This past week my friend asked me to help her translate the Bible verse God is Love into sign language. That sounds incredibly easy ... just three small words. Yet, there is a problem, and a rather significant problem at that.
In ASL (American Sign Language) there are no "be" verbs. For example, instead of signing "I am going to the store," you would sign "I going to store." In most situations, this method works out fine and the intended meaning can be easily understood.
Somehow though, God love didn't quite fulfill the message shared in that simple Bible verse. And Love God gave a totally different meaning to the scripture, even if it was no less important. My friend discussed the possibility of using the word equal in place of is, but we questioned if the phrase God equal love fully convey the message of the scripture? It was debatable, but in the end it was the best we came up with for signing that verse.
Fortunately, for my friend and I, this isn't an extremely serious communication problem. We are both hearing people teaching a class full of hearing pupils. Our sign language class is part of a homeschool co-op and is being taught to 3rd-6th graders who want to know more about how to sign. These children can hear us say the words God is love and understand the meaning. The meaning of our words won't be lost in translation.
When we translate words, we put them in another language, or if possibly restating in the same language using different words so that the message is better explained. Either way, the point of translation is to find another way of getting the meaning across to the listener or reader. If I want to translate my words into Spanish or French or German or sign language, I might have to settle for words that just closely mean what I'm saying. There will be nuances of subtle differences. And for the most part, I'm okay with that.
Still, for the past few days, I've been pondering about this idea of translation. Obviously the act of translating words from one language into another isn't an exact science and meaning can get changed or lost as a result. How does translating work when the stakes are higher? What if the group of children weren't hearing kids just learning a few signs but rather it was a group of deaf children in a Sunday School class? I would want to make sure that my translation of God is love was as accurate as possible so that I was conveying the full meaning with them.
I wondered how missionaries manage to explain God to someone who speaks a different language, especially to those in populations and people groups who have never heard of Christ and there is no Bible in their native tongue. How can you begin to explain God and who He is to those people?
Which brings me to another thing I've thought about many times, and that is the translation of the many versions of the English Bible? My Bible certainly isn't in its original Greek and Hebrew. Am I losing ideas or understandings about God which I cannot get from reading my Bible because of the process of translation?
The Bible is a different sort of book. It was written over the span of thousands of years. Many men from a wide variety of backgrounds helped to author the book, though in actuality the book has but one author ... God Himself. The Bible is part historical, part prophecy, part poetry and part law. Most importantly, the Bible was divinely-inspired by God and its words are like none other for they are living words.
Living words ... For the word of God is alive and active. Hebrews 4:12
Living words that reveal God to us ... He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Luke 24:45
Living words that imparts the truths of God to us and makes us wiser, teaches us how to live, ... All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17
Living words that do not change with time and last forever ... The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. Isaiah 40:8
Living words that change our hearts of stone ... Therefore lay aside all filthiness and overflow of wickedness, and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. James 1:21
Living words that heal our hurts ... This is my comfort in my affliction, for Your word has given me life. Psalm 119:50
Living words that encourage us to keep the faith ... Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4
Living words that remind us that we have a future in Christ ... They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy." 1 Peter 2:7-10
When I think about all of those truths, I truly believe that the words of the Bible cannot get lost, no matter how many languages into which it might be translated. However just for the sake of argument, I will ask that looming question ... What if? What if the meaning of the Bible was not accurately portrayed and something was lost over the past 2000 years?
Even then, we are without excuse for knowing God.
From the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse. Romans 1:20
Everything declares the majesty and glory of God. That's why God can never be lost in translation, as long as we are willing to just listen to His still, small voice.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Revelation 3:22