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Caring for Words: Attend to Translation


The Spectrum blog book club is discussing Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans 2009), by Marilyn McEntyre, professor of medical humanities at UC Davis and the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. Our book club discussion runs from March through the end of May, with a week devoted to each of the chapters. A different writer is scheduled to introduce each chapter, and we invite you to join in the discussion.  – Scott Moncrieff

The sun twirls in through lace curtains next to Isoisoäiti (Great-grandmother) and Isoisoisä (Great-grandfather), who peer down at me from the wall. I rub my eyes and tiptoe into the kitchen, where I find my great aunt making a jelly roll. 

“Hyvää huomenta! (Good morning!)” she says. I am a bit timid, but say it back as she smiles widely. I have only ever known this woman as a visitor in my country, where she would make an effort to say “Hell-o” in her labored Finnish accent, and my sister and I would titter at the sight of her sunbathing in her undergarments. 

Now it is I, a fifteen-year-old Canadian just arrived for a year of study, in the humble role. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, in her chapter entitled Attend to Translation, writes, “I do believe that a part of our responsibility as stewards of the word is to make some sustained effort to step outside of our own linguistic comfort zone and really learn another language — not only for purposes of comporting ourselves respectably abroad, but much more importantly, to stay in contact with the complicating alternatives to our own linguistic window on the world and, by doing so, to cultivate the humility required to use words generously and well.”

Humility is cultivated when you realize, upon return from your year in Finland, that the grandmother you thought spoke simply and a bit heavily actually has a very quick tongue. Humility is cultivated when you find yourself no longer at the head of the class, but a Junior dunce at Chemistry, barely able to wrap your tongue around the word of the day: “carbonic acid” in Finnish (hiilihappo). Humility sits in your lap when you are part of a circle of people laughing their heads off at you-have-no-idea-what and you smile along so as not to look stupid, your wit in English of absolutely no use whatsoever. 

This lingual humility is to a large extent unfamiliar to Americans (and to many other Anglophones as well). McEntyre reminds us that “insulated on two sides by oceans and on a third perhaps by a historical attitude of entitlement, [Americans] are largely monolingual. This makes our use of language outside our own local and national contexts a serious diplomatic issue.” We are all familiar with stories of American folks traveling abroad, speaking more and more loudly to their foreign counterparts in hopes that the volume will help with understanding. It was amusing to me, on my first trip to meet my husband’s family in northwestern Spain, when his grandmother did the same to me in Spanish. I kept trying to come up with a polite way of saying, “Pipe down, lady, and talk more slowly!” 

The beauty, however, is that it doesn’t take a whole year abroad to reach out in neighborliness. If we are willing to be taught, McEntyre suggests, “Even to learn a few phrases of another language is to receive a gift and open a door of diplomacy and, more importantly, of mutual goodwill.” In most cases and places, there is much grace offered when we stumble through another language, instead of relying on someone else to interpret. This vulnerability and willingness to be the one at a “disadvantage”communicate amity and gift us with empathy.

Because my stepmother-in-law lives in Hong Kong, a bilingual country, I felt much more reluctant to venture away from English when talking with her. After all, she was much more comfortable in English than I was in Spanish, or so I thought. One day, however, I happened to muster up my courage and begin our conversation in her native tongue. She responded with delight, and I might add, with the beautiful fluency that I rarely got to hear when I insisted on her speaking what was a foreign language to her. She was in her element; an articulate and literary soul who impressed me with her speech. And what a relief it can be to speak your own language! So often, “the burden of accommodation rests somewhat unfairly on them,” that is, on those who speak ‘small’ or minor languages, or those not using their native tongue. 

If now I have spent too much time focusing on translation as it relates to international experience, let us not forget that “the business of translation — to make what is inaccessible available, to alter the terms of argument for the sake of being understood, to step inside others’ conceptual frameworks and systems of reference and meet them there — belongs to all of us, [emphasis mine]” says McEntyre. For some of us this means the often-fraught communication between man and woman, parent and child, or perhaps Liberal and Conservative. Certainly the ability to circumlocute, adapt language to the listener, and step into spaces of humility belong to all of us at different times and in different ways. 

There was decidedly none more humble than God himself, putting on human flesh to undertake the greatest journey of translation ever — that of communicating divine Love with humanity, both through the Word and the word. McEntyre writes, “Each time a translator picks up the ancient texts, God puts God’s word and self once again in human hands and submits to our care.” When we begin to consider the many languages, political landscapes, religious realities, interpretations, and commentary that bear “on every word, sentence, verse, chapter, and book of both Testaments [and]…In certain traditions in Judaism…on every individual letter” it can seem astonishing that God would even try.

But here we are, and the Scripture is still with us. God doesn’t seem to mind that we bumble through His language, that we’re way down the other end of the telephone game trying to make sense of things. According to our literacy, McEntyre says, “We are responsible for choosing the text that keeps us most mindful of God’s mystery and sovereignty, and keeps our hearts most open to the mysterious whisperings of the Spirit as they reach us through these heavily edited, much mediated texts.”

What a hopeful reminder, what a beautiful invitation. As we adventure into translation in different ways in our lives, may we be willing to be vulnerable, to allow love to guide, and to seek to know the person (or Person) beyond the words.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where do you experience “translation” most acutely in your life? How does this open you up and/or frustrate you? 
  2. In what ways does God speak your language and how do you try and speak His?

Sarah Fusté is a cheerful polyglot who once listed all the languages (her 12-year-old brain knew of) that she would have to learn to visit every country on the globe. Sarah studied Finnish at Suomen Kristillinen Yhteiskoulu from 1994-1995, later completed a BA in French through Andrews University, which included a year at the Campus adventiste du Salève and another at the University of Geneva. She then earned an MAT at Andrews University and taught French in the International Language Studies Department from 2001-2007. Her children, ages 2 and 5, are part of her current experiment in multilingualism, and have enjoyed French from Maman and Spanish from Papá since their birth. Sarah currently stays at home with her children in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Her writing has appeared in the MomSense magazine, the Spirituality section of the Spectrum blog, and Guideposts. She blogs at A Cup of Good Life. 

Photo: A picture of my Great Aunt Elna in her garden, August 1994.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies: Schedule Planner

February 24               

Why Worry About Words?

Scott Moncrieff, Andrews University

March 3         

Strategy 1: Love Words

Brooke Holland, Collegedale Academy

March 10               

Strategy 2: Tell the Truth

Beverly Matiko, Andrews University

March 17                   

Strategy 3: Don’t Tolerate Lies

Beverly Matiko, Andrews University

March 24              

Strategy 4: Read Well

Kellie Bond, Walla Walla University

March 31              

Strategy 5: Stay in Conversation

Mary Christian, Indiana University

April 7                       

Strategy 6: Share Stories

Jeanette Bryson, Andrews University

April 14                  

Strategy 7: Love the Long Sentence

Emily McArthur deCarvalho, University of California, Riverside

April 21                      

Strategy 8: Practice Poetry

Craig van Rooyen, San Luis Obispo, California

April 28                   

Strategy 9: Attend to Translation

Sarah Fusté, Berrien Springs, Michigan

May 5                          

Strategy 10: Play

Justina Clayburn, Andrews University

May 12                                    

Strategy 11: Pray


May 19                      

Strategy 12: Cherish Silence

Kristin Denslow, University of Florida  


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