A Concept-Breach in crossing cultures

16 Feb

I recently purchased a wireless doorbell that will hopefully be more reliable than the poorly wired one we have at our gate.  As I read through the instructions for the doorbell I was struck by the difficulties of crossing cultures and how language is more than just translating words.
Take a look at this section of instructions and see if you can figure out what the writer was trying to convey.  
The English is awkward but the meaning can be deduced.  
This isn’t as clear, but I think the writer is saying this is well designed
Fly Upwards-Space….What in the world does this mean?
Now we know that it took engineers with good education to design this product. They not only had to design the dimensions but also had to figure out how to best place the antennas, create the best wireless connection for the longest distance, and make it simple to use for the average customer.  Then Marketing came into the picture to position the product for an English-speaking audience.  Their job was to highlight the best features and make the product sound attractive.  I can just picture the Marketing department writing excellent prose in Mandarin then plugging it into Google Translate to get the English version.  Word for word Google magically produced the English equivalent of the best Mandarin marketing message.  But translation is more than just converting words or ideas, it’s truly understanding the target culture and building the message from scratch.
We often talk with churches and leaders who want to bring their skills and training to help the Latino/Caribbean church.  The US church has a plethora of materials, programs and trainings that have been very effective in a range of needs: marriage, conflict management, organizational structure, etc.  Seeing God use these to grow the body of Christ in the States naturally leads many to think it will be just as effective in another culture.  Have the materials translated, throw in a few nationals to help with live translation, and whammo, you’re ready to go.  That may be a “Concept-Breach”.
There are all kinds of Bible programs, seminaries, and books available in Spanish (spoken by less than half the Latin America/Caribbean population), yet only a few are truly effective.  Culture here dictates that no matter how effective they are, guests from the States are warmly welcomed and told how wonderful their training or program is.  Whereas in much of the States people prefer to be told the truth and receive constructive criticism, culturally that is not likely to happen in countries below the Rio Grande. 
It gets even more challenging when we as missionaries learn the language but still have a lot to learn about the culture.  I can use the right words but totally miss the cultural application.  I was recently given an example of this by my Spanish tutor. He was translating for a visiting pastor from the States who, when introducing the subject of personal purity said, “this is a hard topic.” That can certainly be translated literally but it would not carry the intended message.  Instead, it was translated, “this is a strong topic.”  By translating it that way the audience understands that they need to pay attention to what will be a challenging subject.  In English the translation “strong” doesn’t carry the same meaning.  A simple example, but its impact is important.  Take a look above at the last line of the section titled Fly Upwards Space.  If someone said to me, “with this product you can share the happiness of knowing the arrival of your friends.” I would laugh and likely miss the impact he hoped I would feel from his words, even if I do understand what he’s trying to say.  This happens frequently when a person crosses cultures to bring the Good News.  
Learning a language is a very small part of communicating.  To communicate well is a lifelong endeavor and takes a lot of humility.  We make mistakes, have embarrassing moments, and fail frequently in our desire to impact people with what God has given us to do.  It truly puts us in a position of dependence on the Holy Spirit to have the impact.  We become tools that He uses to build the kingdom.  
I, our staff, and those who come short term to serve with us have to constantly remind ourselves:
  • Our impact is most effective when it’s less of us and more of the Holy Spirit doing his work.
  • Humility is key to learning how to communicate well.
  • Our programs, trainings and skills don’t often translate well into another culture.
  • God may change what we thought we were going to do and use it to accomplish his goals with those we serve.
  • We’re going to make some pretty ridiculous mistakes along the way. God has a sense of humor.
  • In spite of the seriousness of the ministry, we can’t take ourselves too seriously.  I need to laugh with those who are laughing at me.
After all, I’m still laughing and trying to figure out what they mean by “Fly Upwards-Space.”
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