Sometimes you know exactly what you want to say, but you can’t quite find the words.
(Usually they come to you ten minutes after the conversation in which you wanted to use them.)
Add in a language barrier, and you’re in trouble!
In 14 years living in Japan, I utterly failed at learning to speak Japanese. I say this to my shame. It would have made for so many better interactions with the Okinawan and Japanese people I and my family encountered during our time there.
The one thing I learned to do was to sing songs in church in Japanese. We had a number of songs that had been translated, and we were given the “rumaji” — Japanese words in romanized alphabet, like this:
Shuyo ten wo hiraki ima chiwo yusabiri
I studied Vietnamese (and later Chinese), so I understood the importance of getting the pronunciation right. I learned to hold the ‘n’ the length of an additional syllable, like “te-n” in the example above. I tried really hard to imitate the “r” that sounds more like a soft “d” or “l” (hence the racial stereotypes about eating flied lice and such).
At first, I was nervous. How am I going to sing and not understand what I’m saying? Won’t everyone tell immediately what a pretender I am?
But the chance for our Okinawan and Japanese members to sing in their own language brought them so much joy that I quickly overcame my fears. Maybe I sounded like “Engrish” to them, but they welcomed my attempts and we worshiped together.
My wife and I played a special set of songs for a Women’s Conference, and the first two songs were strictly English. The Okinawans seemed to enjoy it; they clapped, they smiled, they lifted hands, and so on. But when we started singing Matt Redman’s Blessed Be Your Name, I had a Japanese copy prepared. We got to the pre-chorus, and I sang out, “…When the darkness closes in, Lord, still I will say…”
Shu no mina o homeyo…
There was a visible and near tangible wave of emotional reaction. The ladies’ faces lit up with joy and gratitude at the chance to sing their words, and not the words of another.
I want to create moments like that as often as possible.
At one point, I wrote a song that was popular in our church, but we wanted to make it available to others on the mainland. I was able to find a translator–oddly enough a tall Scandanavian girl named Naomi who spoke fluent Japanese–and we worked together to find the right phrases.
A lot of songs get translated, but the words don’t always match up to the original, or in the effort to make a perfect translation, too much gets shoved into the timing of the music.
Naomi talked about how a lot of translated songs bothered her, because the two sets of lyrics really didn’t communicate the same message.
It wasn’t possible to get a word-for-word translation, but I had Okinawans tell me, “I was really happy to hear that the English and Japanese matched up so well.”
When I studied Chinese Mandarin, I had an idea for a song, and again I aimed to get it right. I love singing in another language, providing people the opportunity to worship in the familiar, in what they understand.
This is our Savior and King, the righteous Lamb of God slain for us.
This is our God, who calls us to Himself and makes our relationship possible.
This is a message I want to get right in any language.
耶稣 哦 耶稣
Lord, You are my God
Here before Your face
I can only kneel
Because You are so great
Not only are You God,
You also are my King
It’s You that I revere,
for You’ve called me to draw near
Jesus, oh Jesus
Righteous Lamb of God
Jesus, my Savior
You are the King I love