Singing from the Same Hymn Sheet #E100
Consistency, agreement and teamwork are “good things”. Pulling the team together in the one direction can lead to great things. Then you know where you are and what you are about.
The people in Genesis decided where they were and what they were about and set about establishing themselves. So they decided to build a city. Not on rock and roll.
This doesn’t meet with God’s approval, so he confuses the languages of the people and they stop their building projects and move away from the beginnings of the city to establish themselves over “the face of the whole earth”.
So the moral of the story seems to be that uniformity and centralization were not part of God’s plan at this stage in the set up of civilization.
This was the story of the tower of Babel.
It made me consider a few issues: the relationship between language and power; the relationship between language and community; where we are with language and translation today.
Language and power is a big issue now and historically in Scotland. Language is important to me as it connects me to people and places. Today googletranslate is completely brilliant – unless you want to translate regional dialects.
Robert Crawford wrote an interesting poem “Simultaneous Translation”, about (I think) the odd, almost subconscious awareness of the moment of translation – and the fact that we all live within our own wee idiolect, dialect or language – but we share the earth with people who use an infinite array of idiolects. And we are all translating all the time. Here’s an excerpt:
This is where we all live now,
Wearing something like a Sony Walkman,
Hearing another voice every time we speak.
A girl opens her mouth and an Oxbridge bass
Is talking in English. What is she really saying?
Already her finger is starting to creep
Closer to the binding of a parallel text,
Between the lines, then crossing over.
Anyway, back to the bible. This confusion of languages that allows the settlement of the whole earth reminds me of this bit of the story at Pentecost:
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?
Instead of confusion at the creation of a variety in languages, there is bewilderment at being able to understand the same message simultaneously. Simultaneous translation.
Lastly, I feel I can’t abandon my efforts to record my thoughts on the Tower of Babel without mentioning (largely irrelevantly) the Babel Fish from “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, so, to end, here are three quotes by Douglas Adams featuring the Babel fish:,
…if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language. The speech patterns you actually hear decode the brainwave matrix which has been fed into your mind by your Babel fish.”
“Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”
“Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see it as the final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God.
The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,'” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”
“But,” says Man, “The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”
“Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.
“Oh, that was easy,” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.”