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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 May 2023

Malcolm Guite discovers a Pentecostal theology of Bible translation

SOME years ago, as we came to the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible, I was asked to give a paper on Lancelot Andrewes, who had headed the First Westminster Company of translators and done much of the translation work himself. I wanted to find out whether he had, in any sense, a “theology of translation”. So, I read the complete run of his Pentecost sermons from 1604, when the work was commissioned, to 1611, when it was completed; and a wonderful and distinctly Pentecostal theology of translation did, indeed, emerge.

At the core of it was a delight in language itself, and the sheer diversity and variety of languages. It was a patristic commonplace to say that the miracle of translation at Pentecost was, in some sense, an undoing or reversal of the “confusion of tongues” at Babel. But, Andrewes points out, Pentecost is not strictly a reversal of Babel. If that were so, then all those people of diverse languages who heard the apostles would have suddenly understood Hebrew, and we would be back to Babel’s uniformity.

The Tower of Babel presents us with an image of arrogant human power: monoglot, mono-cultural, a triumphalist technology stamping its uniform logo on everything. God’s response, according to Andrewes, is not only to break the tower, but also to break the linguistic monopoly, and to scatter abroad into the world thousands of unique languages, each with its own way of imagining and describing the world. While the “curse” of Babel leads to “confusion of tongues”, it is also a blessing that leads to rich diversity and breadth of perspective.

And so, Andrewes says, God blesses the multiplicity of tongues and graces of every language with his gospel, because the sending of the Holy Spirit was “a benefit so great and so wonderful as there were not tongues enough on earth to celebrate it”.

As he goes on to say: “And so, by speaking all tongues they have gathered a church that speaks all tongues; a thing much tending to the glory of God. And indeed it was not meet one tongue only should be employed that way . . . but that all tongues should do it; which as a concert of many instruments might yield a full harmony. In which we behold the mighty work of God, that the same means of several tongues, which was the destroying of Babel, the very same is here made to work the building of Zion. . .”

In the sermons, Andrewes raises the obvious questions about the dangers of mistranslation and misunderstanding. Might not God be afraid of his Word being misinterpreted, or lost in translation?

Not at all, Andrewes says; for God himself has already made, and risked, the greatest translation of all, when the Word was made flesh. Indeed, in one of his sublime Christmas sermons, he takes a translation of Hebrew to make that very point: “The word that is Hebrew for flesh the same is also Hebrew for good tidings — as we call it, the Gospel, sure not without the Holy Ghost so dispensing it, there could be no other meaning but that some incarnation, or making flesh, should be generally good news for the whole world. To let us know this good tidings is come to pass he tells us the Word is now become flesh.”

Those insights of Andrewes’s certainly contributed to the closing couplet of my own sonnet on Pentecost: “Today the lost are found in his translation, Whose mother-tongue is Love, in every nation.”

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