On Translation and Trojan Horses

The other day I made a few comments about the use of jargon in church services and how it could be both helpful and unhelpful, depending on how we handle it. I argued that some jargon can be removed entirely, or translated. Other jargon is good to keep, but must be explained.

But today I want to highlight one danger, which I’m not sure we always appreciate when we begin the work of translation. It’s the danger of importing a whole range of meaning and assumptions with the new language that undermines those that were inherent in the original words.

Previously I argued that jargon words operate like suitcases. But the nature of a carrying device is that it can be used for transporting bad things as well as good (hence regular looking suitcases get destroyed in train stations all the time, for fear that they may contain bombs!) In these instances, the new words acts like Trojan horses, importing new levels of meaning and assumptions that may not have been present in the original word.

That may seem fine. You may not even notice. But a year, two years, five years down the track, the new word will be so embedded in your mind that unless you are careful you will cease to measure your decisions against the original word, and now measure them against your translated word, which may yield some unhelpful results.

Let me give you an example:

Instead of ‘spiritual gifts’ in our meetings, we have ‘contributions’. We use this language in our church all the time, and by and large I’m ok with it… but just unpack some of the assumptions for a moment.

Firstly, a ‘contribution’ is something that I bring to the proceedings. It comes from me to God. Or perhaps from me to the congregation, with a passing reference to God along the way.

A ‘spiritual gift’ or ‘gift of the Spirit’ is quite different. It doesn’t originate in me, but in the Spirit of God. So in a sense it’s not a contribution I make, but a contribution He makes. Reflect on these words from Paul:

There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit… To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.’ (1 Corinthians 12:4, 7-11)

Everything is Spirit-initiated, as he wills. Whereas ‘contribution’ suggests something that I bring to the table, ‘gift of the spirit’ rightly suggests that the gifts find their origins in the person of God.

Now of course, I don’t want to create a false dichotomy here, especially since 1 Corinthians 14:26 suggests that people do bring the gifts with them to contribute to the service. But I just want to highlight the subtle difference.

Secondly, they’re ‘gifts’. They’re not things we create of our own accord. Not payment that we deserve and God reluctantly pays us. They are gifts, for which we long (14:1) and which the Spirit graciously gives of his own free will (14:11). When we stop seeing them as gifts and start seeing them as commodities – or worse still hindrances – then we’re more likely to feel that we can take them or leave them.

Of course that doesn’t mean I have no responsibility for the way I use the gift! Paul writes a whole chapter about how we are to use the gifts responsibly, and we need to work hard to identify how the gifts can function best within gathered worship, and then train people to use them that way. But when we replace the language of ‘gifts of the Spirit’ with the more generic ‘contributions’ we risk turning 1 Corinthians 14 into a discussion on how we handle (control?) human contributions in worship rather than how we responsibly enjoy the gifts of God such that everyone gets to benefit.

Again, maybe a subtle difference, but an important one.

And again let me stress, I am not against the change in language. I find talking about contributions in worship far more helpful for my context. But in adopting different language I need to be careful not to import meaning that is the opposite of what the Bible intends. Otherwise I could easily find myself making faulty decisions down the line on the basis of language that I made up anyway!

What do you think?

  • Are there other examples that strike you? (I’ll start you off with another: Creation > Nature… discuss!)
  • Is there translated language that you have adopted and have you considered whether it carries the same assumptions and connotations as the original?

Image: Trojan Horse by summerbl4ck, used under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

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