God is Multilingual

The Last Supper with Twelve Tribes by Hyatt Moore Copyright 2001

Yesterday was Pentecost. It commemorates the following event, which happened after Jesus’ death and resurrection:

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment. Utterly amazed, they asked, “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”

Acts 2:2 – 4, 6 – 8, NIV

I don’t think the point of this story is that every Christian, down to today, ought to be able to “speak in tongues.” The point is that God does.

Although He first revealed Himself to a very specific people group in a very specific cultural context, God has given humanity His word in linguistic form and it’s capable of being translated into any language and culture. Those who have participated in this process will tell you that it’s delightful to see what each unique culture does with it.

Actually, the fact that translation is possible at all is sort of a miracle in itself.

Occasionally you’ll see an essay by an amateur philosopher of language which will try to argue — usually with a fairly abstract argument — that translation is not possible. Sometimes these arguments are logically perfect and very persuasive. And yet. Translation happens every day. It’s sort of like the (apocryphal?) argument that according to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee should not be able to fly.

Other times, someone will try to tell you that a particular word or concept from another culture is “untranslatable.” They will then proceed to explain to you what this word or concept means. In other words, to translate it. In these cases, what they mean by “untranslatable” is that you cannot translate it into, say, English with a one-word gloss. It requires a paragraph, or sometimes a story or a history lesson to give a full sense of the word. But it is still possible to convey, in another language, what the concept is, and once it has been explained, non-native speakers will understand what is meant even if you just continue to use the original, “untranslatable” word. Their argument that the concept cannot be translated ends up being a demonstration that it actually can.

The image at the top of this post is a scan of the front and back of a bookmark … which contains a tiny print … of a huge painting by artist Hyatt Moore. It shows a version of the Last Supper with the twelve disciples represented by a man from each of twelve different minority language communities. (Or, in some cases, countries. For example, Papua New Guinea is represented by just one man, but it has hundreds of different languages.)

God is the ultimate polyglot, and this painting shows a bit of His heart.

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