Talking to Aliens: A lesson from Arrival about biblical translation
In the beginning was the Word. But it didn’t come with a dictionary.
I like good science fiction. It has a way of illuminating some common aspect of our lives by translating it to an utterly foreign setting. The new movie Arrival does just this with language. It is no spoiler to give the premise of the movie, since it is shown in the trailers: 12 UFOs have appeared around the earth, and a prominent linguist who has high-level security clearance is brought to the UFO in Montana to try to communicate with the aliens. This is the ultimate linguistic challenge. There is no shared history of any kind to draw on, and any attempt to get the communication started is fraught with frustration and sure to be misinterpreted in some way. Of course that makes for a good movie plot.
I’ve long been fascinated by language, how it works, and how it might work differently. In my high school German class, there was a student who was perplexed at gendered nouns and the lack of helping verbs. “I knew they had different words for everything,” he said, “but I thought we’d just have to learn those and substitute them for our words.” It turns out that words between languages don’t match up in a one-to-one relationship, and that means we shouldn’t expect there to be a one-to-one relationship between any language and the things in the world (both objects and events) that language names. In the beginning was the Word, but it didn’t come with a dictionary. Our human languages organize and conceptualize things in different ways. That makes translation a tricky business.
One of my sons is into strategy board games — not Monopoly or Connect Four like I grew up with, but the kind you find in specialty shops and at conventions where people dress up in costumes. Some of these are big and elaborate, with rule books the size of biblical commentaries, and they are so complex that I can’t devote the time to understanding the strategic intricacies necessary for competing or having much fun (e.g., Netrunner or Race for the Galaxy). But others have a kind of simplicity of design that still allows for rich and satisfying play for an occasional board gamer like me. In this latter category is a game called Concept my son recently brought home. You might think of it like charades, in which you have to get the other players on your team to guess some phrase, but instead of acting it out, you have to use a board with about 100 symbols and icons on it. By placing various tokens on these icons and symbols, you communicate to the other players, but not in a very precise way. It is really difficult to convey anything with much precision this way, but it’s a lot of fun to try.
In a sense, this is the situation faced by the linguist Dr. Banks in communicating with the aliens in Arrival. It takes a long time just to get some basic vocabulary, and they’re never really sure if they’ve got the meanings correct. How do you even begin to figure out how to ask, “Why did you come here?” In charades, we might point at them and make a walking guy motion with our fingers coming toward us; then maybe we shrug our shoulders and raise our eyebrows to indicate a question. But they don’t have shoulders or eyebrows, and their legs seem to be for different purposes than walking. How could they possibly make sense of our attempt to communicate like that?
After a few weeks of painfully slow progress at developing a working vocabulary, a crisis develops about the interpretation of one particular word. Does it refer to a tool or a gift or a weapon? That makes a pretty big difference for how the governments of the world will react to this tense situation. I don’t think it is giving away too much of the plot to reveal that there are differences between us and the aliens in how we understand the flow of time. If philosopher Immanuel Kant watched the movie, he’d be pleased to see that time isn’t just a thing “out there” that imposes itself on us, but rather time is imposed on experience by our minds (but—and I suppose this is closer to a spoiler—he wouldn’t be pleased to learn that different kinds of minds impose time differently).
Anyway, it’s a fantastic movie. I doubt it will become a pop culture phenomenon, as there aren’t any epic chase scenes or aliens blowing up the White House. It is paced very slowly, but manages to keep the tension heightened throughout (the music by Jóhann Jóhannsson helps with that).
There’s something similar (though not identical) between the translating difficulties in Arrival and the board game Concept and efforts to translate ancient languages like Hebrew to contemporary speech. Similar to Concept, there is a big difference in the number of words in the original language and target language. I’m told there are 8,679 different Hebrew words in the Old Testament; Merriam Webster reports there to be roughly one million words in English. Lots of those words (like “internet” and “photosynthesis”) won’t be used in translating ancient texts, but even so, it seems as though English is capable of much more fine-grained rendering of meaning than Hebrew is.
And similar to Arrival, we’re confronted with a vastly different context or cognitive environment in the ancient Near East. It just isn’t the case, like my high school German classmate thought, that we merely memorize which of our words substitute for theirs. For example, lots of ink has been spilled in the origins debate about the proper translation and understanding of the Hebrew word yom, which is usually translated as ‘day.’ The fact remains that it can mean several different things. So to translate it we must know more about the context. The same goes for raqia (usually translated as “firmament”) which in ancient Hebrew appears to refer to something that doesn’t actually exist–a solid dome that keeps the waters up above (except for when it rains and little “windows” open in the firmament). How are we supposed to translate this?
Sometimes this point makes people ask in despair, “So before I can read the Bible I have to get a PhD in biblical studies?!” No, everyone can pick up the Bible and read it profitably. God speaks to us through his word regardless of our educational level and background. But that claim must be balanced with this: we must find people we trust who have formally studied the languages and cultural contexts of the Bible, and let them help us read Scripture better. All of us have blind spots and presuppositions that cause us to misinterpret things some of the time. The academic study of Scripture helps to correct these. It is not necessary for a healthy relationship with God, but it is hugely important for sorting through the nuances of a very different language that comes from a very different time and place.
If you’re not sure where to begin this process of understanding the language and culture of the Bible, check out the Related Resources listed below.
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