Lost In Translation

Lost in Translation

Some things get irrevocably lost in translation. Take this, for example:

Or - it becomes a problem.
When you see suffering Nobel
Bowler and has a half scandal
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And nothing, and end. Kufa - sleep -
No, we end up with a dream
I have a thousand people

Sound familiar? No? How about now:

To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them. To die – to sleep –
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to.

(Hamlet III.i.57-64)

Those two passages are the same thing – at least, after you run it repeatedly through Google Translate: from Spanish, to Japanese, to Russian, to Hebrew, to Swahili, to Swedish, Afrikaans, Zulu, Greek, Arabic, Norwegian, Icelandic, and finally back to English. The result is admittedly hilarious.

The confusion isn’t really that surprising. Google Translate can’t think like a human. It can never grasp what a passage actually means, and that prevents an accurate translation of anything truly complex or sophisticated.

But even with education and experience, humans don’t always fare much better. Ask any traveler or student of another language and they are sure to have a funny story of a time when their intended meaning was hopelessly lost in translation.

Despite these sometimes comical, sometimes serious barriers between different languages, linguists estimate that more than 400 modern language share one Indo-European root language. Though this language doesn’t exist today, elements of it appear in several language families .

Within the Biblical narrative, it’s easy to point to the origin of this confusion: the Tower of Babel.

In Genesis 11:1-9, the author provides an explanation for the diverse languages we see today. Years after the flood, the entire world speaks one language and is essentially united. The flood, however, is still fresh in their collective memory, and they are terrified that God will break his promises and they’ll be scattered across the world once again. They devise a plan: they’ll build a tower that reaches all the way to heaven, proving that they are no less powerful than God and providing a refuge in case there is another disaster.

In response, God divides their languages beyond recognition. They can’t communicate, they can’t work together on the building project, and they are scattered across the earth. The very project they conceived to protect them has brought about their downfall.

The reason that God gives for the division of languages is a fascinating: “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6). Is God afraid of human progress and power? Or is he hinting that their own hubris – the same desire to be like God that led to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden – will lead to their inevitable self-destruction?

One thing is certain: despite language and cultural barriers and repeated failure, people have not lost their vision of a united world. There are many contemporary institutions today that work to create some semblance of the world unity imagined by the builders of the Tower of Babel. Undoubtedly, the United Nations is the most famous. Opinions about the UN are mixed; some call it an important force for peace and human development, while others criticize it as being ineffective, corrupt, and biased.

After all, the Bible contains another story of diverse languages with a very different outcome. In Acts 2, upon being visited by the Holy Spirit, the disciples stand in front of the assembled crowds and preach about Jesus in every language spoken by the people. God has brought the languages back together in a single message: the plan of salvation.

How do we reconcile the Tower of Babel with the Great Commission? Can we reach the entire world without it being united in some way? Are some things meant to be permanently lost in translation – or can they be found again?

Talk Back:

  • Do you think God’s separation of the people into different languages was because of the irreconcilable divisions between them, or did his action cause those divisions?

  • Did God divide the nations because he was afraid of them? Why does he want to avoid a world where “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them”? (v.6)

  • What do you think of contemporary efforts to unite the nations? Do you think that they are doomed to fail because of the extreme diversity of people, as represented by different languages? Or do you think there is a way forward?

  • One of the by-products of a multi-lingual world is that the Bible was written in languages which most people today do not understand, and so we have to read it in translation. What is your favourite translation of the Bible? Why do you like it?

  • Read Acts chapter 2. What is going on here? How do the events of that chapter relate to the story of the Tower of Babel?


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