lenten journal: found in translation


    One of my friends from the Durham restaurant, Leonora, told me about a poetry class she has been taking at the Duke Center for Documentary Studies. The class itself doesn’t have much to do with making documentaries, which I suppose means more than anything that the folks at the CDS are mostly looking for new ways to see things, whether or not it ends up on film. In one of the exercises she described, the members of the class were given a copy of a poem in Polish. No one in the room spoke or read Polish and no translation was offered. Their assignment was to decide what the poem meant to them, making whatever associations they could. When they came back the next week, they each presented what they had written and then were given the actual translation to see what connections there might have been.

    As I’ve tried to focus my heart and mind on Holy Week today, in the midst of cooking, it strikes me that Leonora’s assignment is not a pretty good metaphor for reading the Bible: we have to take the words and make our own meaning. Yes, I know there are centuries of interpreters who have preceded us and plenty of commentaries and ecclesiastical councils to tell us what we are reading, just as there was an actual translation to her poem. There are also the readings where a “new” phrase appears as something we have never seen before, no matter how many times we have read the story, or we come away with questions we’ve not asked previously because of how we came to the text. Then there are odd little moments in the story, little bits of Polish to unravel, if you will, like this one from Luke 22: 7-12:

    Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”

    “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.

    He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large upper room, all furnished. Make preparations there.”

    Jesus’ instructions carry a bit of intrigue because of the little details. When they entered the city, presumably unannounced and unscheduled, they would see a man carrying a jar of water; follow him home and ask for the guest room, which he will show you; go in and get supper ready.

    Was Jesus doing some sort of Jedi Mind Trick? In a city with no running water, would there really only be one man with a water jar? And what if they had stopped for a falafel and beer on the way in; would they have missed him? How did he know the man? How did he know about the room?

    My translation of the Polish in the passage is I think Jesus had friends the gospels never mentioned. We get a healthy dose of life with the disciples, with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, with Mary Magdalene, as well as the occasional contact with folks like Zacchaeus, but what we are not told is there were more folks who mattered to Jesus. There are stories we don’t know. And in these verses we get a peek at one of those people, the way you get a passing glance at someone famous driving by leaving you to wonder if you really saw who you think you saw.

    What makes my translation more than recognition of an oddity is what the understanding means to me. I need to tell another story to explain. The first year I taught Honors British Literature in Winchester, there was a guy who sat silently in the back of the class most everyday. He turned in adequate work, but I could not engage him for the life of me. One day after school, I walked out to the sports fields to watch him and others in the class play lacrosse. I recognized him by his physical appearance, but there were no other connections between the kid in the back of the room and the passionate athlete on the field. After the game I went up to him to congratulate him on the win, and then I said, “I have one question. How do I get the guy who was out there on the field to come to English class?” Who I saw for my forty-five minutes a day of his life was not all of who he was, or even a reasonable facsimile.

    Admittedly, I have more information about Jesus than I did about the boy in my English class, yet I think the parallel holds up. We have four fairly brief and often repetitive accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. We’ve got a pretty good telling of his birth, nothing much about childhood or adolescence, and a whirlwind tour of his three years out on the road. John says, at the end of his gospel, that we couldn’t build a library to hold all of the stories if they were told. But they weren’t. What we have is a representative slice of the life of Jesus, and some of it in theological Polish to boot.

    Which means, to me, I need to live expecting Jesus to surprise me. As many times as I have headed into Holy Week filled with intention and focus, I must be ready to caught off guard by the guy with the water pot, whom I always assumed to simply be an extra brought in to fill out the scene. The more I think about him, I begin to imagine the disciples following him home only to be invited in for tea. As they talked about Jesus wanting to use the Upper Room, the man began telling stories of who Jesus was to him: how he had spent the night in that room many times, how he had healed one of his children, how hard he laughed at the dinner table, how much he talked about his disciples.

    “I’m glad to finally get to meet you,” he would say. “Jesus has told me so many stories.”

    I know about the Triumphal Entry and the Last Supper and the Trial and the Cross, but even in Holy Week there were lower case events, incidental encounters that were more than filler, and that remain unexplained and untranslated: Jesus’ Polish poems.

    How did you translate them?


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