Words and Meanings

Translation – as any translator will tell you – is not so much about translating words as about translating meaning. If you translate words without knowing what they mean – and I imagine that that is what machine translation does – you can easily fail to convey the correct meaning.

So a translator must have an excellent knowledge of the source language, the language of the original text which is to be translated, because they need to understand the meaning of the words. They also need to have mastered the target language into which they are translating, so that they can accurately convey the meaning of the original text in a way which the reader can easily understand.

This is especially difficult when the meaning is not easily understood, even by a native speaker. If the subject matter is physics or metaphysics or any other specialist topic, there are probably difficult or complicated concepts to grasp. Or there may be several layers of meaning – as in poetry, for example.

A translator really needs to have a very good understanding not only of the two languages, but also of the two cultures. When I’m translating a sermon by a German pastor into English for British church-goers, that isn’t too much of a problem. I’m very much at home both in the German Protestant Church and in church circles generally in both Britain and Germany. And the two cultures don’t differ that much.

I recently translated the annual report of Brot für die Welt, the German equivalent of Christian Aid. This included reports on projects in various countries such as Colombia (concerned with peace and human rights) and South Africa (concerned with the rights of mine workers and their families). I found it helpful to have visited South Africa, Ecuador, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Jamaica, and Palestine, so that I have some understanding of the context of Brot für die Welt’s project work. Indeed one of my two visits to Kenya was to take part in the evaluation of a Brot für die Welt project, the Quaker-run Rural Service Programme in Western Kenya. I didn’t have much trouble translating project reports or interviews with Brot für die Welt staff. But I did struggle a bit with the balance sheet, in spite of having produced the annual accounts for the European peace church network Church and Peace for several years.

I’m now getting involved in a major translation project which is likely to throw up a few problems: the translation of George Fox’s journal into modern German. George Fox was the principal founder of the Quakers, born in 1624 in the English Midlands. He was not only writing in 17th century English; he was living in a very different culture from that of 21st century Britain. Last year my wife and I spent five months at Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria. The Hall became the first headquarters of the growing Quaker movement after George Fox visited the Fell family there in 1652. I was able to get some sense of what life was like there in the 17th century. But I couldn’t turn the clock back and actually live at that time and experience the culture at first hand. So I have to make do with reading about those times. (Here I would strongly recommend Christopher Hill’s “The World Turned Upside Down”.)

Having been born in the 20th century, my knowledge and understanding of 17th century England and English is limited. But translating into German, which is not my mother tongue, could well be even more of a problem. So I’m glad that I’m working together with native German speakers and will not have to translate the whole journal (nearly 800 pages) myself.

One of the words used frequently by George Fox could cause us a few headaches or at least a lot of head-scratching. George Fox often quarrelled with people whom he disparagingly referred to as “professors”, people who professed their Christian faith but who did not actually know – or “possess” – Christ in their hearts. To translate “professor” as “Professor” or “Dozent” in German would obviously be wrong. But I have yet to find a suitable German word which conveys what George Fox meant by “professor”. “Fromme”, meaning a pious person, is the best I can come up with so far. Any alternative suggestions would be most welcome!

George Fox was at pains to point out that academic learning can be a waste of time and what really matters is to pay attention to the Spirit of Christ, our Inward Teacher, the Light which enlightens everyone who comes into the world.

Last night I dreamt that I was waiting in a courtyard to set off on a long journey with a fairly large group of people. I was one of the first to show up (which isn’t at all typical of me) with my large rucksack. (I guess I am carrying a fair amount of psychological baggage.) Slowly, more and more people entered the courtyard. I was looking out for the leader of the group, but no-one identified themselves. Eventually, when the courtyard had become rather crowded, someone started calling out my name. I couldn’t tell very easily where the voice was coming from and felt rather annoyed that the leader hadn’t identified himself before calling out my name. After a short while I saw who the leader was amongst the crowd, but I made a show of looking all around to make the point that the leader should have identified himself more obviously. I wonder now whether perhaps I should have been paying more attention to all the other people who were coming and going. I might then have noticed the leader when he arrived. Or maybe he was there all along.

Thomas Kelly, the 20th century Quaker mystic, possessed knowledge of Christ within. He wrote in “A Testament of Devotion”:

How, then, shall we lay hold of that Life and Power, and live the life of prayer without ceasing? By quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward Him who calls in the deeps of our souls.”

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Open up the cracks!

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

We are living in dark times.

We are reaping the consequences of three-and-a-half decades of neo-liberalism – economic policies which have made a few people extremely rich (in material terms) and many people poorer.

In Britain and many other countries children have been taught little about democracy and the rule of law. They have grown up to be adults who think that “human rights” is a dirty word and who believe that climate change is some sort of con-trick. They are now taking every opportunity to thumb their noses at the elite which has imposed austerity and cut public services to the bone. It is understandable that they should prefer unscrupulous demagogues who promise to help them out of their misery rather than democratic politicians who can only offer more of the same.

So we have Donald Trump soon to be president of the United States of America. I doubt whether he understands the concept of the rule of law. And I fear that he wouldn’t hesitate very long in launching one or two nuclear weapons – at Iran, for example. Just as worrying as the possibility of a conflict going nuclear, is the now more likely prospect of the world’s governments failing to take sufficient action to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees. This would be a tall order at the best of times.

And we have the United Kingdom heading for a “hard Brexit”. The British people cannot have their cake and eat it, whatever David Davis might think. If Theresa May and her government insist on limiting the free movement of people between the EU and the UK, the UK will have to leave the single market. Most people in Britain are only just beginning to understand the dire economic consequences of leaving the single market. They had better learn quickly. Otherwise they will be in for a rude awakening in a couple of years’ time.

Yesterday I took a Belgian visitor for a walk around Siegburg, the town near Bonn where I live. Our first stop was the Jewish cemetery. Unfortunately the gate was locked, probably to prevent vandalism. But through the gate I could just about read a display board which told the history of the Jewish community in Siegburg. The first documentary evidence of a Jewish presence here dates from the thirteenth century. So far as we know, the first Jewish family settled in Siegburg in 1287. The history of the Jewish community ended with Kristallnacht (“the Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938, when the synagogue was destroyed by fire, and the deportation of the Jewish population to concentration camps.

This morning in the protestant church around the corner we sang a well-known Advent hymn by Jochen Klepper, a protestant theologian who married a Jew. He composed the hymn, Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen”, in Advent 1937. It is one of my favourite hymns alongside Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben”. Jochen Klepper was inspired by Paul’s words to the Romans: “The night is nearly over, day is almost here. Let us stop doing the things that belong to the dark, and let us take up weapons for fighting in the light.” (Romans 13:12) I should dig out my translation of Jochen Klepper’s hymn. I can only remember a couple of lines: “The night is nearly over. The dawn shines from afar. So let us raise our voices to greet the morning star.”

Those were dark times in the thirties, not only in Germany. The Great Depression was brought to an end by massive public spending – on weapons and military infrastructure.

What we need now in these dark times of today is a major programme of public spending, not on weapons, but on new technology and infrastructure to replace fossil-fuel intensive manufacturing and transport. Germany is at the forefront of the transition to a low-carbon economy. New legislation is paving the way for investment in renewable energy and demand reduction through increased efficiency.

There are cracks letting in the light. One such instance is the success of the Liberal Democrat candidate in the recent bye-election in Richmond Park, overturning a Conservative majority of 24,000. This was helped by the Green Party, led by Caroline Lucas, deciding not to field a candidate and encouraging voters to support the Liberal Democrats. Only a broad progressive alliance, including the Labour Party as well as the Lib Dems and the Greens, can stand up against UKIP and the right-wing Tories who are driving Britain towards a hard Brexit.

There is light on the other side of the Atlantic as well. A US-American friend of mine told me a few days ago that he has a nephew who works for a city in North Carolina. The city has a strong policy on combating climate change. Cities, counties, and states across the USA can do what needs to be done to combat climate change regardless of what is going on (or not going on) at the White House. The local and state jurisdictions just need plenty of support and encouragement from all the citizens whose dream is of a democratic, open, tolerant, and sustainable society.

Advent hymns exhort us to “Open up the gates!”, “Open up your doors!” “Open up wide for the new coming king!”

Leonhard Cohen sang:

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

Let us open up all the cracks. And let the light into our hearts, our communities, and our nations.

Loving our Enemies

Have you tried loving your enemies? It isn’t easy. An enemy is someone who hates you, makes you suffer, hurts you callously.

My natural reaction to someone who’s hurting me is to fight back or to run away – fight or flight. And my natural reaction to someone who hates me is to hate them back.

I’m usually – not always – able to curb my tendency to fight back. I am, after all, a pacifist, supposedly committed to nonviolence. It becomes difficult to live with myself, when I hurt someone deliberately. I also believe that when I hurt someone deliberately I do more damage to my own soul than I do to them.

The alternative is to flee, to run away – or walk away, to leave the room, to leave the relationship. But that is invariably also a form of violence.

There is another alternative, another way: to stand one’s ground as lovingly as one possibly can. We can only truly do this, if we are grounded in love. Otherwise, standing one’s ground can easily become another way of fighting back. If we are to stand our ground lovingly, we must love our enemies.

And the first step towards loving an enemy, is to refuse to hate them – even when they hate us – or seem to. In response to hatred we choose to love. We choose to do what seems to be impossible: to love an enemy and to do good to someone who’s hurting us.

Jesus did this, and if we’re serious about following Jesus we should do this too. Never mind how difficult or even impossible it may seem.

Love comes with practice.

Jean Goss had to practise love in a prisoner of war camp near Lübeck during the Second World War. He had killed a great many German soldiers when he and his comrades were holding the German army back whilst allied soldiers were being evacuated from Dunkirk. After he had been fighting non-stop for five days and nights, in the early hours of Easter Day, Jean experienced an epiphany. He saw that all the soldiers, Germans as well as French, had been created by God and were loved by God, and that God just wanted all these human beings to love each other and to be happy. That night Jean learnt that his mission was to pass this message on to all the human beings who were fighting each other.

Soon after this exhilarating encounter with God, Jean – along with many others – was captured. He spent more than three years in the POW camp near Lübeck. There he tried to love not only his fellow prisoners of war but also the German officers who ran the camp. He asked his fellow prisoners to tell him, whenever they observed that he wasn’t being loving. His loving actions in difficult situations got him into serious trouble more than once. In a POW camp, serious trouble meant that you could easily be killed.

In one of these difficult situations, after some discussion with a Marxist fellow prisoner, Jean decided to go to the camp commandant and tell him that he would take the blame for what was going wrong. The commandant cried out, “No, not you! Go away! You can’t do that!” and chose to take the responsibility upon himself. He was taken away by military police two days later.

Seven or eight other prisoners joined Jean in what he was doing – asking others to challenge them, if they weren’t being loving in a certain situation. This transformed the camp to such an extent that prisoners from other camps asked what was going on. Jean’s reply was: “We try to love, as Christ has loved us.”

Just staying out of things and doing nothing to alleviate suffering or put an end to injustice is not loving. Intervention is necessary. Jean took the risk of intervening in a serious conflict and very nearly lost his life. He was beaten, tortured, and sentenced to death. When he was about to be executed, Jean told the camp commandant that he felt joy at the prospect of being united with the God of love, and that this God also loved the camp commandant. As he was speaking to the commandant, Jean was able to love him with all his strength and from the bottom of his heart. The officer clearly sensed this. He laid his revolver aside and refused to carry out the execution.

Many years later, in 1985, Jean wrote to his wife, Hildegard (Goss-Mayr), about this episode:

“You know, before that I had tried to love the Germans, the officers who were running the camp. But it wasn’t until I was being beaten and tortured that I really began to love them. That released within me an incredible, a most extraordinary love. And, look! It was at that moment that I understood that it isn’t me who loves. It is HE, Jesus Christ, who loves in me!

“If this love is so strong that it can convert even a Nazi, an enemy, then, I said to myself, it is the truly revolutionary power which can make people and the world new again.”

Footnote: Jean Goss’ experiences as a soldier and prisoner of war are recounted by Hildegard Goss-Mayr in her book, “Wie Feinde Freunde Werden: Mein Leben mit Jean Goss für Gewaltlosigkeit, Gerechtigkeit und Versöhnung”, published by Verlag Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau, in 1996.

The plight of non-Jewish communities in Palestine

It’s cold here in Ramallah. It snowed last night. It was still snowing when I got up this morning. But it was wet snow. And by the time I set off to go to Jerusalem it had turned to rain.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at the bus station, there were no buses. A taxi driver offered to take me to the checkpoint at Qalandia for 50 Shekels. I knew this was extortionate, so I turned down the offer. He called me back and went down to 40 Shekels and then to 30 Shekels. I suggested 25 Shekels, but was persuaded to agree to pay 30 Shekels. I probably needn’t have paid more than 25 Shekels, but I don’t like arguing.

The checkpoint was very quiet, just a few men who were probably going to work in spite of the weather. We were soon allowed through the barrier and the security check. The soldier gave my passport a very cursory glance and waved me on. On other occasions my passport has been studied very carefully as I held it up against the glass pane separating the Israeli soldiers from those of us passing through the checkpoint.

A Palestinian who was leaving the checkpoint along with me, asked where I came from. “England”, I said. He complained that the Israelis treat him and his fellow Palestinians like animals. In fact they probably treat animals better, he said. Then, referring no doubt to the Balfour Declaration, he complained about us British giving their (the Palestinians’) land to the Israelis.

The Israeli government seems to have forgotten or, more likely, simply ignored the clause in the Balfour Declaration which states “ it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

In 1948 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and became refugees. In 1967 during the Six Day War many more refugees were created. And the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights were occupied by Israel.

Since then many Palestinians have lost their land where Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, have been built. Some of their land, especially in the Jordan Valley, is now farmed by Israeli enterprises which export most of their produce, mainly dates, to Europe. And some of their land has been designated as military zones which may be used for training.

There was some good news today, though. The Prawer Plan, which entails the removal of 30,000 to 40,000 Bedouin from 35 villages in the Negev, has been withdrawn from the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. An ostensible reason for the withdrawal is that one of the two authors of the plan told the Knesset that, contrary to what some government ministers were saying, he had not consulted the Bedouin when drawing up the plan.

The vast majority of the Bedouin have made it very clear that they do not wish to have their land taken away from them and their semi-nomadic way of life destroyed. If the Israeli government were serious about consulting the Bedouin, they would know that they want their existing villages to be provided with the same services and infrastructure that Jewish communities are provided with: water, electricity, sewerage, and schools.

The Israeli government encourages and supports the establishment and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. These settlements are effectively stealing not only Palestinian land, but also Palestinian water. The village of Auja, which I visited with Quaker Voluntary Action a few weeks ago, has suffered especially. Most of the villagers used to work on the land, but the nearby springs have dried up due to Israeli extraction of the water. So the villagers are now unemployed or have to find work in the Israeli plantations where water is plentiful. The “miracle” of making the desert bloom is performed using stolen water.

Benjamin Netanyahu is apparently insisting that Israeli soldiers be stationed in the Jordan Valley for ten years, if a two-state solution is implemented. I wonder whether he would agree to Palestinian soldiers being stationed in the Negev to protect the Bedouin? I guess not, because he wants any Palestinian state to be demilitarised (apart from the stationing of Israeli troops).

I’m all for states being demilitarised. Israel could begin the process by dismantling and disposing of its nuclear weapons.

Where is the Palestinian Mandela?

It has been reported that a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi, was shot dead yesterday by an Israeli sniper whilst walking near his school in Jalazun, a refugee camp north of Ramallah.

The boy’s father said that he was shot by an Israeli soldier from a watchtower in nearby Bet El. “He was hit directly in the back, and there were no clashes in the area.”

“Clashes” usually take the form of stone-throwing by Palestinian youths, which is met with tear-gas and rubber-coated steel bullets by the Israel Defence Forces. Perhaps the boy had been involved in “clashes” in the recent past and was singled out by the sniper. His father said that “Israeli soldiers target youths and kill them, in order to amuse themselves”.

Perhaps the soldier who killed Wajih Wajdi al-Ramahi wanted to avenge the death of an Israeli soldier who was stabbed by a Palestinian whilst sleeping on a bus a week or so ago.

Will Wajih Wajdi’s brothers now seek revenge? It is unlikely that anyone will be tried for his murder. Israeli soldiers literally get away with murder, as we have seen in the case of a young Palestinian who was shot dead with a tear-gas canister at very close range two years ago. The soldier who fired the tear-gas canister out of the back of a vehicle claimed that he couldn’t see the young man and has recently been acquitted in court.

I can’t condone Palestinian relatives of murder victims taking revenge on Israeli soldiers, who are mostly young conscripts. But it is understandable that they should want to do so. It is perhaps also understandable that young Israelis should want to avenge the death of a comrade.

So where will it all end? Jesus said, as he was being arrested, that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. I think it was Gandhi who said that “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” would leave everyone blind and toothless.

Jesus had the answer. He advised his listeners, who were suffering under the Roman occupation, to turn the other cheek, to go an extra mile, and to give their shirt as well, when their coat was taken from them.

Walter Wink has explained how each of these actions would have been a form of nonviolent resistance. Roman legionaries, for example, were allowed to force a local peasant to carry their pack for one mile only. If the peasant were to continue to carry the pack for more than a mile, the soldier could get into trouble. I can imagine a soldier pleading with a peasant to give him his pack back. The soldier might begin to question whether it is right and just for him to demand that a peasant carry his pack in the first place. He might even begin to question the legitimacy of the occupation.

Until the time of Constantine Christians were forbidden to serve in the army. If a soldier became a Christian, he had to leave the army. The three historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and the Church of the Brethren) all sought to revive the discipleship of the early Christian Church. They all promote active nonviolence as the way to overcome injustice and oppression.

In Palestine today it isn’t only Christians who are advocating nonviolent resistance to the Israeli occupation. Muslims are advocating this too.

Sometimes people ask: Where is the Palestinian Mandela? Well, maybe there are thousands of Palestinian Mandelas. Most of them are probably in Israeli jails. And some of them have been shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela

The Central and Southern Africa Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends’ Statement on the Passing of Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela

We mourn the passing of our former President and leader, Nelson Mandela. Although Madiba was of a great age, his death marks the end of an era. The people of South Africa and the region are filled with love and sadness.  We also express our condolences to his family and friends, in their grief. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) of Central and Southern Africa wish to express our deep sadness at Madiba’s passing. At the same time, our deep admiration, respect and gratitude for Mandela’s life and the legacy that he has left not only South Africa but also Africa and the world.

“Freedom is in your hands” is a line from a well-known freedom song sung during the dark days of apartheid. Millions of South Africans stood up to the violence and brutality of the apartheid state and to the degradation of official racism.  Nelson Mandela was our leader, and it did seem that freedom was in his hands. Mandela’s human and spiritual qualities lit the path to genuine liberation. He was steadfast in his refusal to accept a lesser status for black people, steadfast in his refusal to hate white people, steadfast in his determination to bring about freedom and equality – liberating all of us, black and white. He was a man of rare magnanimity – of “great spirit’’, responding with forgiveness and reconciliation to provocation and suffering.

Nelson Mandela led with strength, grace, humour, and humility. He eschewed the riches that some take from high office. After stepping down as President, he focused his energies on developing and supporting the most vulnerable, the children of our nation.

This is a difficult time for South Africans. We will have to face our future without the calm, guiding presence of Mandela. We may feel uncertain, anxious, and even fearful. Mandela would not want this for us.  He would want us to reach out to each other, to stand together to meet the challenges of our future.

We recommit ourselves to the central challenge of our time – to continue Mandela’s struggle for equality and freedom. The Religious Society of Friends has long recognised that social justice is the basis for peace among people. We view the massive inequalities in wealth, not only in South Africa but also Africa and the world, as a dangerous threat to peace and stability. Genuine freedom includes the freedom to develop our full potential as human beings. Extreme poverty does not allow this and so the wealth gap must be tackled to allow for genuine social development.

We honour Mandela’s vision of a country at peace with itself and recommit ourselves to realising this in our life time.

Hamba Kahle Nelson Mandela, our Madiba!

6 December 2013

Friday prayers – Christian Peacemaker Teams – Nelson Mandela

Friday mornings are quiet in Ramallah, like Sunday mornings used to be in Britain. Today I got to go along to the mosque for Friday prayers around 11.30. A visiting Quaker friend and I were taken along by Saleem, whose wife works as a part-time administrator for the Quakers here.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God. And I learnt at a workshop at the recent international conference of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre in Jerusalem that “Islam” means submission to God (Allah) and that, broadly-speaking, anyone who submits to God is a Muslim.

So it felt right to join my Muslim brothers in prayer, to bow to God along with Saleem and everyone else, and to kneel and prostrate myself with my forehead touching the carpeted floor. Would that it were as easy to submit myself to God inwardly as it is to submit myself outwardly.

Apart from occasional references to Muslims and the Quran, I understood nothing of the sermon. If I come to Palestine again for any length of time, I shall want to make a serious attempt to learn Arabic.

Christopher Hatton, a British Quaker who has been living in Hamburg for ten years, appeared just as I was about to set off with Saleem for the mosque. Christopher came along with us. He knows some Arabic, but I don’t think he understood much more of the sermon than I did.

Christopher was on his way to Hebron. He is about to begin his third stint with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) in Palestine. CPT aims to support Palestinian nonviolent resistance to injustice.

A couple of years ago Christopher served with CPT in the South Hebron Hills. One of their tasks was to observe the goings-on at “flying checkpoints” which were being set up on the roads by the Israeli occupying forces. The Palestinians, mostly shepherds going about their work, were treated less violently when CPTers were watching.

Christopher is now going to spend five weeks with CPT in Hebron, where a growing population of Israeli settlers is harassing the Palestinian inhabitants. The harassment is worst on Saturdays, when settlers, with the protection of Israeli soldiers, go on the rampage through the market. I plan to visit Hebron next Saturday and may get to witness that

When Christopher and I got back from visiting the mosque this morning, I opened up my laptop to show him some photographs. There was the news that Nelson Mandela had died.

I remember watching on TV when he walked out of prison in 1993. Few Nobel Peace Prize laureates deserve the prize as much as he did. After spending 27 years in prison (all but the last year or two on Robben Island), he negotiated a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy, offered white South Africans reconciliation and forgiveness instead of retaliation and retribution, and voluntarily relinquished power at the end of a five-year term as president.

No doubt it helped that F.W. de Klerk and other leading white politicians recognised that the writing was on the wall for South African apartheid. They had the choice between a negotiated transition to majority rule and a likely bloodbath.

When will Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers in the Israeli coalition government realise that the writing is on the wall for Israeli apartheid? They have a choice between a two-state solution that does justice to Palestinian aspirations (and that has to include recognition of the right to return of refugees from 1948 and 1967) and a long battle against Palestinian resistance which could eventually result in majority rule in a single democratic state.

But perhaps the real question is: How much longer will the world tolerate Israel’s apartheid policies and their oppression of the Palestinians?