Speak, translate, apply
Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div, Ph.D.
Just the other day I spent 2 hours trying to understand how a sentence in German was translated the way it was into English. (There it is, my neglect of my German language studies.) I could not figure out how the sentence in German could possibly result in the sentence in English (yes, I cheated) that I was reading. Why, you might ask, since I already had the English did I care so much about the original German? There it was on the page in front of me already written. So, read it and move on, you might say. But I say, something important is happening here.
So, let’s think about this. A person writes a perfectly fine sentence in German. Someone thinks that this original sentence ought to be translated into English. Now, bear with me please, as we see an English sentence structure of “subject-verb-predicate” be the translation from a German sentence structure of “subject-predicate-verb.” Yes, the joys of the clash of languages occupied me for 2 hours just the other day.
This is what happens with the written word. Just imagine the many ways that the spoken word can be translated and applied. Back to my 2 hour sentence. It’s actual meaning conveys the idea that speech is the source of the words we use to assert meaning. And meaning, once asserted, can change in the future. Within a language this happens (take a word like “freedom,” for example). Just imagine what can happen from one language to another.
Let’s try this for an example. Jesus, we are informed by the written word, spoke the words, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This speaking of Jesus has been claimed over the centuries to be the authoritative source for translating the meaning of these spoken words. Who, considering this authority, are the ones included in “one another?” Whose group does this designate? There have been bishops, regarded by some as the ones who have directly received the command to preserve the authentic teachings of Jesus who have seen rank, status, and privilege in their translation and application of “one another.”
In regards to race, Bishop August Martin of Louisiana in the late 1850s identified “slavery as an eminently Christian work,” and spoke of slaves as those “snatched from the barbarity of their ferocious customs thousands of children of the race of Canaan, upon whom the curse of an outraged Father continues to weigh heavily, almost everywhere.” Is this an authoritative translation and application of Jesus’ spoken word, “Love one another?”
How about Jesus’ further spoken words, “as I have loved you?” Bishop Martin continues, “(the Father) commits them (slaves) to the care of the privileged ones (i.e. white Christian slaveholders) of the great human family for his own purposes and these people must be their shepherds and their fathers rather than their masters.” We all know how that turned out.
(I am indebted for this quote to Jeannine Hill Fletcher (Fordham University). Her article, “Supremacy in the Sense of the Faithful” appears in the book, “Learning from ALL the Faithful” (2013).)
Is this latter quote an instance of “as I have loved you?” Did Jesus mean rank and privilege, slave and master when he spoke of how he loved? Bishop Martin was, as we know, not an isolated bishop in an outlier region of a nation that within a decade of his written thoughts would be at war with itself. To press the point, Bishop Martin resided in the South, a region replete with other bishops who either wrote similar applications of the command of Jesus or remained complicit in their silence. These are the ones who claim for themselves to be the holders of the Magisterium, or if not that, preserve for themselves the title to apostolic authority.
What, if any, is the connection between a 19th century Roman Catholic bishop’s presumed translation/ application of Jesus’s words and my 2hr ordeal of translating/applying one German sentence? For me, it has to do with the power of speech and the many ways it may be translated and applied. As it happens, the English translation of my struggled over German is: “Only from the context of speech does the manifold of meanings which can pertain to words receive its determination.” In other words, if I may translate the translation, “Speech is the source of many meanings.”
This is one reason why I maintain that the bible is a secondary resource of faith following after speech, such as Moses receiving the message, “I AM” as the name of the divine; and, to repeat, Jesus saying, “Love one another” before it was ever written down to be translated and applied at a later date.
When it comes to the faith we share, some hold that a single meaning, one truth, must be determined and preserved. Others hold that there is beauty in many meanings, multiple truths. This gets us to, believe it or not, the relationship for Catholics between the Sense of the Faithful – as in how Jesus’ spoken word is translated and applied today, and the Magisterium – as in the deposit of central truths preserved by bishops, the successors to the apostles (may one say, including Mary of Magdala.)
People speak. How they live up to what they speak are the translations and applications that matter in the living. As I mentioned above these thoughts have been sparked by my reading, “Learning from ALL the Faithful.” Its articles and contributors confirm my conviction that the traditions that are offered as the final word are actually translations/ applications in the making.
Test your German (in under 2 hours):
Nicht das Wort als solches ist ja durch eine einheitliche Bedeutungsintention konstituiert, sondern die Wortwahl, und das heisst, die Rede selbst, die sich in Worten artikuliert.
See what I mean?