Multilingual Experience and Reading Greek
I had an interesting experience reading the Greek text of Acts 2:1-20 this morning in church.
Yes. I confess to being one of those geeks who takes his Greek New Testament to church. There are quite a few people at my church who have seminary degrees, including studies of the biblical languages, so I’m not that out-of-place in doing this, though I am in the distinct minority. I take it because I enjoy reading the Greek text of any New Testament passages read in worship.
Today being Pentecost, the passage from Acts was read in five different languages, starting with English, and changing languages every verse or so. As the English was read, as usual, I read along in Greek, not paying much attention to the English reading, but when the language suddenly switched to Russian, I was jarred by the sudden lack of mooring for keeping pace with the reader. I had not thought much before about the fact that I usually finish a sentence in Greek at the same time that sentence is completed in the English translation being read aloud. It just seemed normal. But when the language being read aloud was Russian (and I understand no Russian) I could continue reading in Greek, but had no way to judge the pace. From Russian the reading switched to Portuguese. While I do understand a little Portuguese, I found that I was equally unable to keep pace. Then the reading switched to Spanish. Suddenly I could keep perfect time with the reading, then it switched to Mandarin. All ability to keep pace vanished again.
It suddenly hit me that my usual experience of reading in Greek in worship is actually a bilingual experience. I must be paying attention to the English, even though I was not doing so consciously. How else would I keep pace with it? How did my ability to keep pace return when the reading switched to Spanish today? I must have been simultaneously processing the Spanish along with the Greek.
For a short time while I lived in Louisville, Kentucky I had a job as a simultaneous translator for the Western Kentucky U.S. District Court. It hit me this morning that what I do while reading Greek and hearing the text in another language is what used to happen on the job in the court. The two languages would recede into the background, and my work felt more like just repeating what I heard without thinking too hard about how I was saying it.
This is not very different from what I experience with Spanish and English on a daily basis. I regularly have conversations in which some participants speak fluent English and little Spanish while others speak fluent Spanish with little English. As I navigate these conversations, I don’t actually think consciously about which language to use. I simply respond in the language that seems necessary.
My experience this morning raised questions that I will ponder for some time. In a sense, it felt more like Pentecost than any Pentecost service ever has before.