One of the few specific facts I remember from my introductory class on Western religions in college is the uniqueness of the Hebrew creation myth (in all its forms). While other gods of ancient Mesopotamian pantheons created the world from the bodies of their dead enemies, children, or parents, the Hebrew creator god simply said, “Let there be…”– and there was. The spirit or wind of God swept over the face of the same formless void that featured in so many other myths of bringing order out of chaos, being out of non-being. And then, one day at a time, by the simple and profound means of words, God made light, and the earth, and the sky, and plants, and animals come into being.
I guess I’m a word nerd. I started taking French in middle school and kept that up until I entered college and started Arabic. Now, five and a half years later, I spent the summer brushing up on my French, am still taking Arabic, and just started Armenian classes at a local church. And yes, I have experienced those brutal slogs that discourage language learners: I’ve done my time with verb charts and copying the alphabet five times across a sheet of paper. But I’ve also experienced some of my most meaningful spiritual moments through the prism of language, and in a way I connect these moments of transcendence and clarity with the account of creation I just described.
To translate a passage in a language not your own, you have to perform something like a magic trick. First, you have to read through the sentence(s) at hand, identifying any words or syntactical features you recognize and can make sense of. Then, holding this airy structure in mind, you pick out what seems like a key word whose meaning is still obscured, and you look it up in the dictionary, running over the many possible meanings associated with it. If the word is in Arabic, you look up not the word itself, but the word’s root letters, and then run through all meanings associated with that root until you find the specific word. Even once you find your word of choice, there are often still possibilities. If the word is the French verb “devoir“, does it mean “to owe”, “to have to”, “to should”, or “to be due to”? Is it literal, or is it figurative? Is there wordplay? Holding all these possibilities in mind, you then move onto the next word and slowly, painstakingly, thread each of these galaxies of meaning together in relationship to the initial framework you still have tucked in the back corner of your mind.
Emily Dickinson wrote of poetry, “I dwell in Possibility- A fairer House than Prose.” When I read a passage in English, I can skim, and unless the passage is poetry or literary prose, the meanings seem so direct and clear as to be mundane. When I read something beautiful in another language, though, hard as it is, as many headaches as I may give myself, all these meanings that could be, and perhaps are, float together in the formless void, and I feel that I do dwell in Possibility. For me as a Christian living in a deeply hurting, pluralistic, questioning and questioned world, nothing has proven more of a brush with the divine mystery than that sensation of the in- and out-dwelling of the infinite Possibility which first laid hands on this world.
(Image attribution via Wikimedia Commons)