Once, when I was living in Korea, I was greeting a well known CEO of a large corporation. I had only been speaking basic Korean for about a month and said “thank you,” bowing in the manner I had been taught.
The man looked at me for a moment and smiled. A fellow priest patted me on the back and laughed. As we departed, he said, “let’s practice ‘thank you.'” We practiced a couple times. I had replaced the “m” with an “n” by accident.
I had really said, “you’re stupid.”
Cats and dogs communicate, but they have very different gestures. When cats have their tail down, they are hunting; Dogs are happy. When Dogs are on their back, they submit; when cats do, they’re attacking. When a cat is saying “kill the furry rodent” a dog is sensing “aww, the cat likes me!” The war between cats and dogs is primarily a problem of misinterpretation.
One time I thought I preached an inclusive, gentle welcoming sermon that was happy and generous. Later, I was told it was patronizing – I had chastised the congregation.
It was like being in Korea again.
Sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say. Sometimes we do, but we need to say it differently. Sometimes we don’t hear what other people are saying; and sometimes we hear the wrong thing. Sometimes our actions and words say different things.
But if we were always worried about misinterpretation, we probably couldn’t say much at all. Charity – aka love – is, perhaps, the root of all translation.
How do we manage everyday misinterpretation and misunderstanding?
1) Trust in each other’s best motives.
2) Welcome feedback. With trust, we can improve and raise our attention with one another.
3) Remain connected. This is how the church works: how we help each other. The promise of the gospel: our relationships matter, and with tenacity and love, we save one another. Being connected does not mean being fused, or thinking identically. All it means is continuing a conversation.
4) Speak with integrity. This does not mean we have to speak perfectly. State what you mean as best you can. And if there is misinterpretation, allow for charity.
5) Sometimes working together is the way of building a new language. It is only through continuing to participate together that we actively build a new community.
None of this is easy: I submit, the culture makes it hard. But with a bit of grace, and will, the work of translation isn’t so bad. Perhaps then: comprehension. And more than that: liberation.