I dwell in (and with) Possibility

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)

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5 thoughts on “I dwell in (and with) Possibility

  1. I love your description of translation. Thank you. I have been there – translating the psalms from Hebrew and looking for clues in all sorts of places. It is a delightful task, and it ties me to times and spaces I would never otherwise have occupied.

  2. Another beautiful piece Elise! You are definitely a linguist and a word nerd in the best sense.

  3. Language truly is another of life’s mysteries. I envy your linguistic capabilities.

  4. I think you point out a very powerful point about reading something in a foreign language. It does indeed force you to slow down, to think about what the text is really saying (or as you point out, all the possibilities of what it might be saying) and your relationship to it. I find this particularly poignant in prayer. In praying in Hebrew (which is not my native language) I’m forced/invited to both slow down to really wonder what does this mean and what do I mean for this as well as to allow myself to dwell in the mystery of what’s on the page (sometimes by intention, sometimes because I actually have no idea what the words mean). It can be confusing and profound at the same time.

  5. Elise, this is a beautiful reflection on language. The way you speak about it almost feels as though the act of translation itself is a religious practice (which it often is). It made me think of the long tradition in Kabbalah of linguistic mysticism- some of which is so developed as to encourage the practitioner to sit and permute letters as a method of reaching a prophetic state. May your own translations and permutations also bring you to a place of ecstasy.

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