School of Translation

Michael Metzger

C.S. Lewis wanted to found what he called a “school of translation.” This was part of an article that our son Stephen forwarded to me. Unfortunately, the author omitted the first part of Lewis’s story—how Lewis learned to translate. Here’s the complete story.

In 1941, Maurice Edwards, chaplain-in-chief of the Royal Air Force, invited Lewis to address RAF pilots. Edwards was not entirely sure Lewis could cope with “plodders,” writes Alister McGrath in C. S. Lewis: A Life. These were young men who had left school at sixteen and had no intention of doing anything remotely academic. Lewis probably had similar misgivings, but accepted the offer. It would, he believed, be good for him, forcing him to translate his ideas into “uneducated language.”[1]

Four years later, in 1945, Lewis addressed a group of ministers in Wales. He said he learned how to translate theology in the language of his audience “by experience.”[2] He came to appreciate “that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.”[3] Lewis believed in learning by doingexperience.

This is the part of Lewis’s story that the article failed to include. Lewis believed that expertise is gained by experience. This explains his reply to an invitation by John Beddow, an Anglican priest. In the autumn of 1945, he asked Lewis to write a book for the Christian Workers Union (C.W.U.). This organization was a fellowship of working men and women between the ages of 16 and 30. The members worked in places such as factories, mines and shops.[4] Lewis wrote this in reply:

Thank you for your most important letter. I am very glad to learn of the existence of the C.W.U. And I agree that it is essential for all “literature” it issues to its members to be a translation into the actual current speech of the people (It has always seemed to me odd that … the Church turns out annually curates to teach the English who simply don’t know the vernacular language of England).

But of course I can’t write a book for workers. I know nothing at all of the realities of factory life. If one of you will write the book, I will translate it: i.e. instead of a book by me edited by you, you need a book by you edited by me. That is, if you really need me at all. But are you sure you do? People praise me as a “translator”, but what I want to be is the founder of a school of “translation”.

I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors? Anyone can learn to do it if they wish…[5]

Lewis might have added anyone can learn to translate—but only if they learned as he did. Lewis declined to translate for factory workers because he had no hands-on experience with factory workers. He had no dirt under his fingernails with those working in mines and shops. Lewis had only limited experience with RAF pilots. The article Stephen sent to me overlooked this. That’s not uncommon today.

Iain McGilchrist is one of many who say the Enlightenment replaced hands on learning with ideas, theories, and statements. Those with little to no actual hands on experience with, say, businesspeople, became the new “experts” in writing books and curricula on how to translate the gospel into the vernacular of businesspeople. This is not how we learn according to the Bible. Scripture pictures knowing as doing (Gen.4:1). Doing requires hands on experience. This is why the teaching hospital model works so well.

Teaching hospitals feature three overlapping networks: research, translation, and making the rounds. Johns Hopkins was the first. It couples R&D with teacher-practitioners who translate for students. Residency programs then require newly minted physicians to make the rounds, learning in real-life situations under the supervision of a teacher-clinician. This is essentially how I learned to translate.

For several years I had the privilege of working alongside the founder of a company. He appreciated faith and work ministries but found the language to be inaccessible to his colleagues, many of whom were not believers. I was asked to translate. The company was my teaching hospital. I learned by doing. After walking the shop floor for a while, I came up with ought-is-can-will as a translation of creation-fall-redemption-restoration.

In 1958, Lewis recalled his work as “simply that of a translator,” turning doctrine into the vernacular that people could understand.[6] He never founded a school of translation. That requires networking with practitioners, those best suited at building institutions like teaching hospitals. I want to found a school of translation. I know academicians and translators who desire to do this. We’re still looking for builders.


[1] Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2013), pp. 207-8.

[2] “Christian Apologetics,” in Essay Collection, 153.

[3] (Ibid, 155)

[4] Charles R. Forder, The Parish Priest at Work (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), 1947.

[5] C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. II, Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949, edited by Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), pp. 673-674.

[6] C. S. Lewis, “Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 177, 183.


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  1. Spirit & Truth. Agreed. ‘Common sense’ in compassion and community. Each of us a ‘living book’

  2. In the context of a family reunion I was tasked to bring some Gospel message to approximately 30 family members from very diverse religious and political experiences. I shocked my grandkids by presenting the “message” through the photos of David Hartcorn hoping to illustrate ought-is-can-will. Then the real shockeroo came when I used U2’s Vertigo as the benediction musical response. Where will this go??? Trying to translate? Yes!

  3. I hope you expand on what you are looking for in builders somewhere as I’m not quite sure how it is different from “translators” as they appear to be the ones needing to be engaged with new and unreached populations to be able to do the work. I really like this concept and preparing to dive into young adult work this fall from a “well-being” / mental health perspective in hopes of more effectively conveying the gospel, but not quite sure what that makes me in you analogy. Even in my confusion, I appreciate you continuing to make me think.

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