Ok, before I get going, let me make two writerly confessions.
First, I’m aware that this post may not speak to many people. I’m aware that the majority of my readers are Americans (for now), and most of them are monolingual. They belong to a vast majority of people in the world who speak and perceive the world through only one language. So to convince them to read the Bible in another language while they’re busy with the challenges of life is like asking a sprinter to slow down and indulge in the beauty of a tree.
Second, what I’m writing is personal to me, and I’m passionate about it, and I can’t afford to not share it with whoever may care. I have felt the benefits of reading the Bible in several languages. I have seen how the word of God becomes alive in a different way in the other languages that I can read and understand. So, I decided to write this post to convince you to read the Bible in another language in addition to your native tongue if you can do that. You don’t need to be fluent in your second language — just knowledgeable enough to appreciate what you are reading.
But convincing a person who can’t find the time to read the Bible in her own language, let alone in another, is a tough thing to do. If a single reader of this post becomes motivated enough to attempt to read the Bible in another language, I think I will have accomplished my purpose.
Now that we got my confessions out of the way, let me tell you how I became involved in reading the Bible from cover to cover in several languages. In short, several years ago I was trying to find a way of using the languages I speak so that I don’t forget them. It was basically an attempt of trying to keep my Persian, Russian, and Turkish alive. The other two languages did not run the danger of my forgetting them because I use English every day, and I obviously can’t forget my native tongue (Azeri). The internet provides a lot of ways to sharpen one’s language skills, but I was not motivated enough to devote significant time to them. That’s when I decided that at least I could try to read the Bible in all the languages I speak because I was already motivated to read the Bible as a believer.
In the beginning, it was a purely utilitarian approach to keep the languages from dying; the theological and spiritual implications of what I was doing did not concern me although I had an inkling of some of them. But as I read the scripture, various nuances and shades of these languages grew to become a source of delight and stimulated my thinking about God. Moreover, the repeated reading of the Bible enforced some patterns I saw in the scripture, strengthened my knowledge of the sacred text, and gave me many insights since every language reflected the teachings of the Lord in a different way. My whole reading of the scripture turned into knowing the Lord through various cultural angles and worldviews.
But then it dawned on me — why not read the scripture in Hebrew and Greek too (the original languages of the Bible)? Sure, I don’t speak these languages, but I can read them and focus on what I notice through phonetic and structural patterns. I decided to read the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Greek side by side with English to understand what I was reading and to compare whenever something interesting came up.
To date, I’ve read the Bible in Turkish, Russian, English, Azeri, and Persian. Now I’m reading the Old Testament in Hebrew, and I use English to understand what I’m reading. After that my plan is to read the New Testament in Greek. So far, it has taken no less than five years because I use a reading plan which helps me finish the Bible in one year, but I think my Hebrew reading goes really slowly, so finishing the Old Testament in Hebrew might take me two years.
And I’m here to tell you that it has been an eye-opening journey, and if you have the privilege to read the scripture in another language, then take it! Read the Bible — in that language. Read it slowly, dwell on the words, and compare your readings in these languages (your own and another).
Benefits of reading the Bible in several languages
Reading the Bible in other languages will benefit you in various ways. Here I list some of them that are pretty common.
Stronger knowledge of the scripture
Reading the Bible in another language will strengthen your knowledge of the scripture. This is because of the repetition of the stories that you have heard before. The really interesting thing comes up when you notice the slight differences in these translations and how they add new details to the stories. However, this only works if you have read the Bible before in your own language. If you are reading the Bible for the first time and choose to read it in a language not your own, you will still gain something. More often than not, our second language raises our awareness that what we say or read could be said in another way too.
Heightened awareness to the poetic element of the scripture and a more interesting reading experience
Another benefit you can gain is more awareness to the sounds and the poetic elements which will make your reading experience more aesthetic. If you love beauty and enjoy it, then this heightened awareness can save you from a dull and boring experience of reading the pages but not noticing what the text actually says because your mind often wanders away.
You will witness firsthand the power of elaborate expressions, which can lead to a deeper understanding of why the Hebrew prophets often use poetry over prose or what Psalms gain from this poetry.
Invigorating your language skills
This goes without saying. Reading the Bible can be an excellent way of practicing the language you learn or study and strengthening your skills. It’s possible that you may run into words whose meanings you don’t know, but that makes the whole reading fun to do. Not only that, perhaps you might learn the words in that language that otherwise you would not hear anywhere else because of the specific vocabulary of the scripture.
Experiencing how the Spirit works in other cultures
Reading in any language is an exercise in understanding a culture. This includes your own native language but becomes especially important when you read in another language. Because the Spirit illuminates us and the scripture is written under the guidance of the Spirit, reading the Bible in another language is to see and experience how God works through other cultures. It may not mean much to you, but it would definitely deepen your appreciation of the Pentecost when apostles started to speak in languages other than their own. Every language is unique, and I believe reading the sacred text in other languages would increase your chance to find insights that you would otherwise miss. This can happen because every language is a specific way of seeing and understanding the world. Even if the text of the Bible is same in all these languages, the languages themselves are not.
I hope this motivates you enough to probe reading the scripture in another language, however weak your knowledge of that language may be. Your efforts will be worth it for all the insights and knowledge of the scripture that you may gain from your attempts.
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