Lost in Translation
The other day I had an amazing day for my research. For three weeks, I had been trying to find the answer to a particular historical question. It seemed that no answer could be found. However, on Tuesday I discovered a tiny thread. I started to tug on it, and the entire thing unraveled. I found the answer and it will prove to be really good content for my thesis.
In the course of doing all this research, I have been translating. Not only that, I have been working on a separate yet related translation project. I am also doing some German language work solely to get better at it for a subsequent chapter where I will need to interact with a few German sources. All of this together (research, translation, and writing) has had me thinking a lot about language and how it functions. It also has me reflecting on how we lose a considerable amount of meaning in the work of translation.
Take for instance, Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics. Not many people would know that Bavinck wrote in at least seven languages in those four volumes. Some of it is noted and some of it is not. There are times when Bavinck decides to use German technical terms to make a particular point, yet often those words are translated into English without any mention, and the importance and specificity of what Bavinck is saying is lost in translation. There are other times when the translation is faithful to denotation of the text but the connotation is lost because it simply cannot translate into English.
Language can really only do so much. I can never translate exactly what the meaning of a text is because no two languages (no two words) correspond precisely 100%. Understanding this truth leads to an interesting theological question. If we can't translate with complete accuracy between two different languages, how can a created thing, such as language, be used to tell us about an uncreated God? Think about this, God, who is uncreated, uses created things to communicate himself to us (Rom 1; 2 Tim 3:16). How can those created things (words) truly communicate who God is?
Well, in an absolute sense our language fails us. No words can express with complete accuracy who God is. When we talk about God saying that he is our Father, a Rock, a Strong Tower, etc. we are speaking in analogy. We are taking things that we know, and saying, "God is like this." However, in reality we must admit that our knowledge of God is not God's knowledge of himself, but only a translation an analogy. Just like my knowledge of Dutch is not the same as a native Dutch speaker's knowledge of Dutch. This is not to say that our knowledge of God is false. Our knowledge of God is incomplete but not false. Just like my knowledge of Dutch is not false. I truly know Dutch. It is just incomplete. I need more time in the language to know it better, but I will never know it like a native Dutch speaker. My knowledge of God is incomplete. I will spend the rest of eternity filling it out and learning more because I will never know God as he knows himself.
Translating gets me thinking. I love the way in which I have to play with languages. I love having to ponder what the text is trying to communicate. I love how it pushes me to think about language's relation to theological discourse. Calvin put it best:
For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.