To the best of my knowledge, the word "shallow" cannot be said in one word in French ("peu profond"); another difficult word to translate is "cogent" (how different is it from "coherent"?); other delightful English words: flabbergasted; mind-boggling; the countless nouns and verbs describing sight, light, and sounds (glisten, glare, gleam , rustle, etc...) are similarly without a parallel word. Another English word with no one-word French equivalent is "Peck", which translated into French is "Donner de coupe de la bec" or "Attack with the front of the beak."
It seems that in fact every language has words and concepts with no single equivalent in other languages. For example, there is no "logic" nor "romance" in Chinese (ok, there are modern day phonetic translations). Try translating/explaining the Danish "hygge" to English. A friend of mine says that there is no foreign equivalent for the word "stuff" in its "collection of things" sense. According to former US President George W Bush "...the problem with the French is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur." Although, with this in mind we might reflect that neither does Portuguese have the words "bully" or "impeach”.
This aspect of translating words popped into my mind this week when I read that Bristol University said that its Dr Gerard Cheshire had “succeeded where countless cryptographers, (including Alan Turing!) linguistics scholars and computer programs have failed” by identifying the language and purpose of a mysterious and apparently coded 15th-century text, the ‘Voynich Manuscript.
Although the meaning of the volume, held at Yale University, had eluded experts for more than a century, the university said Cheshire had solved the puzzle in just two weeks “using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity”. Cheshire argued Voynich was a therapeutic reference book composed by nuns for Maria of Castile, queen of Aragon, and the sole surviving text written in a lost language called “proto-Romance”. He described his findings as “one of the most important developments to date in Romance linguistics”. Although in the last few days the University has backtracked a little, claiming that this still remains an unproven theory, Dr Cheshire has not, heralding his breakthrough as being even more important that the discovery of the meaning of the manuscript, because, through it, we might have knowledge not just about the language itself, but of the whole ‘Proto Romance’ culture, society and civilisation, of which it is the only (known) survivor.
How we know about a society, an event or a person from the past is necessarily only communicated to us through what it leaves behind and points to; in the case of history this would be things like written documents, art and archaeology. As we look in June towards the great Christian feast of Pentecost however, it seems to me that it is of crucial importance to us in understanding, finding out about and indeed experiencing Easter –in fact I’d go so far as to say that if it weren’t for Pentecost, we wouldn’t even know about Easter!
Consider the backstory. Jesus spent forty days with his disciples, (before they were to transformed into ‘apostles’ at Pentecost), they were no doubt a bit bereft when he ascended back to his father, but he had to do this if he was not to be limited to their time and place but to be what he was meant to be – feeling perhaps a bit like parents watching their children go off to university!
More than that, seven days after the ascension, the disciples, as they still were, joined thousands of others in Jerusalem at ‘the feast of weeks’, the end of the Passover festival in which the first sheaf of the barley harvest would be offered before God in the temple, anticipating the greater harvest that was to come in the summer. Well on the fiftieth day after Passover (Pentecost comes from the greek word for fifty, ie pent – five), that harvest was begun for the disciples, who were then turned into apostles, by the result of Jesus becoming for all ages; the holy spirit came and as the memory of all Isreal celebrated the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, so the apostles could show that muliti ethnic jewish population that deliverance from all that enslaves and holds us in bondage is available, and that what God uttered through the prophet Joel had come true,
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” Acts 2: 16-18
This is why the story of Pentecost is the lens through which we both know about and see the meaning of Easter. It promises that whatever happens to us in life, Jesus is there with us through his holy spirit. It shows that, just as the three thousand souls who were added to the Church on that first Pentecost Sunday were from all corners of the Roman world – just as in fact the population of Rome itself was – so the narrative arc of Acts shows the Easter story being carried out of Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (as they understood it at the time!). It shows that people knew about Easter because of and through Pentecost. It finally points beyond even that, to a promise of fulfilment of which we can catch wonderful glimpses in the fulfilments that the work of the holy spirit is able to work in us, if only we let it. If the Voynich manuscript is the only lens through which we may see the whole proto Romance culture, then our understanding of Easter is in the same way shown to us through the lens of Pentecost; it might not be able to be understood logically, but there’s no end, in the true meaning of the word, to the romance.
Your friend and vicar