Every Language: Listening To The Multilingual God

Day 1 of 7 • This day’s reading


Love is patient

These words are familiar from countless weddings and sermons. But as with so many other things in life, it helps to look at the familiar with fresh eyes—in this case, through the eyes of other non-English languages. 

Why? Not because the Bible translators in other languages are necessarily better theologians or have novel spiritual insights, but because their languages force them to express the original text in ways that can reveal truths not immediately accessible to us.

What could another language possibly "unlock" in a statement like "love is patient"? Let's start with "love."

"Love" is an abstract noun—a word that describes something intangible. In English (and in Koine Greek, the original language of the New Testament) abstract nouns abound, with words like death, freedom, chaos, knowledge, and democracy. Other languages have many fewer abstract nouns or even none at all. 

Abstract nouns are often formed by turning a verb into a noun, as in the case of "love." But in a language with no abstract nouns, "love" remains a verb, thus requiring two additional pieces of information: the person who loves and whom (or what) that person loves.

If you were a Bible translator tasked with translating "love is patient" into a language where love has to be a verb that cannot be turned into a noun, you would have to infer the essential information of who loves whom. Two such languages are Lamogai, a language spoken in Papua New Guinea, and Tezoatlán Mixtec, a language spoken in Mexico. Since the original Greek text doesn't give any direct evidence about love's subject and object (the "who" and the "whom"), you'd have to look at the context, the information that surrounds the verse in question. 

Dave Brunn, a Lamogai translator working with 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, realized that Paul continually referred to himself ("If I speak in the tongues…," "I am a noisy gong….," etc.). Dave concluded that if Paul included himself, then the "who" doing the loving must be "people." 

John Williams, a translator into Tezoatlán Mixtec, explained that "the translation team at first thought it could be God loving us, but [then] we saw that after saying love is patient, love is kind, the next eight statements say what love is not," and concluded that those negative statements could not be related to God. 

As far as the object, the "whom," it seemed obvious that this would be "people" as well, because as Dave explains, "When do we most often exercise qualities like patience, kindness, boastfulness, pride and anger? It is usually in our relationship with other people."

Your translation, therefore, would have to be something like this: "The person who loves people acts patiently toward people" or "When we love others we inwardly endure what they do."

Try reading I Corinthians 13:4-7 again, this time rephrasing the love sentences into personal action statements with your name as the subject and people—perhaps even specific people—as the object. How does this change your perspective on the hard work of love? How does it stretch your personal love muscle?