Lost in Translation

What you say is not always what is heard and is no guarantee of being understood.

Driving to a restaurant for lunch, the front seat passenger, turned and asked me, “Roy are you having any problems with your parrot in this hot weather?”  “No,” I replied. “I haven’t noticed any changes or difficulties.” She went on, “I was just wondering; it’s just that mine has been really playing me up and I thought it must be to do with the hot weather.”  We proceeded to have our lunch, got back in the car and after a little while one of the other passengers, who’d been relatively quiet, thoughtful, leaned forward and said: “You know, I have never known anybody who owned a parrot and here I am sitting in a car with two people who have parrots. It’s amazing. What do you think is wrong with your parrot?” she asked of my friend. I chuckled out loud and explained to the amusement of everybody that we were not talking about tropical birds but rather the hands-free car kits! What was as funny as the misunderstanding was the fact that this person had spent the last hour and a half thinking about what kind of people we were as parrot owners.

I suppose it’s the beauty, complexity, delight and danger of language that  it poses a threat of misunderstanding. Quite often when I’m teaching or preaching I ask people, “ Do you know what I mean?”. When lecturing it is easier for people to respond but I wish more people would do it to preachers because I often find myself listening and thinking there is a huge discrepancy between what the preacher thinks they are saying and what people are hearing and understanding. I can recall with some horror, experiences in my own life, particularly in earlier years of ministry, when with good intention I have sought to share the good news of the faith with people, only on reflection coming to realise that how that message was received was neither good, helpful or or life changing. I am so grateful for the experience of being part of the Northumbria Community. Companions and Friends, together with family, other friends  and many people I know who don’t share the faith, have kept me from being cocooned within the narrow confines of a religious environment. One of the effects of this has given me a heightened awareness of how religious language, ‘in house’ jargon, allegedly understood Christian words and phrases can however well-intentioned, actually communicate either nothing or at worst, undermine the most godly and good intentions.

I was on Teesside yesterday. Back speaking at a church in Stockton, an area that I know well from the time when I was privileged to be the pastor, the first full-time pastor of a council estate church in an urban area.  The area suffered the consequences of Thatcherite policy that decimated communities and damaged so many people in the process of brutal change, lacking in compassion and devoid of justice, fairness and care for the poor. Unemployment trebled in four years, leaving over a third of the working population destined for the scrapheap, surplus to requirement, many skilled and semiskilled, hard-working people, who couldn’t ‘get on their bike’ and afford to move to more affluent areas where opportunity beckoned and work was available. Instead they saw their communities dissolve into hopelessness and helplessness, the breakup of family life, the loss of aspiration among the young, rising crime rates and increasing physical and mental health problems for growing numbers of people of all ages within the region. The words of the then Prime Minister, entering Downing Street to commence their term of office, were those of St Francis of Assisi,  where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Somehow, for many communities, many in the North particularly, but exclusively, those words got lost in translation.

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