pay attention to the idioms and the slang. Listen and get clarification on the acronyms. Do not assume that your people are HEARING what you speak and when you are communicating with your coworkers, you must listen deeper than the cursory exchange of information to get the full meaning of the communication.