The 1950s television star Desi Arnaz – best known as Ricky Ricardo in the sitcom “I Love Lucy” – had a sign posted on his dressing room door: “English is broken here.”
For those of us who are Latinos and Latinas, this spoken, broken English becomes a unifying source, regardless of national origin. Though we may come from different cultures, races and traditions, we claim our unity in our ability to speak in the tongues of angels – Spanish, even when not all Latinos and Latinas are able to speak Spanish. Some speak English, others Spanish; some are bilingual while still others speak Spanglish.
The language in which our Bibles are read can have more of an influence on the theology we derive from the reading than we are willing to admit. For those who read the Bible in Spanish, they discover a text that provides theological interpretations different from those who read the same passages in English. To read the Bible in Spanish is to find different ways of understanding the Scriptures, ways which expand and challenge the normative interpretations of the dominant Euro-American culture.
For example, the English word love usually characterizes how we feel toward diverse objects, persons and experiences. “I love my spouse,” “I love ice cream,” “I love my children” and “I love baseball” are phrases any one of us would use to describe something or someone who gives us joy. In reality, I do not love baseball with the same intensity or passion as the love I express for my spouse.
Yet by using the same word to describe these different levels of affections, the word love loses its intimacy and significance. The Spanish language provides a distinction. Te amo (I love you) is only reserved for spouses or lovers. Te quiero (literally, I want you) is used to connote love toward family and friends. Me gusta (I like it) usually refers to baseball, ice cream and other things or experiences we like.
Which Spanish word do you think is used for the word love when referring to God, as in “I love God”? The more intimate term, te amo, is used. To read of the love of and for God is to read about the intimate relationship between lovers.
Additionally, the English word you, which can be translated into Spanish as either tÃº or usted, also reveals how we understand God when we read the Bible in Spanish. Usted is a formal pronoun used when addressing those who occupy a higher station in life. When speaking to my employer, a political or community leader, a mentor/teacher or royalty, I show my respect by addressing them as usted.
On the other hand, tÃº is an informal pronoun used among equals or those who occupy lower social standing. Friends, co-workers, children, drinking buddies or employees are usually referred to as tÃº. Which Spanish pronoun do you think is used when referring to God? The informal tÃº is used, not the formal usted.
By calling God tÃº, God is recognized as one who is in solidarity with the station of life of U.S. Hispanics. God is not some unapproachable ruler; instead, we are able to approach God in the same way we approach someone with whom we are intimately familiar.
Finally, the concept of justice is usually lost in the ambiguous English word righteous, used in the English biblical text. When Euro-Americans read righteous, Hispanics read the word justicia, which is translated as justice. For English speakers, righteous means morally right or justifiable, acting in an upright, moral way. The definition implies an action that can be performed privately.
Justice, on the other hand, only occurs in community, manifesting itself in relation to others. Stranded on a desert island, an individual can be righteous by remaining conscientious and God-fearing in thought. But justice can never be practiced in isolation; it needs others to whom justice can be administered. No community, no justice. Justice cannot be reduced to a private expression of faith; it is a public action.
Communalism rather than individualism is privileged when the words justo and justicia are read in the Bible. When James says “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), English readers interpret that the pious one, whose relationship with God is based on an individual conversion, has his prayers answered. But the Spanish version says, “La oraciÃ³n eficaz del justo tiene mucha fuerza.” It means the prayer of the just one (the one doing justice within the community in obedience to God) has much power.
Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). English readers learn that those who hunger for moral purity and thirst for chastity will be rewarded. But in Spanish, “Bienaventurados los que tienen hambre y sed de justicia, porque ellos serÃ¡n saciados” means those who hunger for justice to be done and who thirst for justice against all oppressors are the ones whom God will fully satisfy.
The advice given to Timothy in English reads, “The law is laid down not for the righteous but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinful, for unholy and profane” (1 Timothy 1:9). In Spanish, this advice reads, “La ley no fue puesta para el justo, sino para los trangresores e insumisos, para los impÃos e pecadores.”
While English readers are assured that the law does not apply to them because by faith in Christ they have been justified and thus are not ungodly, sinful, unholy or profane, the Spanish reader understands that the individual practicing justice does not need the law, for the law is already internal and their actions are only an outward expression of their inward conversion.
Based on these translations, theology as practiced in the English-speaking world becomes alien to those of us who read the text in Spanish.
Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice & Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.