Thursday, April 30, 2020

Transcending Mere Translation (A Musing)

A passage comes to mind when I ponder the nature and value of translation. It shows that there is a point in which we transcend mere translation. 

In his (sort of) autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes the experience of being tutored by William Kirkpatrick, the Great Knock, and particularly how Lewis learned to read ancient Greek literature in the original language. For those who have mastered another language, this experience reminds me of suddenly riding a bicycle without needing training wheels. In this case, it was "beginning to think in Greek."
"The great gain was that I very soon became able to understand a great deal
William T. Kirkpatrick (1848-1921)
without (even mentally) translating it; I was beginning to think in Greek. That is the great Rubicon to cross in learning any language. Those in whom the Greek word lives only while they are hunting for it in the lexicon, and who then substitute the English word for it, are not reading the Greek at all; they are only solving a puzzle.
The very formula, 'Naus means a ship,' is wrong. Naus and ship both mean a thing, they do not mean one another. Behind Naus, as behind navis or naca, we want to have a picture of a dark, slender mass with sail or oars, climbing the ridges, with no officious English word intruding." Oxford University scholar and writer C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (my underlining)
Last week I thought about translation as a way to frame how to bring together mainstream science and mere Christianity. To take the insights of science and translate them into a Christian framework is an art indeed. 

But here we see a higher stage. Translation might be necessary, but it isn't the final step--that is, to transcend translation means to think beyond the separate categories of "science" and "Christian faith" and simply to see them describing one reality and thus to see it all connected. 

This coming week I'll be published a Science for the Church newsletter article on our human drive we toward relationality as a profound and basic truth to which both Scripture and science point. In a word, we are made for relationships. But maybe "Scripture" and "science" aren't addressing different things that need to be translated into one another. As Lewis put it, the Greek word naus doesn't mean ship. They both point to something else. When Scripture tells us how we're created by the will of our Creator and when the relevant sciences essentially agree, translation is a great step, but there's something higher, even transcendent, beyond translating.

It might even be the way God thinks.

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