As an attempt to improve my French, I am currently enrolled in an intensive program at the University of Laval in Québec City. Given that I spent the first two years of my Jesuit formation in Montréal, my French is good enough to get by (or je me débrouille). This is not the case with many of my fellow classmates, who often struggle mightily to explain themselves. They cannot find the right words and phrases, because they only know the English ones. To this, our professor comments that we just need to find another way to express ourselves in French. I find this simple remark interesting for several reasons.
Finding the right word to express ourselves is difficult enough in our mother tongue; doing it in another language is a different story altogether. This is ever more heightened when we find ourselves living and breathing in another culture. Using the perfect word for a specific situation works in the ideal scenario, but sometimes the perfect word does not exist. If I stubbornly try to literally translate an English phrase into French or any other language, the original sense is often lost, and it ends up sounding very weird (See: Google Translate). There is also much to be gained in learning to express ourselves in an unfamiliar way. It forces us to reflect on what exactly we are trying to express, and to find a simpler way to transmit the message.
I find this to be the case particularly in the very secular environment of Québec. For example, many Church-related words such as “tabernacle”, “chalice” and “sacrament” are strong curse words here, and many do not even know what the words actually mean. In other words, it is practically useless to tell the Good News with the standardized Catholic vocabulary. It will be like speaking in a foreign language. If not this, then how? We just have to find another way to express what we what to say in our evangelization attempts.
There are concepts that speak to both Catholics and secular alike. Many have referred to the Golden Rule: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Mt 7:12). There is also social justice. In a sense, this is speaking the Christian language in a different way. These are great starting points, but we can, and must do more than that. It is useful to share a common ground, but we run the risk of staying there and becoming complacent. If so, we are doing a great injustice to the Christian faith, and we risk downgrading it into a set of ethics. Christian ethics is not an end in itself, but is grounded on something even more profound: a personal relationship with God.
To be more precise, the Christian message comes in the form of a person. It is not his words that makes him special; it is who he is that makes the words special. Christ is the message. As the Italian saying goes, “traduttore, traditore” (to translate is to betray). Translating reaches a limit with the Christian message, because we cannot translate a person, nor can we translate verbally a living relationship that is personal. This is not a bad thing in itself; it just means that there is a decision to be made: do I believe in this personal God who loves me and shows me how to love through his Son Jesus Christ?
To me, this “finding another way” applies more to introducing and encouraging people to develop a personal relationship with God, and not just absorbing some intellectual concepts. We are trying to find another way to lead others to this person that has changed the destiny of the universe. I still think that there is much value in speaking in a language that others can relate to and understand; this has to be an essential part of what we call the New Evangelization. But in the end, we come face to face with a person, and no translation would do him justice.