About 19 years ago, I learned a great lesson about the perils of translation. I was 19 years old and had just finished up the grueling 8 week language program in the Missionary Training Center before being sent to Brazil for my mission. If anyone else has tried to learn a language in 8 weeks, you can empathize that it’s not all that simple. If you couple this with the fact that other Americans, not Brazilians, were the ones trying to teach me, it meant that I had a lot of work to do.
But, for 16 hours a day, for 8 weeks, I worked, learned, practiced, practiced, listened, listened and practiced. So much so, that I felt I was half Brazilian after about 7 weeks. I was sure that in all the years of the MTC there had never been a more fluent American missionary. I had set records. I would have a plaque on the wall. I was pumped to go and blow the faces off the Brazilians with my 8 week old Portuguese.
I felt that I had a huge advantage because I had spent the last 3 years in high school learning Spanish. I loved it. I loved trying to talk with my friends in high school for practice, and I was excited to transition that into Portuguese because they were so similar. Many of the words were the same, the verbs conjugated in the same way, and I was picking it up pretty easily. I thought I was awesome.
As the end of the 8 weeks came, and it was time to head to real Brazil to put my newly crafted skill to use, I started to get a little nervous. I had begun to realize that if any conversation wasn’t about the gospel, breakfast, cats and dogs, ice cream, or what time it was, I was going to struggle. I started trying to think in Portuguese, and translate full sentences in my head just to be ready.
When I finally got to Brazil, myself and all the new American missionaries were able to get together at the Mission President’s house to meet him, his family, as well as the missionary leaders. We were all exhausted. We had just spent the last 36 hours on several different planes, and transfer buses, and were now in a time zone that gave us some serious jet lag. In addition to our thrown off sleep patterns, no one spoke English. This led to a scenario where there were a lot of Elders who, instead of spiritual firecrackers, were more like little deer caught in the headlights.
The Mission President’s wife had a favorite tradition she would do each time the new missionaries came from America. She would take out her video camera, start recording, and then, in a mix of Portuguese and the occasional English word, go around to each wide-eyed Elder, and do simple little individual interviews or introductions while we were milling around in the apartment.
The questions were simple, but the pressure was on. This was, of course, for the entertainment of the Brazilians, and for us to be able to watch and laugh at ourselves and our stumbling Portuguese 2 years later when we would watch it again, as we left the mission on our way back home.
I was confident that I could handle this simple task. I wasnt looking forward to being recorded necessarily, but I was ready to be the best there ever was with my flawless Brazilian accent.
When the camera was finally on me, and the question came, “Oi, Elder, qual é o seu nome?” Or, “Hi, Elder, what is your name?” I understood perfectly. I had been in this scenario a million times before. I had played this out in my mind, I had silently practiced over and over. I knew what I should say, and I was ready to shine, it was go time…..right up until my mouth opened.
At that very moment, the moment of my rise to Portuguese stardom, the moment that the whole room would pause, and gasp in amazement at my stellar, perfect Portuguese, I blew it. My brain was running left instead of right, my tongue went up instead of down. The little gerbils running the translation department in my brain passed out, and all that came out of my mouth was, “Yo me llamo Elder Alexander.” Which in Spanish means, “My name is Elder Alexander”. The obvious problem was that I wasn’t anywhere near anyone, or even any country, that spoke Spanish.
My brain had barfed all over my shoes and reverted back to the Spanish I had learned in high school. So much for first impressions. But, that isn’t all. I could have survived if it was just a little slip up in the languages. The biggest problem with my slip up, was that in Portuguese, “Eu me amo” doesn’t mean “my name is”, it means, “I love myself”.
So, there I was, on day one, ready to be crowned the best Portuguese speaker ever, and as soon as my mouth opened, I blurted out, on camera, in front of everyone, that “I love myself, Elder Alexander”. The mission President’s wife, and two boys busted up laughing uncontrollably. The two boys were around 9 and 11. The perfect ages to make fun of the gringo Elders as they came through. I had given them just what they wanted. The translation didn’t go as I had planned. Needless to say, I wasn’t crowned most impressive Portuguese speaker that day.
The worst part of this story is that I only had to relive this almost every day, every single conference, and each time I saw those two boys for the next two years. The gift of humility I guess. The moral of the story? Sometimes things do get lost in translation.
Two days ago, I learned about another translation snafu. I was reading and getting ready for my lesson this Sunday when I came across this scripture in Genesis. This is where the Lord is creating Eve and presenting her to Adam.
“And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” (Genesis 2:18)
The interesting thing about this scripture is the word “help meet”. I had heard that word a bazillion times before, but this time, the manual said something about the word “meet” meaning “equal”. I had never heard that before. So I looked into it. Turns out, the word “help meet” is a lot more complex than I ever realized.
First of all, the word “help meet”is like the 10% of an iceberg that is visible. If we look at what that word really means, it opens up the real purpose and role of Eve, as well as her relationship to Adam. In addition to that, I think it will open our own eyes to what our relationship should be with the women in our lives.
In Hebrew, the two words that “help meet” are derived from are “Ezer” and ‘k’enegdo¹”. Ezer is a word that is a combination of two word roots, one means “to rescue”, or “to save”, and the other means “to be strong”.
The noun “ezer” occurs 21 times in the Hebrew Bible. In eight of these instances, the word means “savior”. It is the word most frequently used to describe God in his relationship to us. God is an ezer to man. This “ezer” word is the same word that God himself used to describe Eve when He gave her to Adam². The simplified translation of “ezer” into “help” misses by a mile, its like hitting with a putter off the tee on a par 5. It’s that short. The true meaning of “Ezer” describes much better the purpose, scope, and power that Eve had. Eve was meant to be so much more than a simple helper, or even just Adam’s companion. She was intended to be his savior and deliverer.
It can go a lot further than Eve. It’s not just her that this translation effects. The scripture clearly says that it is not good that man should be alone, meaning all of us. We all need a savior and deliverer at our side.
The second word “meet” comes from the Hebrew “k’negdo”. This word can mean “exactly corresponding to²”. I picture this like someone looking into a mirror, you see an exact reflection of who you are. This reflection connotes equality. No one is better than the other. Both are equal parts, one corresponding perfectly with the other, working together.
This translation teaches us a lot more about the power and purpose of Eve, and also of our wives, and mothers. It should open our eyes to the calling that women have not only to us directly, but to everyone around them. Women are not here to be merely helpers, they are here to be saviors and deliverers. I like that translation a lot better.
Maybe, if we had a do-over, the scripture in Genesis could read, “It is not good that man should be alone. I will make him a companion of strength and power who has a saving power and is equal with him.”
I am convinced that this definition, the deeper, more meaningful definition, that describes the calling and role for women is WAY more accurate than what we read in Genesis at a brief glance. I know just by my own personal experience that this is the case. How do we as men, fathers, and husbands treat our “Eves”? Do we treat them merely as “helpers”? Or, do we try and see them, and treat them, as the powerful saviors and rescuers that they really are?
- Eve and the Choice Made in Eden. Beverly Campbell 2003
- Forgotten Women of God. Diana Webb 2010