Translation and Transliteration

In communication, there are two important concepts with implications for mission. Translation and transliteration.

Translation is the act of rendering a thought from one language into another. This is done in the delivery of a message from speakers of one language to speakers of another language.

I’ve often given my definition of the mission of God’s people as, “translating the universal, unchanging gospel of Christ into dynamic, fallen, culture.” I think it stands as a good definition and word picture of our efforts in mission.

mandela-gif-sign-language-edit-3411094For a translator to communicate a message across language barriers, he must be fluent in both the language from which the message originates and the language into which the message is being translated. Remember the sign language interpreter for the Nelson Mandela memorial who apparently didn’t know sign language? The deaf could not understand what was said during the service because the translator didn’t actually know sign language and therefore wasn’t able to, well, translate.

Translation requires more than just technical knowledge of both languages. It also requires that the translator be able to think in both languages well enough to communicate meaning in a way that is, um, meaningful. This is why Google Translate doesn’t make Bible translators obsolete– translators look beyond the words of ancient Greek to the meanings of the scriptures.

If the translator is not able to think in both languages, the best he can do is transliterate. Transliteration is the conversion of a word from the alphabet of one language into another. For example, if we were to transliterate the 5_i_love_you_large-300x168-2632840Russian phrase in the image (written in Russian’s cyrillic alphabet), into English, it would become “ya tebya lyublyu.” But this string  of letters from the English alphabet are nonsense unless we have some proficiency with the Russian language. We could then translate the phrase into the English language as, “I love you.”  (At least I think that’s what it means.)

We do this a lot in Christianity. Transliteration is why the word “angel” brings to mind naked babies with wings rather than royal emissaries. It’s why we call designated stewards in our churches “deacons,” and why no churches are called “First Immersion Church.” We’re left to differentiate between Apostles and apostles. Don’t even get me started on “amen” (the ancient word for “this prayer is over”).

Adopting these words from ancient Greek instead of translating them into English has created several problems for us. Firstly, we’re using words we don’t otherwise use in our everyday language. Secondly, it puts us in the position of having non-academics wrestle over the meaning of words from a language they don’t speak. Thirdly, because we never bothered to translate these words, we put off the burden of translation to those who come after us.  Ultimately, these words lose real meaning and become shorthand for a learned sentiment that we’re unable to communicate to outsiders.

If we continue with my definition of the church’s mission as cultural translation of the gospel, we can see that much of what happens in “mission” is actually transliteration of the gospel– technically, we’ve imported Christianity into local “languages and dialects” (or cultures and  subcultures), but all we’ve really done is take our words and put them in their alphabets.

Transliteration in mission means planting churches that aren’t connected to the everyday lives of those among whom we minister. Rather than think deeply about the gospel, we force them to depend on us for the meanings behind what we do. Sure we may make disciples in this way, but we only end up putting off the development of truly indigenous believers, instead making confused converts who then have a difficult time relating to their lost friends.

Translation of the gospel into culture is never “finished.” It’s the ongoing work of God’s people. This is the mission of the church. We must fight the temptation to simply transliterate the gospel because it’s more than a string of words; it’s Good News for all men of every tribe, tongue, and nation!