Life in Translation

Trust is important when it comes to language barriers.

For two weeks this past fall, I lived my life in translation.

This was not my first time in Taiwan, but from the moment I landed in Taipei I was aware that most of my encounters and experiences involved mediation. Often this was through the kind and gracious work of translators – those who worked hard to put into English the concepts and words and feelings of those speaking to me in Indigenous languages, Taiwanese or Mandarin. In many situations I also, invariably, tried to bridge the distance to this new world by reference to what I have known in my own context.

At the centre of my time in Taiwan was a three-day pastors’ conference at Yu-Shan Seminary. I was there to share on the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. We may be tempted to think there is a universal definition and experience of forgiveness, but that is not the case. Family relationships and friendships are inhabited differently across various cultures. This means that we also have different understandings of harm in such relationships and about possible paths to restoration.

When a young pastor asked how to respond to situations of persistent hostility or disagreement in his congregation, our differing cultural locations meant that my answer could only be tentative. I offered thoughts about what it means to maintain a posture of openness to others in such situations, even if we remain at a distance from them. I don’t know exactly how my words were received by him or how he imagined them in relation to his own church context and relationships.

Good and slow work

Translation is never simply a technical matter. It is not a matter of knowing which word or concept in English corresponds to which word or concept in Mandarin, for example. Translation is more about discerning what is lost if we establish a too-hasty equivalency between specific ideas, words or concepts in different languages. For this reason, I approached my brief time at Yu-Shan in a broadly dialogical way. I assumed that moments of exchange between participants and myself would allow us to refine our understanding of each other and the words we shared. And again, all of this could only happen with the support of wise and careful translators.

As you can imagine, there is a great deal of trust that goes into such encounters – a trust that runs in all kinds of directions. Trust that I have some experience and awareness of forgiveness. Trust that I am communicating my own thoughts clearly. Trust that translators are passing my ideas on carefully. Trust that I am understanding something that is being passed back to me through the translator. Trust that the Holy Spirit is present to bless this sharing.

Trust is a hard thing. In the case of my time in Taiwan, however, this trust was underwritten, or strengthened, by hospitality – by conversation over shared meals and during walks together. I acknowledge that even in such experiences there was some element of uncertainty; an awareness I might be missing something in translation. But there is nothing quite like shared laughter to provide an assurance that we really can do this good and slow work of understanding and learning together.


  • Roland De Vries

    Roland De Vries is Principal of The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies, McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. Roland has also previously served as a Pastor in two congregations in Montreal. He and his wife Rebecca (a nurse) have three teenage/young adult children.

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