Better translations, please

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And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). This one verse in the Gospel of John reminds us, as we gathered in Austin for the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, that we are invited to continue God’s movement toward people by all means possible.  What Resolution A070 proposes represents this desire and it is a major opportunity for enculturation and evangelism for our multicultural, multilingual Church.

The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is a treasure chest full of devotional and teaching resources for individuals and congregations, but it is also the primary symbol of our unity. Armentrout and Slocum note in “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church,” that “Anglican liturgical piety has been rooted in the Prayer Book tradition since the publication of the first English Prayer Book in 1549.”

We, who are many and diverse, come together in Christ through our worship, our common prayer. The prayer book, most recently revised in 1979, contains our liturgies, our prayers, our theological documents, and much, much more. The different translations of our BCP have helped us reach out to many people of different languages, cultures and contexts and to be present in their lives in the different moments of transition. The different translations of the BCP have reminded us that Jesus, whom we worship, was born into a specific culture of the world. In the mystery of his incarnation are the model and the mandate for the contextualization of Christian worship and the means we use to make it happen.

Contextualization can be truthful and well received only when we value and respect the other person’s culture and language, and we want them to be part of this contextualizing from their own perspective—not ours. This is why it is important that we translate our BCP into other languages. We want to open what has been given to us, but we do not want to limit it by imposing our own perspective and world view. A good translation is never a word by word document that is created apart from the context of those who are going to benefit from it. In contextualization, the fundamental values and meanings of both the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement and the local cultures must be respected.

In a world where English is everywhere, some may ask whether good translations of our BCP are still important? While English is the world’s most commonly spoken language, that does not mean you can overlook all the people who do not speak it, especially in our Episcopal context where we meet more and more people for whom English is a second or third language.

Almost without exception, people respond better to the language they grew up speaking. To effectively evangelize, and to do it in a truthful way, it is not enough to speak a language that others understand, you must speak to them in the language their heart speaks.

There’s a reason demand for translation services is booming. While English has been periodically named as “the language of global business,” translation and interpreting services help the Good News reach people around the world. When we as Episcopalians talk of the Jesus’ Movement, we know that this movement cannot be limited nor contained. And this means the language in which this movement is embodied in the Episcopal Church must still be translated into other languages.

What’s the number one reason translation is so important?  It allows ideas and information to spread across cultures.  In the process, translation changes history and become an instrument of salvation for many people.

There’s no denying the power of the English language, especially when we look at second and third generations of immigrants in our congregations. That said, the Tower of Babel isn’t coming down anytime soon. Translation is important and will remain so for both individuals and congregations in the foreseeable future.

The Episcopal branch of the Jesus’ movement must use all means necessary to reach out those in the margins, those who are disconnected, those who feel not valued or respected. Better translations can help us reach out to many people whom we could not reach before. Fresh, more idiomatic translations will help us welcome everyone to intercultural and bilingual congregations here is the United States.

Victor H. Conrado is associate for ministries in the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago. He was a member of the Task Force for Latino/Hispanic Congregational Development and Sustainability.  

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