I took German all through high school, and after I graduated, I got to visit Germany for three weeks. I was excited because I had only learned classroom German, but since I would be living with a German family for three weeks and going to a German school for three weeks, I would have the chance to learn real German – the slang, the casual way people spoke.
Sure enough, in the first week, I picked up a world – guile. I had never heard it before, but I could tell from context it meant “cool”. They’d say, “Oh that movie I saw was so guile,” or “We went out last night. It was so guile.”
I was feeling pretty confident about myself, so I slipped this new slang word into my own conversation. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but someone asked me, “How was it?” and I replied in German, “Das war so guile!” It was so cool!
The German students around me lit up. “You know guile! Oh wow! It’s so cool you know our slang! Who taught you?”
I puffed out my chest a bit and shrugged. “Ja, Ich bin sehr guile.” Yeah, I’m very cool.
They all started laughing, and definitely laughing at me, not with me. Uh oh.
My host brother put his hand on my shoulder. “You don’t know what guile means, do you?”
I stammered. Uh… it means cool?
He laughed again. “It means… ” I could tell he didn’t know the English word. “It means you see a pretty girl and get very excited.”
What?! Apparently, horny had become slang in German. And you could use it to describe things, but not people. You certainly don’t announce to a room full of people that you’re very guile – unless you wanted them to laugh at you.
That was my first big translation blunder, but it certainly wasn’t my last – not on that trip and certainly not in my life. As I’ve traveled to places where I don’t speak the language well, or tried to learn Spanish so I can communicate better here in Texas, our multicultural, multilingual world, I’ve found that really communicating with each other can be a challenge – especially when we speak different languages.
I want to talk about translating how we talk about Jesus today. Because a lot of the same translation issues come up when we talk about Jesus. Fewer and fewer people speak Church these days. And without a common language for our faith conversations, we’re not really communicating.
The heart of sharing good news is love, and love is the heart of translation too. Let’s talk today about how we can love our community enough to learn to speak their language. After all, this is what God has done for us.