What makes a good interpreter? Someone with a mastery of the languages (and cultures) she is working with. Someone who goes behind the speaker’s words to grasp their meaning and who is able to faithfully convey that meaning, not betraying the speaker. Someone who ‘gets the message across’, a message transformed into the idiom of the listener. Here in the heart of Europe we like to talk of an interpreter in the French sense of a ‘performer’, giving expression to the original text, making it come alive for the listener. That is how successful communication occurs. The interpreter ‘becomes the speaker’. It’s not just about reproducing words.
You could argue that, in this sense, according to the Bible, Jesus is God’s interpreter par excellence. In other words, he is the “Word made flesh”. Born into our human world, he ‘becomes the speaker’. Steeped in the language and culture of God and God’s people, he comes to us in the Gospel, claiming to faithfully represent God to Man, only ever seeking to “do the will of Him who sent me”, to ‘get the message across’, through his teaching, his mighty acts, his servant life and his sacrificial death.
Interestingly, in his disputes with other, contemporary appointed ‘interpreters of God’ – for example in Matthew 23: 2-3; 23; 27 – it is exactly this which is at stake: what does it mean to be truly ‘faithful to the original speaker’? What makes a truly good interpreter? Jesus’ problem with the teachers of the law and Pharisees is not about doctrine. He is not out to diss Judaism, replacing it with a new religion, Christianity. Rather, Jesus says, the would-be interpreters of God are actually guilty of ‘betraying the speaker’; they are not truly faithful to God’s original Word – how could they be, since they are not alive! They are spiritually dead. They are, famously, “white-washed tombs” or “whitened sepulchres” (the term in most French translations is “sépulcres blanchis”). They have not really grasped God’s Word – or been grasped by it – so that it transforms them, creating a “pure heart” and issuing in a new way of life which in turn communicates God’s message, indeed God Himself, to those around them.
For Jesus, you can’t truly believe in God without being His interpreter – a term we now see is synonymous with “witness”. God’s Word transforms the heart, issuing in new life which communicates God to others. For their part, the religious contemporaries of Jesus are condemned as mere ‘translation machines’, dutifully reproducing ‘religious’ acts – such as meticulous tithing – but losing the meaning of justice, mercy and faithfulness.
With crises seemingly piling up on all fronts, there is certainly plenty of work for good interpreters these days, in the EU, at the UN or wherever. And in testing times like these, Christians are challenged to be faithful witnesses to God, not just translation machines reproducing religious acts and words which actually betray the original speaker, but interpreters, grasped by the meaning of the Gospel, whose transformed lives ‘get the message across’ to others.
Some years ago, the European Commission was forced to resign en bloc, charged by the European Parliament of basically not being up to the job. There was a press conference, at which the out-going Commission President, the Luxemburger, Jacques Santer, claimed to have been “blanchi” by the report of the committee of wise men who had been looking into the Commission’s conduct. The English interpreter – one of the most brilliant interpreters in our Service and someone whose sandals I consider myself unworthy to lace – in the heat of battle, interpreted the term “blanchi” as “whiter than white”, or “white-washed”, if you like, as in the French version of Matthew 23, whereas a more appropriate translation would probably have been “exonerated”. The press had a mini field-day, accusing the President of typical arrogance etc. Being a dedicated professional, the interpreter offered to resign. His offer was (happily) rejected. Even the best interpreters are fallible. Being God’s interpreter should not be a burden that weighs us down. Rather, God knows our weaknesses and offers us his constant, forgiving, renewing grace.
Paul Brennan is an interpreter with the European Commission in Brussels,working from French, German, Italian and Danish into English. He also dreams of adding Chinese before he retires. He is a member of a Baptist church in Brussels.