Pentecost is a feast of language and understanding

In the Christian tradition, these are the days of the Pentecost (or Whitsun or White Sunday). Christians believe that the Holy Spirit arrived on this day, roughly seven weeks after Easter.

Regardless of the matters of faith, what it says about language is quite amazing: “When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Completely baffled, they said, »Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that each one of us hears them in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and the province of Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own languages about the great deeds God has done!«”**

I always thought of this story as a symbol of salvation or absolution. In a way, it erases one of the consequences of the sin of humankind. I’m referring to the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel, of course.

Creating understanding across languages and cultures is a lot of work, and it is also often dangerous. No surprise that people, from time to time, dream of the end of this division. Umberto Eco wrote a book about the quest for the perfect language, which many (used to) identify with the original language that God spoke at the Creation. Douglas Adams invented the idea of the Babel fish. Star Trek has the universal translator.


All these stories and ideas tell me that the ability to communicate across languages has immense value. In 2015, I even started a blog called Dreamers and Doers, which, by and large, contains stories about translation technology.** I think, in a way, translation technology—or the makers of translation technology—pursue the dream of perfect understanding, the kind we read of in the story of the Pentecost. Some of us believe that machines will be able to fully achieve this dream, some of us don’t. I’m one of those who don’t, to be entirely honest. But even I believe that translation technology can still walk many a long mile to give its human users ‘superpowers’ that make translation and understanding much easier than it is today.

So, at the time of Pentecost, I always think of language, translation, and understanding—and of those who are doing the job. I know we celebrate translators and interpreters on the International Translation Day (which more or less coincides with the day of St Jerome in the Catholic tradition). But I think their job is important enough to set aside a thought or two for them at Pentecost, too.

Here’s to all dreamers and doers in the language community.

* On the photo: Dictionaries used at Bletchley Park, in the Enigma project. I chose not to use a Pentecost painting because it may be subject to copyright protection in certain countries.
** Acts of the Apostles 2, 6-11
*** Translation technology, in a way or another, has always been my profession.

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