Have you ever come across those lists of untranslatable words from other languages?

Just search ‘untranslatable words’ online and you’ll find a treasure trove: ikigai means ‘a reason to live’ in Japanese, anteayer is Spanish for ‘the day before yesterday, Waldeinsamkeit is German, meaning ‘the feeling of being alone in the woods’.

I love these linguistic peculiarities, but are they ‘untranslatable’? Not really – if they were, we wouldn’t be able to explain what they mean. One translation for Waldeinsamkeit is, as above, ‘the feeling of being alone in the woods’; one translation for ikigai is the phrase we already borrow from French, raison d’ être. In this context, ‘untranslatable’ often just means it doesn’t have a one-word English equivalent – although anteayer could technically be translated with the one-word (albeit archaic) English equivalent ‘ereyesterday’.

So why are these words so appealing? For me, it’s partly the delight of discovering a shared experience (as with iktsuarpok, an Inuit word for the feeling of such impatient anticipation when expecting visitors that you keep checking to see if they’ve arrived yet), and partly the prompt to think in new ways.

New ways of thinking

Sigmund and Aidani

Bible translation leads to discoveries of many such prompts, both for those involved in the process and for those hearing the stories afterwards. We heard one story of how Aidani from Papua New Guinea and his Norwegian colleague Sigmund developed a way to express – and to practise – forgiveness in Umanakaina. (Read it here.) And the concept of unconditional love had a revelatory impact for Hdi community leaders in Cameroon. (Read the story here.) Here is one more example from Cameroon, which changed people’s understanding of relationship with God.

After months of trying to translate the phrase ‘broken spirit’ into Karang, the translators had given up. ‘We put it in God’s hands and moved on,’ says Bob, who works with Wycliffe.

It can be difficult to understand what having a ‘broken spirit’ means in Psalm 51:17 or Matthew 5 in English, too. Some might interpret the phrase to mean ‘depressed’, ‘without hope’ or ‘riddled with guilt’.

But even though they had given up, the Karang team’s thoughts were directed back to this challenge when reviewing a translated draft of Mary’s song in the first chapter of Luke.

All my breath glorifies the Lord

When Abba, a local translation team member, read the opening line – ‘All my spirit glorifies the Lord’ – he hesitated. The translation communicated, ‘All my things glorify the Lord.’ This wording implied more than Mary’s spirit, erroneously including her clothes!

‘Wouldn’t it be better,’ Abba suggested, ‘to say all my breath glorifies the Lord?’

Abba’s suggestion gave Bob the solution for their other challenge: ‘Abba, this is what we need for broken spirit!’

When Abba looked at him curiously, Bob quickly explained: ‘The acceptable sacrifice with which to come and offer to God is viewing one’s breath as nothing.’

Abba smiled and nodded. As the team tested this new phrase with others, everyone agreed it worked well. They now understood: having a ‘broken spirit’ meant abandoning oneself to the point where even one’s own breath is nothing. Applied to Matthew 5:3, the verse reads: ‘Blessed are those who know their own breath is but nothing, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’

This ‘broken spirit’ is not hopelessness, depression or shame. It is such a yearning for eternity that nothing is worth comparing to it. It is the ultimate pleasing sacrifice to God.

‘Here [in the Scriptures] you will find the swaddling-clothes and the manger in which Christ lies’– Martin Luther

A perfect translation

Each of these translations – broken spirit, unconditional love, and forgiveness – was made possible by God’s grace. But at this time of year we think of an even more remarkable act of translation: ‘Jesus is God spelling himself out in language that man could understand,’ said American minister and author S D Gordon. Or, as we read in John 1:14, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus could be described as the ultimate untranslatable Word – how could divinity be translated into humanity?

You might have sung ‘Indescribable’, written by Laura Story and Jesse Reeves. The song praises God for being ‘indescribable, uncontainable… all powerful… unchangeable…’, and yet in the Incarnation God contained himself, limited his power, and humbled himself to a changing human body. What kindness that the indescribable God ‘described’ himself in human form!

As we hear Mary’s song again this Christmas, and as we exhale in the cold winter air, may we join her, and the Karang translators, in saying, ‘All my breath glorifies the Lord.’

Bryony Lines


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