Media : Doing the work of a polyglot god

POV does GRN: The Tailenders explores the possible intersection between technology and religion

In the beginning, the word was clear and commanding. “Yihee or!” (Let there be light!), God proclaimed, according to Genesis. And, since the obedient elements must have known Hebrew, there was light. However, after Babel, it takes an omnilingual being or an army of translators to communicate widely within this splintered world. A belief that the Bible (rather than the Qu’ran, the Upanishads, the Popol Vuh, or any other hallowed text) is the sacred word of God motivates many to spread that word, making the Bible the world’s mostly widely translated book. The Gideon Society produces and distributes Bibles in hundreds of languages, but millions lack literacy or access to a motel room. Since its founding in Los Angeles in 1939, the Global Recordings Network has been using audio technologies to make Biblical teachings universally accessible.

George Bower demonstrates a hand-cranked GRN audio player.

The Tailenders, which takes its title from a term applied to those in fragile, disappearing cultures not yet reached by missionaries, follows evangelists as they produce and dispense recordings in obscure languages to native speakers. Airing on KLRN-TV at 10 p.m. Tuesday, July 25, as part of the PBS P.O.V. series, the film focuses on GRN expeditions to the Solomon Islands, Mexico, and India. Writer-director Adele Home grew up in an evangelical family in Houston, but, while awed by the dedication and resourcefulness that have produced recordings in almost 5,500 languages, The Tailenders casts a skeptical eye on the naivete and arrogance entailed in proselytizing by cassette. The GRN archives hold specimens of dozens of languages that have since become extinct. Usually ignorant of the language of the people they seek to convert, the missionaries rely on local informants for translations; in one case, a migrant worker from Oaxaca is coached in Spanish on what to record in his native Mixteco. But the results of such translation of a translation (or translation of a translation of a translation, since the GRN missionaries seem to base their understanding of the Bible on English, rather than the original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek) are uncertain. In another instance, the parable of the Prodigal Son becomes, out of either misunderstanding or mischief, the rollicking account of a prodigal pig. GRN engineers have contrived simple, inexpensive playback devices that can be operated without electricity. But communication moves in just one direction. The cassette players lack “record” buttons, and radios air-dropped into the bush receive a single station, devoted exclusively to Christian broadcasts.

Because no two tongues are identical, translation is always imprecise. The Tailenders illustrates the challenge facing young evangelicals from the United States and Australia as they attempt to spread the words they revere through words they cannot fathom. But it neglects the complexities of translating between languages with different takes on gender, tense, and number. And cultures simply cannot be equated; for example, the statement in Revelation 3:20 that God’s messenger knocks at the door cannot be rendered literally for the Zanaki people of Tanzania, among whom burglars, casing out their prey, are the only ones who knock on doors.

The Tailenders, though, is engaging ethnography, less of the peoples — Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, and other — who are targeted for Protestant indoctrination than of those who use technology to market Jesus. Often what they succeed in selling is faith in technology. Solomon Islanders are persuaded to pray rather than protest a logging operation that is ravaging their environment, though some of the Bible’s wisest passages are best translated into action.

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