>The other night at the end of our monthly lectio meeting at my church one of the participants shared with us an insight she had while we were doing lectio on Mark 6:1-6. In our group we take turns reading the passage from different translations, to keep it fresh. She excitedly told us that these various translations reminded her of “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” – and that reference made me jump from my seat! She had broken through our near-Pharisaical search for meanings and caught a glimpse of the Living Word of God residing just below the text. In monastic circles we call that Contemplation, but it does not matter what you call it.
For those of you who are not Trekkies I will briefly explain that this phrase comes from one of the deeper Trek episodes – you can get a full rundown of it in various places on the web, including at Wikipedia. Very briefly: at the surface the episode deals with the problems of communication, especially intra-species communication, with Capt. Picard and an alien captain stuck together in a hostile planet where their only choice is cooperate or die. But how do you cooperate with someone whose language you do not understand?
This may seem a relatively trivial problem, but remember folks that this is the 24th century, and everyone has a “universal translator” which means, basically, that everyone speaks the same language.
I will stop for a second here to give us all an opportunity to remember for a few moments of greatness we all share. That time not so long ago when we build those towers. Symbols of our prosperity, of our greatness. Those great towers… Wasn’t that a grand enterprise? Weren’t we all working together? Weren’t we all united? Weren’t we all one? Minds and hearts and hands cooperating. Those were the good old days weren’t they? Yes, that summer in Babel was truly grand.
Forward 5000 years and we have perfect communications again. But this time you meet a race where your computer is incapable of translating their language. Inconceivable! The only thing that the alien keeps saying over and over is “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra” (trust me in the hands of a fantastic actor like Patrick Stewart this stuff reaches near Shakespearean levels).
Is language really translatable that way? When I say “I love you” would it be instantly translated into another language? I have a little book at my desk called “In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World” given to me by a dear friend and fellow logophile. The book lists hundreds of words which are untranslatable into English, or at least there is not a one-to-one correlation between those words and English.
I have personal experience of this. Having grown up in Brazil until my early teens, then living in England, and now the US I am the incarnate version of that little book. “Untranslatable” would be a great epitaph for myself. There is a very famous word in Portuguese which is often mentioned when discussions about translation come up. The word is “saudades”. This term could be translated as “longing” but only if you take the word at its broadest and most poetic meaning: a longing for both past and future, people, places and things, an “intense nostalgia” is what the book tells me. Most Brazilians will just shrug at that – “Come to Brazil, spend a summer with us, dance in the Carnaval, hang out in the beaches of Rio and fall in love with a beautiful girl and take a walk with her by the sea, sip some fresh coconut juice while holding hands and looking up at the Jesus statue at the top of the Corcovado, and then leave. And then I will call you in about a year and what you will feel – that’s saudades!” I think intense nostalgia does not quite grasp it.
And here we run into a fundamental issue of language, at its roots it is not made up of solid atoms of language stuff. Perhaps one time we might have fallen for that idea. Those of us who are avowed (or even born-again) Modernists think that language is made up of fixed signs. But the reality is frustratingly, beautifully more complicated. it turns out language, like atoms themselves, tends to dissipate into a cloud of metaphor when we look closer. For example when I mentioned the “meaning” of “saudades” in the last paragraph, what exactly does “meaning” mean? If you want “meaning” to mean one thing it will, and if you want it to mean something else it will too. Light can be both wave and particle – what you are looking for? What meaning are you looking for?
One of my (spiritual) mentors is the Mexican poet Octavio Paz. And as every other poet whom I have read or met, the metaphorical nature of language is of grave importance to him. He says “If we are a metaphor of the universe, the human couple is the metaphor par excellence, the point of intersection of all forces and the seed of all forms. The couple is time recaptured, the return to the time before time” (in “André Breton or the Quest of the Beginning,” 1967).
So here we are in the 23rd century, stuck in a hostile planet with an alien who just keeps repeating “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra”. There is an urgency in this. There is a life and death struggle here. What are we to do? How am I tell you you I love you? How am I to pray?
In the episode it turns out that the reason the aliens’ language that was untranslatable was because it was completely metaphorical. Once they uncovered the key to the alien’s metaphor (their religious texts – aha!) then Capt. Picard and the alien could begin to communicate. Trust me guys, this is worth watching, and even using in an adult Bible study group.
If you are like me you have at one point or another been asked, or asked yourself, “Is the Bible literally true?” Sometimes the emphasis is on the “true”, sometimes the emphasis is on the literalness. At that point you got to take a deep breath. Often I feel like the Pharisees who were asked by Jesus about the source of John’s prophetic gifts: if I answer “yes” then…on the other hand if I answer “no” then…
This is not to trivialize things, but I am frequently astounded by how many smart people have not really approached a book we call Holy without the appropriate reverence. I do not mean subservience, or even negative fear, but positive fear. Take that story, any story in the Bible, and read it with the eyes of a poet – what do you see?
Is the Bible true? Yes. Is the Bible literally true? Yes. It is absolutely literally true poetry. It is the only true poem we know. It is the clearest truth we have, perfectly metaphorical. I use the adjective “perfect” the same way my scientist friends use the term “absolute”. It is not a trivial thing. When you can grasp this, then perhaps the Truth of Christ can dawn upon you, and you might not be seen in public without your Bible any longer! You might just go home, no run home, so that you can spend a few precious minutes with these stories. You might just spend days marveling at “At the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was with God and the WORD was God.” You just might recite the Lord’s Prayer and realize that the Kingdom is coming thanks to your prayer!
Can we all speak the same language? Let the poet have the last word: “Today we all speak, if not the same tongue, the same universal language. There is no one center, and time has lost its former coherence: East and West, yesterday and tomorrow exist as a confused jumble in each one of us. Different times and different spaces are combined in a here and now that is everywhere at once”
(in “Invention, Underdevelopment, Modernity,” 1967).