Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The silence of words

The other day, I mentioned that one of the difficulties of translation was that limitations exist both in the original and the received languages.

Our languages developed around our need to explain certain situations, feelings, and emotions. Thus, our cultural worldview of course has a major impact on our language. If we have a certain way of thinking, then we are likely to have many words for that idea; if we do not see the world in a certain way or experience a certain emotion, then we are unlikely to have very many words for it.

Today I ran across a fascinating psychological research project being done by Pei-Ying Lin. Lin has an interesting background, with a B.S. in Life Sciences in Taiwan followed up by an M.A. in Design at the Royal College of Art in London. Lin is using this overlap of skills to create graphics which show what I call "silent words"--words which exist in one culture but not in English. (Click here for high-resolution.)

For example, I note looking at her graphic that the Chinese have a much more subtle and nuanced view of the concept of "worry" than we do. They have a specific word which means "nervous worry because of not knowing what to do." They have a specific word which we would translate as, "worry mixed with unease, as though feeling your own heartbeat." They have another word which means, "A relaxed emotion toward everything due to accepting the facts rather than worrying."

Much like the Greeks had four words for the concept of love--and thus could be much more specific when discussing it--we struggle to translate the Chinese concept of worry into English, for they have a much more subtle and varied view of it.

I have also visited Denmark many times, and noted how fiercely they protect their quiet times at home with family. It turns out that both the Danish and Dutch languages have words (hygge and gezelligheid, respectively) which are more nuanced than any English word. These words indicate a combination of joy and comfort and love that one feels when cozy at home with ones family. We have no single word to describe that feeling (likely because our culture is much more individualist than family-centric).

The list goes on, often created by local cultural requirements. In Czech, where cell phone fees are excessive, there is a word which means calling someone's cell to ring only once so that they can call you back and thus save money on minutes. Brazil, with its focus on sensuality, has a word for "tenderly running one's fingers through someone's hair." In achievement-oriented Japan, there is a word which specifically refers to a mother's relentless push of her children toward academic excellence.

This works in reverse, as well. English has concepts which other languages struggle to define. For example, English has a very powerful word in the concept of "trade-off," where we must sacrifice one quality as a necessity to achieve another desire. Many other languages fail to make such a distinction. English has a concept of "privacy," which in collectivist cultures is simply missing; in Indonesia, the closest word is "loneliness." A British translation service says that "serendipity" is always one of the hardest to translate into other languages--the concept of making a discovery that one did not expect but which was nonetheless coincidentally fortunate is not something other languages can handle.

So imagine being a prophet or apostle. God inspires you with divine knowledge...and now you have to try to force that wonderful square peg into the round hole of your language. And then two thousand years later, we are going to again translate that square peg and try to make it make sense to an entirely different culture with a different worldview!

This is why I always encourage you to read in multiple translations--when you see how multiple people have tried to describe a passage, you start to get a sense of what the original meant...and therefore, what the Divine Word originally was meant to convey.

One great example, as shown in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, is Galatians 5:22-23, the famous "fruits of the Spirit" passage:

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law."

In America we see this passage and we all (me included!) make some very wrong language-based assumptions. In our language, the same word "fruit" is used both to indicate a single piece of fruit and, collectively, a large amount of fruit. So when we see a list of concepts separated by commas ("love, joy, peace"...) and they are called "fruit," we naturally read this as the collective version of "fruit."

In other words, we see this as the Spirit giving us nine unique, individual fruits. Love is one. Joy is one. Patience is one. And so on. This leads us then to analyze the list and see what we have and what we lack, and pray for those fruits, etc.

But it turns out that is not the case at all. Fruit is one of many words that act in English as both collective and singular nouns ("you" is another, for example); Greek, however, has no such convention. Plurality and singularity are described by the case of the noun itself. There is no uncertainty about whether a noun is collective or singular.

In Galatians 5:22-23, the word "fruit" is the singular word. Paul clearly and distinctly says that there is only one fruit, not nine. There are not nine signs of a Spirit-filled life, only one. It is a limitation of English which leads us to read this as nine different qualities rather than one.

So why does he list nine things if he means only one? Why does he specifically call this one fruit but say nine words to describe it? Because it is a limitation of the Greek that he had no exact word for what he was trying to describe. God inspired Paul to say that a Spirit-filled life looked a certain way, and he (Paul) had no vocabulary available for him to describe this concept.

Therefore, he strings together nine things which sort of explain it. The life of a person who is filled with the Spirit does things which can best be described as "full of something like sacrificial love-gladness-harmony with others-kindness-piety-loyalty to Jesus-gentleness-control of passion." He had no single word to describe this Spirit life...he just sort of "knew it when he saw it."

We are the same way. We Americans want a specific to-do list to decide when we are spiritually mature...but there is no such thing. If you want to know if you demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in your life, you need to ask yourself if there is some alien feeling inside of you which pushes you to be a person who could be described as "full of something like sacrificial love-gladness-harmony with others-kindness-piety-loyalty to Jesus-gentleness-control of passion." If so, then you are exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit; if not, then you are not.

PS--This is why I am very Augustinian when I interpret Scripture; by which I mean, I choose to accept a passage for what it directly, expositionally, says first...and only with great care am I willing to add interpretations based upon my worldview. I am very wary about making prophetical or "life application" readings into a text, because these come with your own cultural suppositions that might not be relevant to what the Bible actually was saying at all. This has led a lot of people to do things "in the name of their faith" that are in fact un-Christian at the core. That's why you have seen me before, and will see me again, ask if a certain interpretation is "necessary" for the text to be true. If not, I don't hang my faith on it.


  1. Great read. The always holding us back thoughts of "am I spiritually mature" has prevent a lot of needed mentoring from happening.

    Thanks for adding the PS, I agree and could not have said it better.

  2. Reminds me of Edwards in Charity and It's Fruits(and the concept of 'concatenated')- see last sentence:
    3. The different graces of Christianity are, in some respects, implied one in another. — They are not only mutually connected and dependent, and each promotive of the others, but are in some respects implied in the nature of each other. In respect to several of them, it is true, that one is essential to another, or belongs to its very essence. Thus, for example, humility is implied in the nature of a true faith, so as to be of the essence of it. It is essential to a true faith, that it be an humble faith; and essential to a true trust, that it be an humble trust. And so humility belongs to the nature and essence of many other true graces. It is essential to Christian love, that it be an humble love; to submission, that it be an humble submission; to repentance, that it be an humble repentance; to thankfulness, that it be an humble thankfulness; and to reverence, that it be an humble reverence.
    And so love is implied in a gracious faith. It is an ingredient in it, and belongs to its essence, and is, as it were, the very soul of it, or its working, operative nature. As the working, operative nature of man is his soul, so the working and operative nature of faith is love; for the apostle Paul tells us that “faith worketh by love” (Gal. 5:6); and the apostle James tells us, that faith, without its working nature, is dead, as the body is without the spirit (Jam. 2:26). And so faith is, in some respects, implied in love; for it is essential to a true Christian love, that it be a believing love. So saving repentance and faith are implied in each other. They are both one and the same conversion of the soul from sin to God, through Christ. The act of the soul in turning from sin to God through Christ, as it respects the thing from which the turning is, viz. sin, is called repentance; and as it respects the thing to which, and the mediation by which it turns, it is called faith. But it is the same motion of the soul; just as, when a man turns, or flees from darkness to the light, it is the same act and motion, though it may be called. by different names, according as it respects the darkness fled from, or the light fled to; in the one case, being called avoiding, or turning from, and in the other, receiving or embracing.
    And so there is love implied in thankfulness. True thankfulness is no other than the exercise of love to God on occasion of his goodness to us. So there is love in a true and childlike fear of God; for a childlike fear differs from a slavish, for a slavish fear has no love in it. And all these three graces of love, humility, and repentance, are implied in gracious childlike submission to the will of God. And so weanedness from the world, and heavenly-mindedness, do consist mainly in the three graces of faith, hope, and love. And so a Christian love to man is a kind of mediate or indirect love to Christ; and that justice and truth towards men, that are truly Christian graces, have love in them and essential to them. Love and humility, again, are the graces wherein consists meekness toward men. And so it is love to God, and faith, and humility, that are the ingredients of Christian patience and contentment with our condition, and with the allotments of providence toward us. Thus it appears that all the graces of Christianity are concatenated and linked together, so as to be mutually connected and mutually dependent. I proceed, then, as proposed,

  3. Thanks for posting this. It reminds me a lot, actually I'm praying for God's wisdom for being silent in my words. Because I want to change my words.