You’ve probably read the articles about foreign-language words that don’t have an immediate counterpart in English. As a German, I immediately think of schadenfreude, that apparently untranslatable term for, well, schadenfreude—the guilty joy you feel in someone else’s misfortune. Kudos to you virtuous native English speakers for not having your own word for that smug feeling.
Other foreign words are also woven seamlessly into daily life, like the Swedish ombudsman, the Finnish sauna, or the Italian pizza. There are many others, of course, especially in a language like English that derived its uncommonly large dictionary from the treasure chests of many languages.
Then there are the words that haven’t made it into the English dictionary yet, though they’ve achieved notoriety as beautiful but untranslatable terms. (As a translator, I’ll add that “untranslatable” isn’t exactly true. It’s just that we don’t have a word-to-word equivalent.) This includes terms like Danish hygge, which alludes to a sense of cozy comfort in the company of others, or the Finnish sisu, the concept of hidden inner strength in times of adversity. These words enrich how we view the world and offer insights about their cultures of origin. (Again, I apologize for schadenfreude!)
What if we could similarly peel back linguistic barriers to see how other languages and cultures view God through the language they use? For almost five years I’ve been collecting and curating data about how languages around the world translate the Bible in different and often insightful ways. Here are a few examples of words I wish we had in English to understand and communicate with God more deeply:
1. Mär: pick one thing and one thing only (Teribe)
English has a richer vocabulary than most when it comes to translating the Greek word pistis as both “faith” and “belief.” But these words’ power as a testimony of faith are weakened by their non-Christian usages in English (“I believe that it’s going to rain tomorrow” or “I have faith in you, young man!”). I wish we could introduce a powerful term for faith like “mär,” used in Teribe, an indigenous language spoken in Panama. It means “pick one thing and one thing only.” That’s radical Christian faith.
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