May 23, 2013 by Dr. Bob Weathers
Translating Recovery Cross-Culturally
within Alcoholics Anonymous
Part 3 of Series on
“Cross-Cultural Integration of Spiritual Resources in Recovery”
In Part 1 of this current series we established the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.); even as we explored A.A.’s cultural embeddedness within a traditionally Christian worldview; and identified a serious problem that arises for recovering individuals who need a cross-culturally more sensitive integration, than A.A.’s, of spiritual resources. In Part 2 we introduced a key distinction between A.A.’s authenticity (ability to transform) and its ongoing legitimacy (ability to translate across time and cultures). There is a need for an experience-near (as opposed to experience-distant) language; one which communicates changes cross-culturally.
Literal Form vs. Essential Dynamic
Cultural anthropologists, linguists, and missionaries have made the distinction, in translating from one language to another, between formal correspondence and dynamic equivalence (Kim, 2004; Leonardi, 2007; Roembke, 2000). Formal correspondence assumes that the best translation is a word-for-word, literal transposition from language A to language B.
The problem soon arises: how do you translate a word like God into a language and culture for which theistic belief is alien? Note that such a second culture may even have its own spiritual (if non-theistic) forms of religion and spirituality. (A loose analogy of this not uncommon clash between different cultural expressions might be like trying to have an Eskimo translate the word snow into the language of a traditional, tropical Tahitian, for whom snow is experience-distant, hence truly nonsensical!)
Formal correspondence then would insist on the means of expressing God = God from one culture to another. This operates regardless of there existing any, actually vital and alive cultural reference point for the term God in the second culture.
Dynamic equivalence, on the other hand, takes a quite different tack. Here the focus is on first identifying the essential dynamic, or animating principle, embedded in the first language. Then there follows a commitment to finding the best fit for expressing that very dynamic in the second language. For example, assume that the theistic notion of God has a certain set of internal and cultural reference points within language A. What then would be the word (or words) closest for expressing that dynamic in language B?
On Not Mistaking the Map for the Territory
A theistic God might well evoke a sense of the transcendent in the first culture of language A. Yet it is quite possible that another, even non-theistic term might best fit within language B in terms of evoking a felt sense, or experiential dynamic, of transcendent spirituality. For example, in Asian religion, one such term is emptiness. This term signifies something quite similar to the traditional, Christian view of God or Christ.
Obviously, it requires cultural sensitivity and inclusivity to seek such a match between one cultural expression and its corollary in a second culture’s. Contemporary spiritual author Eckhart Tolle, from a perspective markedly similar to dynamic equivalence, put it this way: “The only important question is whether a word is a help or a hindrance in enabling you to experience That toward which it points” (2009b, p. 14).
As a case in point, we will be further exploring Tolle’s work and applying it to one possible, contemporary cross-cultural integration in recovery later in this series. To Tolle, thoughts or beliefs (literal form), including about God, are not to be confused or equated with spiritual awareness (essential dynamic) itself. This spiritual awareness includes the actual experience of transcendence. This in fact is what some, including Christians, would call God. Why does Tolle’s point, about not mistaking the “map for the territory,” truly matter?
One goal of authentic spiritual transformation lies at the very core of the contemplative, or meditative, strands of all major world religions. That goal involves moving beyond, or letting go of, the exclusively thought-identified “false self,” or what Eckhart calls “ego,” or more simply, “mind.” One thing matters most across the core of these various cultural expressions of religious or spiritual faith. That is: what language will best point the sincere thinker there? There is meant to point toward to a place of pure, non-thought-identified awareness and personal identity. Such an identity entails becoming free from solely identifying with one’s thoughts and feelings; again, what Tolle calls the “mind.” Such a transformed sense of self (essential dynamic) itself exists beyond conventional, exclusively thought-generated categories (literal form). Such categories, or “maps” and “forms,” include those even of religion.
Distinguishing Between Spirituality and Religion in A.A.
Kim, S. (2004). Strange names of God: The missionary translation of the divine name. NY: Peter Lang.
Leonardi, V. (2007). Gender and ideology in translation: Do women and men translate differently? NY: Peter Lang.
Roembke, L. (2000). Building credible multicultural teams. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library.
Tolle, E. (2006). A new earth (Kindle edition). Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/New-Earth-Oprah-61-ebook/dp/B000PCOS5K
Tolle, E. (2009a). Stillness speaks (Kindle edition). Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/Stillness-Speaks-ebook/dp/B002361MN8
Tolle, E. (2009b). The power of now (Kindle edition). Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/The-Power-of-Now-ebook/dp/B002361MLA