So here we are at the Maryknoll language school in Musoma. It is one of two language schools that the Maryknolls, the first mission order to come out of the Catholic Church in the US, have established. The other one is in South America. This is our last week of language school. We have been here five weeks now learning about verbs, prepositions, conditional sentences, and vocabulary galore. It must have been somewhat of a success since Liz is speaking more Swahili much more comfortably and I am working on translating worship service liturgy without too many problems.
Having already been in Tanzania for three years several people have asked us why we are spending time in language school especially since we already speak more fluent Swahili than any of the people we are in school with and since I have already spent five weeks at this same language school in 2011. The answer is really best understood by these two quotes from Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture by Lamin Sanneh.
“Incarnation is translation. When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language.”
The idea that incarnation is translation is the ultimate recognition of God’s love for us. That we did not have to look through the obscurations of oracles, prophecies that no one can understand, or layers of man-made rituals in order to find the spirit and essence of our God. He brought himself down to earth as one of us in order that we may see clearly, understand clearly the divine message, and discern correctly divine action in our midst. In this way God made his own statement of the importance of receiving His actions and His message in a way we can understand, a messy, temptation filled translation of the divine into the human. So if God thought that translation was a necessary step in His self-revelation to mankind what should we as missionaries focus on?
“Mission as translation is something very different. It makes the recipient culture the true and final locus of the proclamation.”
This is a powerful idea for those of us that carry God’s message (though not God himself) into the world and into different cultures. If God brought himself down to earth in order that we may better understand as a human culture than we can do no less than bring ourselves to where others are in order to pass on this amazing message of a loving God. When we do this we must focus on what is most critical, which is not our own knowledge or specialty, but the loved culture into which we are stepping. We must come with love and humility and translate the message as best we understand it into a different place and culture. This includes by necessity a better understanding of the language and what it is really communicating. A great example is the way that Swahili speakers say that they have missed you. There is not really a word in the Swahili language, or at least it is not commonly used, for I have missed you. However, people readily say that you have “been lost” (Umepoteza) if they have not seen you in a few days. This indicates the power of relationships in this culture and the regularity with which people expect to see their friends, neighbors, and family that live around them. Upon reflection it shows a weakness of our language, and sometimes our culture, to use a weak word like “to miss” in order to show a lack of relationship with someone that should be close to you. This type of language understanding allows us to see and step into the communication of what is most important in the culture in which we live. This understanding allows us to better communicate the incarnate love of Christ for all of humanity.
This understanding also allows the incarnation to be not only explained in another culture, but also left in another culture. Once the translation is done the hardest step often takes place which is releasing the faith of our God completely from our hands and into the hands of others, not faithful just in their own righteousness, but with the same faith in God which Jesus had in leaving his disciples. The faith was not that God was just with him as the Son of Man, but that God would also, through His Spirit be with this new and infant church. We have to trust that God is not a God of the established church, but a God of all people and will equally bless any people that receive Him with a needed portion of His Holy Spirit.