In last Sunday’s sermon, the fifth in a series on what are sometimes known as the “hard sayings” of Jesus, I was doing my best to explain what Jesus meant when he said, “Your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19).
Somehow the translation “made well” doesn’t capture the richness of meaning that Jesus intended. And yet the word Jesus used is very nearly impossible to translate.
But, I said, the word contained precisely the ambiguity (or the richness) of meaning that he wanted.
Did he mean faith made the leper physically well, or that it made him whole (as in having his humanity restored), or that it saved him? And the answer is, “Yes! All that and more.”
Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible known as The Message, has Jesus saying, “Your faith has healed and saved you.” (Contemporary translations apparently don’t like ambiguity. Better to make things clear.) But even that translation – with apologies to Peterson for the heroic work he has done with The Message – doesn’t quite do it.
I started to wonder if there were any words like that in the English language and Googled “untranslatable English words,” thinking that “very nearly impossible to translate English words” was not a good search.
And as almost always happens with Internet searches, I came up with some interesting information, much more than I could possibly use. Turns out, English has lots of words like these – from “bling,” to “cheesey,” to “poppycock,” to “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Even using Google as a verb is arguably an example of this phenomenon.
In fact, most languages have words like these. And when English speakers come across them, we Americans typically import them into the language without translation.
At a favorite restaurant in Holland, Michigan (de Boer’s Cafe and Bakery), the serving staff wears T-shirts with the Dutch word “gezellig.” Apparently the German language translates the word “gemutlich,” but the word has no real counterpart in English. Cozy, friendly, comfortable, pleasant, easy-going, and genial are all candidates, but – hey! – why translate when everyone knows what “gezellig” means?
So, back to Jesus.
When he said to the leper who had been healed that his faith had made him well, he was saying, “Your skin is clear, yes, but you’ve just been given something a great deal more precious.”
I feel as though I’ve been given the same gift.