Did He Really Say What I Said? The Challenge of Preaching Through an Interpreter
- Tuesday, March 04, 2008
More and more churches are responding to the call of short-term missions. Traditional missionaries invested their lives in one mission field, learning the language, absorbing the culture, and eventually becoming part of their surroundings. Short-term missionaries may visit a number of different mission fields for periods ranging from a few weeks to, at most, a few months. Almost inevitably, this brings with it the challenge of preaching through an interpreter.
I well remember my first missions experience, now more than 17 years ago. I had spoken maybe half a dozen words, but the interpretation took at least four times as long. Looking at my translator as he finally gave me the nod to continue, I couldn't help wondering, Did he really say what I said? It was fairly daunting, but just the beginning of an exhilarating journey.
During the ensuing years I have had many good interpreters, and a few who left something to be desired. I have learned to dodge some of the pitfalls of cross-cultural ministry, and I hope to mark out a map for those who may venture into this exciting but sometimes frustrating area of the Lord’s service.
The first and most important piece of advice I can give to any missionary is to respect the people to whom you are going to minister. They may be from a culture that is much less developed than yours, but this does not mean they are intellectually or spiritually inferior. Don’t talk down to them, and don’t teach down to them.
I once facilitated a ladies’ conference in Papua New Guinea. Many of the 300 or so women attending had walked barefoot for four days through the mountains to get there. Some never had seen a white person before. Most knew nothing of our western culture. Yet most could speak at least two languages – their tribal language and Pidgin – and that was one up on me! In fact, many could speak five or six languages, something that is fairly common in third world countries with multiple language groups.
These women were by no means intellectually inferior to me, even though many of our western concepts were as foreign to them as our language. They had my respect, and I received theirs.
Don’t be daunted by length.
My reaction to the length of an interpretation has been repeated many times over the years. Different languages do not always translate word-for-word. Sometimes it takes a lengthy phrase to translate one word, and sometimes just one word to translate a lengthy phrase. It’s possible you may never completely get over the feeling of strangeness in this, but rely on your understanding rather than your feeling and move past it. If at all possible, check first.
One of my few experiences with a really bad interpreter came on that first trip. I was teaching at a Bible college in Thailand, and for the most part had excellent interpreters. My host was a Thai who had been educated in America, and his wife was an American who had spent most of her adult life in Thailand. However, one particular Sunday I was booked to speak at a local church, and both my host and his wife also were speaking at other churches. So, the task of being my translator fell to one of the students.
I had talked casually with this young brother, and he seemed reasonably comfortable speaking in English, so I assumed it would be OK. I quickly learned that, although he was able to hold a limited conversation in English, he had no comprehension when I started to talk about deeper spiritual concepts. Much of the sermon was spent with him looking at me quizzically and me trying desperately to find the simplest words possible to express what I was trying to say. Needless to say, that was not one that got recorded for posterity!
If at all possible (sometimes it simply isn’t) spend some time with your interpreter before the meeting, talking about the kind of things you are going to be preaching. If you have notes, go over them. If there is a problem, you may not be able to change interpreters, but at least you will be forewarned to keep your language as plain and simple as you can.
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