Today is VE day: Victory in Europe Day. 75 years ago peace broke out in Europe, and today as Europe struggles along mostly locked down with an unseen enemy laying waste to the economies and life of the countries, trumpeters and buglers are being encouraged to play the Last Post at 2.55pm from their homes.
I’m not sure whether Elizabeth will be able to manage it (she’s still rather new to the trumpet and the high notes are tricky) but I thought I’d look up the music to give her a shot.
I felt unexpectedly emotional. Why is it that I can look at something like this and end up feeling like that? (I’m not moist in the eyes, it’s just hay fever. Honest.)
And why should I not be surprised if very few other people feel the same way?
The point is I feel an emotional impact from reading the music because I hear the melody in my head. And then that simple and unsophisticated tune reminds me of all the occasions on which I have heard it. Those occasions are generally remembering the death of soldiers to protect others. So the tune has come to evoke for me the sorrow of death mingled with honour.
And yet to a child or someone from another culture it’s just another tune, and not a particularly interesting one at that. It’s unlikely to have the same emotional impact and we shouldn’t be surprised by that or shocked. Given the right context – hearing it time and again associated with the narrative of sorrow and tragic sacrifice will change that. But that’s only for people who hear it.
Only if you learn to read music and turn the lines on a page into sounds in your mind will you be able to look at the writing above and have the same impact as hearing it has.
And so to the Bible
It can be a little bit like this as far as the Bible is concerned.
We who have grown to love what God reveals about himself and love his correction to our often-wonky thinking may well have grown used to reading it just visually. (And possibly we have got used to hearing it stiltedly read.) But then it’s easy for us to forget that many people around the world may see the same words on the page and whether because it’s in an unfamiliar or less meaningful language, or because they can’t read it well, it just doesn’t have the same impact. It may still have an impact, just not what it should.
It is for those people that we work hard to translate the Bible into meaningful language and record it. As in the times the Bible was written, it’s appropriate for people to start by hearing God’s message and perhaps later learning to read it themselves. Literacy has its place — and especially for encouraging people to really think hard about the message — but it’s not necessarily a pre-requisite. Neither should familiarity with English or any other foreign language be a pre-requisite for people to be impacted by the Bible.
When we translate the Bible into language people have grown up with, we are trying our very best to build on the years of experience people have with those languages. Perhaps that is why translators themselves are so often profoundly struck by the very message they are translating. Even if they have first received the gospel through English or Hausa or another language, when it’s expressed in a language with so many everyday associations, it really is more powerful. It connects with so much more of life.
How would we translate the Last Post in Nigerian cultures?
To go back to the Last Post score above, I don’t expect it would have the same impact on many people I know in Nigeria as it has on me. Certainly the written musical score wouldn’t. But even the audio recording wouldn’t (except for military men trained in the British style). You can’t just teach people to have an emotional response!
However, my Nigerian friends have probably grown up with something equivalent, though, some way of mourning, of expressing public grief. And so if we wanted Nigerian friends to understand and express the same meaning, the same emotion intended to be evoked by 2.55pm’s Last Post, then they would need to tap into that — whether a song of lament, or drumming, or whatever. In NW Nigeria where I lived for a year we would sometimes hear wailing and a particular kind of drumming. At the funerals I have been to there have been all kinds of different songs.
It would doubtless look and sound very different and it might be hard to be absolutely sure that the meaning was the same until you have spent enough time finding out all the associations involved. We have to ask the question “What do you do to honour those who have died, and in particular who died for your benefit?”
There are certainly many ways to get it wrong, or perhaps we should say there are many ways to attempt to do it well and better.