Celebrating Our Languages

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I frequently marvel at the courage of Mary Fisher, a housemaid who heard George Fox preach in 1651 and became one of the first Friends. One of the highlights of her very eventful life was a trip to preach to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. She departed with five others but separated from them at a dock in southern Greece and continued alone on foot 700 miles to his army encampment and actually secured a meeting with the Sultan. Imagine all the languages she heard! She wasn’t afraid to share the Quaker good news with non-English speakers.

Today we Friends speak a multitude of languages. In this issue you’ll read stories of Friends speaking Swahili and Aymara as well as European languages like English, French, Italian, and Spanish. But the act of translating is more than just an algorithmic swapping of words. Meanings and theologies swirl about in the choice of phrases.

Many of the Friends report a joy in translating our ministry. Emma Condori Mamani remembers: “Hearing the voice of God in two different languages as a child made me feel as if I had arrived at Heaven’s door.” Jeff Keith talks of the humorous time he wanted to speak to a Friend “in my third language [when] he [wanted] to speak to me in his third language.” I learned a lot putting together this issue. Carolyn Evans explains how Spanish-speaking Friends in Costa Rica don’t have to overburden the word meeting with the multiplicity of meanings we give it in English.

In Costa Rica, a non-Catholic religious service is called a culto. In Italy, the translation is the word sect, and expat Friend Evan Welkin says he “must regularly not only explain my faith but justify its Christian interpretation in the face of the ‘one true Church.’” Christian interpretation also comes into play in Sarah Ruden’s work as a translator of the Western classics. Her translations of the gospels have to convey all the pathos and anger and humor of the authors. The people around Jesus, she reports, were “alive, troubled, curious, inspired, and all the different horrible and hopeful things that human beings are.”

Languages aren’t as separated by geography or time as they once were. In North America, violent removal of Native Americans and intermittent anti-immigration policies have allowed many of us to grow up in English-only bubbles, but today, there’s no need to retrace Mary Fisher’s footsteps: global migration and the displacement of people due to war are making all of our communities multicultural—whether we embrace or resent it. Sue Tannehill tells the story of a Congolese Quaker family who showed up for worship in Buffalo, N.Y., one Sunday morning in August 2010. As the Congolese refugee community grew—soon numerically exceeding the existing meeting—ties were forged, worship spaces found, and aid given. The meeting arranged a translation of New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice in Swahili, but the translation of words was just a starting point of continuing cross-cultural work. In September Christ Is the Answer Friends Church became a full monthly meeting.

We got so many great submissions for this issue that we ran out of room in the print magazine. We’ll be publishing them online over the course of the month at Friendsjournal.org/online. Please join us there!

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