Found in Translation (หาในการแปล)

Denn also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, daß er seinen eingeborenen Sohn gab, damit alle, die an ihn glauben, nicht verloren werden, sondern das ewige Leben haben. Johannes 3:16

              Friday evening, July 1, 2011. I’m fifteen time zones away from home, in a mountain church dedicated to my deceased missionary dad. Seven hundred kids at Chiang Mai Academy are ready to sing – and I’m the praise leader from Redlands, California. Yikes.

            It’s humid on the platform; despite hogging one of the fans, I’ve got a determined river of perspiration running down my back. The eight-bar intro of the contemporary track comes through the monitor speakers, and I’m blown away when the packed sanctuary bursts into song. Mah . . . nee behn way-lah na-mah-skahn. Mah . . . nee behn way-lah tawai duang jie.

            Wow. And it works. Eighty percent of the kids are Buddhists, steeped in a lifelong religious faith that knows nothing about the things Paul writes in Philippians 2. But they get to the chorus and the volume actually swells to the rafters. The place is pounding with musical fervor. My eyes flood with tears as I hear: One day every tongue will confess You are Lord. One day every knee will bow. Still the greatest treasure remains for those who choose You NOW.

            Now why did the current CCM praise hit, Come, Now Is the Time to Worship, resonate with these Thai students? Because someone translated the words into their native tongue.

            As a Bangkok missionary kid, I figure I’ve heard literally thousands of half-sermons. I grew up used to the preaching rhythm of English – Thai – English – Thai. American evangelists visiting Asia are handed a necklace of flowers with one hand and a scalpel with the other, so they can surgically excise their sermons down to fifteen-minute messages in order to make time for the translator.

            I still remember the incredible talents of Pastor Sunti Sorajjakool, one of Thailand’s finest, who could take any visitor’s English sermon and actually make it better. On the other hand, I once heard an American clergyman trot out the colloquial expression “sticks in my craw,” and the flummoxed translator simply stared at him, at a total loss for words.

            One gifted wordsmith was dutifully translating away when the American big shot launched into a complicated story that the local preacher knew simply wouldn’t fly. No one would get the point. Thinking on his feet, he recalled a much better anecdote out of his own mental files and casually began to ad lib. (Hopefully, there were no bilingual members there that day.)

            Unfortunately, Laurel’s story from abroad had a rather morose conclusion to it . . . which coincided exactly with the cute, giggly punch line that Hardy was just approaching. So as the American concluded soberly: “And the man died and they buried him and everyone cried for forty days and nights,” the congregation was tittering cheerfully over the bit of humor their own guy was sharing. And the confused preacher from the U.S. wheeled toward his assistant and accused: “Hey, what is this? You’re not telling my story, are you!” “Uh, I don’t remember.”

            There’s a Murphy’s Law operating in the mission field: the translator will invariably draw a blank at the exact crucial moment when the two of you have a great bit of running momentum between you. “So I lifted up my Bible. Thai Thai Thai. I could see anger in the man’s eyes as he looked at me. Thai Thai Thai. But all of a sudden, the man reached into his coat AND PULLED OUT A GUN!! Silence. Awkward pause. Huh?” It never fails. And for the next forty-five seconds, the whole church listens as you patiently explain the punch line of the story . . . just to him. “I said, he pulled out a gun. . . . You know, bang bang? No, I didn’t pull out a gun, he did. It was his gun. . . . What would I be doing with a gun? I don’t even have a gun. I was holding a Bible.” Etc.

            If you want to do an intriguing experiment, simply take a classic Bible verse like John 3:16, and after typing it out in English, go to your computer font selection and change it into something like “Wing Dings.” It’s instant gibberish! A meaningless collection of nonsensical symbols no one but Mark Zuckerberg could decipher. But then put it back into Times New Roman or Arial – and it is immediately transformed back into powerful, life-saving truth. Random scratchings turn into “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Through my friend Somchai’s diligent efforts, รักอัศจรรย์ก็มีด้วยหรือ    ที่จอมราชาเพื่อข้าฯ วายชนม์ grows out of “Amazing love, how can it be? That You, my King, should die for me?”

            I’m embarrassed to admit that somewhere along the way I’ve ended up owning three DVD copies of the 1997 hit film, Titanic. I have the regular one, plus one with a Thai soundtrack, and a third with Thai subtitles. Sadly, in all three versions, the unsinkable ship goes down!

            But in the closing moments of the tragedy, there is a poignant bit of spiritual beauty as a Father Thomas Byles selflessly serves the soon-to-perish passengers all around him. Bracing himself amid the terrors of the ominously slanting deck, he quietly reminds the nearby strangers – now so briefly his flock before being swallowed into eternity – of the promises of Revelation 21: And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe all tears from their eyes: and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.          

            And I sat on my couch, frozen in awe, as these glorious promises appeared on the screen in Thai. I can only read in halting chunks, so I kept hitting the pause button. No more death . . . no more sorrow . . . no crying . . . no more pain. Somehow, to see these biblical guarantees in Thai, translated for the people I love, moved me to tears. In this wonderful land teeming with Buddhists, theaters and DVD rental shops – and yes, I imagine even the illicit bootleg vendors on Sukhumvit Road – were unwittingly sharing the gospel of the kingdom, because the story of heaven had been found in translation.

            I’m challenged and stirred by the reality – too rarely considered, perhaps – that Jesus didn’t stand in the back of a boat sharing the good news of the kingdom in English! John Wycliffe did that with a quill pen in the 1380s. Just as I and others labored this summer to transform songs and sermons and skits into Thai masterpieces, saints through the ages have taken the elusive principles of heaven and tried to give them flesh and feeling in a local tongue.

            In his incomparable sci-fi space trilogy, C. S. Lewis hints at the existence of an intergalactic common language, “Old Solar,” spoken in the courts of heaven itself. So perhaps  the deepest of divine thoughts and gifts – creation, the parables, Beatitudes, Calvary – exist first in that pure and perfect language beyond the stars, with even Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek being but feeble, diligent stabs at translation.

            Knowing a second language can sometimes be a delightful blessing. I was at a camp meeting once where a missionary brought greetings in some foreign language, and the people just ate it up. So when I got up to speak, I tried a bit of the same. I jabbered in Thai for a few moments, mixing in Pra Yesu for “Jesus” and a few other pious-sound expressions, then waved my Bible and said: “Can you all raise your hands and say amen to that?” Trusting me implicitly, they did so with relish.

            “That’s wonderful,” I told them, beaming innocently. “Each of you just promised to send five hundred dollars to the Voice of Prophecy.”     

            On the other hand, I’m still experiencing some political fallout from this story. A few years back, someone met me in the office hallway and enthused: “Hey, we’re taking Fred to dinner tonight. Such-and-such Thai restaurant here in Simi Valley. Are you in?”

            Now, this is the awkward reality. Even after spending my entire childhood in Thailand, I had never learned to like the native food! I’m a rather finicky eater – probably my worst character flaw – and to this day, when I return there for a mission trip, I immediately seek out the nearest Pizza Hut.

            Fortunately, I had an out. I was supposed to teach a math class that night and really couldn’t fit all that spicy gaeng pet into my schedule anyway. But when I offered up that feeble excuse, my friend remonstrated: “Well, at least make an appearance. The restaurant’s right on the way to the college. Just pop in and say hi.”

            Two things prompted me to finally say yes. It was a good bet they’d be serving cake, which is my favorite food in any culture or setting. But something inside of me also whispered: It’d be kind of cool to stroll into that place, sit down, and order at least something in Thai from the menu. I could picture the admiring glances of my peers as I casually bantered with the waiter in his native tongue and then placed my order, the exotic words tripping off my tongue. Of course, this would not be showing off . . . no, simply revealing to others how the Lord had helped me to hone my spiritual gifts in gospel service. Something like that.

            Timing my arrival just right so that I couldn’t get roped into an unwanted plate of prawns fried in garlic, I strolled into the Thai restaurant, spotted a crowded table packed with fellow Christians, and sat down. “I can’t stay,” I said forcefully, glancing at my watch. “But maybe I’ll just have a teeny bit of something.” I was pleased as I saw several influential people at the table, including Pastor Tom Mostert, the president of the entire five-state district where I was employed! What an opportunity to, you know, demonstrate the honing of my spiritual gifts.

            Most everyone was already nibbling on disgusting-looking appetizers, and the waiter hustled over to me, eager to pad the group invoice. This was my moment! Clearing my throat and speaking perhaps a bit louder than necessary, I asked him in flawless Thai if they had any sahbarot. Pineapple slices from Thailand are the one culinary delight I truly love, and even if this guy brought me fruit grown in Modesto, I could eat for five minutes while also establishing, you know, the honing of my spiritual gifts.

            An awed hush fell over the table as I spoke. The waiter brightened. Puedt Thai dai? “You speak Thai?”

            “Oh, nit noi,” I said easily. “Just a bit. But you do have some sahbarot for me?”

            I could see Pastor Mostert perking up as I gossiped with the waiter in his native tongue, inquiring about his family. In my mind, I could imagine Mostert filing away this tidbit. Man, this Smith does okay! Why are we wasting his talents here in Smallville? I should establish a vice presidency for Asian ministry and give him a corner office next to mine. That kind of thing.

            The waiter bustled away and I felt my cheeks flushing with just the smallest traces of sanctified pride for, you know, the Lord’s work and all that. Dave, you speak Thai! Awesome!

            I really wasn’t hungry at all, but I figured that a plate filled with pineapple – sahbarot – couldn’t run more than about a hundred baht, which, as all savvy missionaries know, is approximately three bucks. I was fishing in my wallet when the same waiter came scurrying out of the kitchen. With a proud flourish of native bonding, he set before me a glass . . . and a tall bottle of Japanese beer. Its brand name: Sapporo.

            I can still recall the helpless gales of laughter from the group as I tried to extricate myself from the moment. “No,” I protested. “Not Sapporo. I wanted sahbarot. Pineapple! Yellow! Delicious, nutritious food for a health-conscious believer who wants to hang onto his employment in this conservative church.” Words to that effect. My face scarlet, I glanced over at Mostert. He was still clutching his spoon and fork with an inscrutable look on his face, but I imagined that in his mind he was forcefully crossing my name off some mental list. Two years later I found myself pastoring a little country church with fourteen members.

            Okay, lesson learned. I know now that kwaam puum-jai goes before a fall. But each day of our lives, we Christians are invited to be translators. We have a wonderful Christ in our hearts. There’s this invisible language penned by the Holy Spirit abiding within us. But do others see Jesus manifested on the outside? Does the gospel translate into a soft and gentle spirit? Is there elegance and beauty in our words and deeds?

            You’ve probably never heard of a nondescript print journalist named Herbert Kretzmer. For years he worked in London for the Daily Express. Then in 1985, a stage producer named Cameron Mackintosh approached him. His friend and collaborator Alain Boublil had translated, as it were, Victor Hugo’s towering novel Les Misérables, into a French musical. But if rendered in English, it might sweep around the globe. Was he willing to change French lyrics into English? Oh, and one more thing, please. Was it possible that Herbert could even get songs like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “Bring Him Home” to rhyme in English?

            If you’ve attended “the world’s favourite musical” – and I’ve only been four times is all – you have experienced the haunting, often spiritual power of those three hours of translated beauty. Right at the close, Jean Valjean looks directly toward the audience, and concludes his operatic testimony with these words: “Une autre personne à l’amour est de voir le visage de Dieu.” That timeless truth went from heaven’s court to Hugo’s mind . . . to his pen . . . to Boublil’s French composition . . . to Herbert Kretzmer’s translation  . . . and to a rapt and listening world: To love another person is to see the face of God.

            Kretzmer got both a Tony and a Grammy – and just this last April, an honorary doctorate – for his work as a translator. As I fly to Bangkok to lead Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone, and here back home, hopefully live a life of winsome Christian virtue and kindness before my students at San Bernardino Valley College, may beauty and truth be always “found in translation.”

About David B. Smith

I'm a math professor at San Bernardino Valley College - awesome place! - and author of adult Christian fiction. Lisa and I have two grown daughters and four grandkids.
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