. . . the Lord confused the language of all the earth . . . — Genesis 11: 9
As someone who grew up between languages, I have always been fascinated by the idea of translation. With a father who didn’t speak English and a mother who didn’t speak French, I was a verbal bridge between them for a very long time. Admittedly, in the course of their marriage they learned to mangle each other’s language, yet it remained true that I largely only spoke French with my dad, and English with my mom, and Franglais when they were both together. “Can you pass le sel?” I’d say, or “la poutine is great!” Unilingual friends often felt at sea at my place. “It was like being on the border of two countries,” a classmate once grumbled, “and not belonging in either.”
Perhaps because of this I have always been fascinated by the section of Genesis that describes the building of the Tower of Babel. According to some, the tower was built as a safeguard against a second flood, hence demonstrating humanity’s attempt to second-guess or outwit God. In anger at this arrogance, the Lord “confused” the languages of the Earth. As a child, though, the story was an almost physical emblem of the tensions in the community between English and French in Montreal, and a fabulously logical example of the power of language to divide.
Over time, though, I began to look at this in another way. The formation of the languages created the world in all its magnificent diversity. After the Lord eliminated a common tongue, He “scattered” the people “abroad over the face of the earth” (Gen 11: 9). Could it be, I wondered, that God wanted to test how human beings might find better ways to communicate at a deeper and more substantial level, by removing the easy tools of speech?
Certainly, for my parents, language was eventually no boundary at all. Through love, they learned to hear each other for decades until their death. Since then I have comforted myself with the thought that the Word is about the importance of communication and translation. And I remind myself that for the Bible itself — however translated, in whatever language or form — the essence of the work is deeper and more mysterious than we can ever fully comprehend. And so understanding must always be a journey.
I once asked Mom if the mystique of my father disappeared as she learned his language. “No,” she answered shyly, “because his accent always reminds me of that other world.” Perhaps, in the end, that’s what we should always listen for whenever the Bible is read: the echo of a greater mystery — call it the accent of God — which is always compelling and just out of reach. For that reason faith must always be actively pursued rather than passively received. That, surely, should be clear in any language.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.