Lost (and Found) in Translation

Together, we faced one another from across a table. Between us was an iPhone. We pressed a button on the device and took turns speaking in our respective languages. After each statement that we would make, we would pause, press the corresponding button on the device, and wait for the translation.

“Ahhhhh,” one of us would say, grinning. “I understand.”

In this way, Ernesto and I got to know each other this week. It was a remarkably fulfilling experience.

My family and I have been blessed to spend time with Ernesto this week. We have had the chance to share our stories, speak about the realities of our contexts for ministry, and have been able to find places of intersection for our hopes and our dreams. Ernesto and I are brothers in Christ. We are also becoming close friends.

And we may just have technology to thank for that.

This much is true: Ernesto’s command of English is far better than my understanding of Spanish. He is able to comprehend my statements more effectively than I am able to understand his. It will not surprise you to learn that I am the troublesome one in our dialogue. Without the assistance of a translator, our conversation is pleasant but not particularly rich.

Jeff: “I like the rain.”  

Ernesto: “Sí. The rain is very nice.”

Jeff: “Sí.”

Our universal connectivity through technology certainly has its drawbacks, but in this circumstance the translation software on my iPhone has provided many breakthrough moments for our relationship. My device acts as an intermediary which seamlessly allows us to speak long, coherent thoughts to one another.

The word ‘seamless’ may be a bit of an overstatement. There are times when the translation is clearly incorrect. And we laugh. At other times, we may fail to press the ‘start’ button on the application, only to realize later than our profound statement fell on deaf (or at least uncomprehending) ears. We laugh some more.

One benefit of the software is that it dictates on the screen what will be translated. In other words, the device listens to my statement and presents it on the screen for both Ernesto and I to see. Only a moment passes before the device translates my statement into Spanish. The computer then speaks the translation aloud. The upshot of this feature is that it helps me to see in advance if the device heard me correctly before it translates my words into Spanish. For, of course, if the words that appear on the screen are not a good representation of what I actually said, the translation will be meaningless—or even dangerous.

After one such translation bobble, I remarked, “This is how World Wars get started.”

We laughed together.

Because of this technological tool, we have been able to dialogue about more than just the pretty mountains or the weather. Ernesto and I have been able to speak passionately about our love for our churches and our concern for our communities. Since we’ve been able to have an intermediary, we’ve been able to talk about strategies to deepen our relationship and to grow our friendship. Neither of us want an imbalanced relationship. Both Ernesto and I want a relationship of equanimity to develop between our churches, for friendship is defined by reciprocity—not dependency, or empiricism. It is important to both of us that we treat one another as equals: supporting one another, loving one another, working together for good in our respective contexts. To that end, we believe that our next step should involve sharing our particular needs, and then working to identify projects that we can work on together.

But as we are discovering this week, huddled around an iPhone at a table, none of that can happen without a strong friendship in Christ.

As brothers in Christ through our sister-churches, we know that it is the presence of Jesus that truly connects us to one another. Jesus is our ultimate intermediary. Christ bridges the gap between us and God. And, of course, Christ bridges the gap between you and me. In a world with such violence surrounding our differences, the love of God in Jesus has never been more critical to our future.

On Sunday, Ernesto and I will be leading in worship together. With the help of a (human!) translator, Ernesto will lead from our pulpit. And together, Ernesto and I will speak the Words of Institution together as we gather around the table of the Lord for communion.

It will be a striking scene, similar to the one Ernesto and I experienced this past week. We will face one another from across the table, ready to listen, to partner, and to love. But this time, it will be Christ who is at the center--between us, connecting us together for service, now and tomorrow.