Not lost in translation

From time to time, as a preacher and public speaker, I have to work through translators. Some translate in the background, through headsets or a special group that meets off to one side. Some stand next to me as I speak, and I pause every few sentences to let them work their magic. My words have been rendered into languages such as Mandarin, Korean, Indonesian, and Swedish.

I remember standing on one side of a podium, preaching to an audience as my host translated from the other side. He watched me intently as I spoke. When I paused for him to translate, he would launch — that’s really the word for it — speaking at twice the volume and three times the length, continually jabbing the air enthusiastically with a fist or finger.  Sometimes, the audience even laughed where I hadn’t told a joke.

Or at least, I didn’t think I had.

That’s when I realized: I have absolutely no idea what he really said.

At least none of the bilingual members of the audience ever told me that there was a problem. But imagine what it would be like to not need a translator at all to speak of God across the barriers of human language.

After Jesus’ ascension, on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came powerfully upon the apostles. As Luke describes it, they were all together in a house when the “flames of fire” (Acts 2:3, CEB) came upon each of them. At some point, they must have gone out into the crowded streets of Jerusalem, speaking in languages that were foreign to them — but not to the people who were listening.  Luke writes:

There were pious Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. When they heard this sound, a crowd gathered. They were mystified because everyone heard them speaking in their native languages. They were surprised and amazed, saying, “Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them? How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? …[We] hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” They were all surprised and bewildered. Some asked each other, “What does this mean?” Others jeered at them, saying, “They’re full of new wine!” (Acts 2:5-8, 11b-13, CEB)

The city was filled with Jewish pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Weeks. The apostles were loudly praising God. A crowd gathered; but as they listened, they became confused and then amazed. The accent of the men speaking clearly marked them as Galilean (as Americans might say, they sounded like “hicks from the sticks”). Galileans would certainly know Aramaic, and possibly some Hebrew and Greek. But the listeners heard them speaking in their own languages. How was that possible? What could it mean?

In the verses I omitted above, Luke makes a point of giving us a list of all the places the listeners were from: lands to which the tribes of Israel had been deported long ago, lands to which the gospel would spread, even Rome, which is of particular interest to the story Luke wishes to tell. It’s strange to think that all these place names would actually have been part of buzz between people who probably didn’t speak each other’s languages; I take it as Luke’s way of telling us who was there without breaking the flow of the story.

But the point, of course, was this: the moment the Spirit was given, the gospel started going out to all the world, as represented by the people who were present that Pentecost.

And all the apostles had to do was stand around talking about the power of God.

In languages they couldn’t speak.

It may seem obvious, but we have to ask: if God wanted people to see the power of the Holy Spirit, why this way? Why this miracle? Why not a manifestation of wind or fire, as when the apostles had the Spirit come upon them?

Let’s tackle that in the next post.