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Did He Really Say What I Said? The Challenge of Preaching Through an Interpreter

  • Lynn Fowler Lynn Fowler heads Glory to the King Ministries International, and is "Mum Lynn" to a network of ministers in 20 nations. She resides in Churchill, Victoria in Australia.
  • Published Mar 25, 2008
Did He Really Say What I Said? The Challenge of Preaching Through an Interpreter

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.

Pray with your interpreter.
One of the things I have noticed over the years is that when I have a good interpreter, we flow in the same anointing. Take time to pray with your interpreter before the meeting. Specifically ask the Lord to take of the anointing that He has placed on you and place it on your interpreter. Ask that the Spirit of God will cause your interpreter not only to understand your words correctly, but to grasp the heartbeat of what you are saying, and to convey it in the same spirit and power.

Keep it relevant.
Particularly if you are ministering in an undeveloped or developing country, the people to whom you are speaking live in a vastly different world from the one you know. Your illustrations must relate to the people to whom you are ministering.

This goes beyond simply not using illustrations that relate to technology or western consumerism. One of my early mission trips included Zambia. At that time I had a pet saying that “some Christians act as if they find Jesus about as exciting as a sack of dead mice.” I used it, without thinking, in one of my sermons. It was only later that I realized the people of that area ate mice, and a sack full of them would probably have been a very exciting prospect! I can only assume I had some very confused listeners!

Matters of style
When it comes to style, there are a few things western preachers really like to do but which simply do not work in a message that has to be interpreted.

Firstly, forget about alliteration. Some preachers like to help people remember our messages by giving them major points all starting with the same letter. In English, it generally works well – even though some of the contortions used to achieve it at times can be rather grating. In other languages, it doesn’t work. Period. Your carefully selected words, even if they can each be translated by a single word, will all begin with different letters.

Worse, if your interpreter figures out what you are doing and tries to alliterate them in his own language, you could end up with something that is not quite what you are actually trying to say. Far better simply to make clear, concise points and trust the memory capacity of your audience.  

Likewise, avoid slang. At best, it will not be understood. At worst, it will be understood as meaning something vastly different from what you had intended. In fact, that can happen even without going to another culture.

One of my most embarrassing ministry moments came, not on the mission field, but on the other side of Australia. In the course of a sermon I used a slang term I understood to mean something totally innocent. Afterwards the pastor drew me aside and asked what I meant by it. I told him, and he told me what it meant over there – I had unwittingly used an expression that was offensive in the extreme. Ever wished the ground could open up and swallow you whole?

Forget jokes. Humor generally does not translate cross-culturally. There is a story, allegedly true, of an American evangelist who was conducting a series of crusades through Asia. His policy at home was always to open his message with a joke, and he did the same when he was in Asia. He was delighted that every time he did so the congregation roared with laughter, and returned home to tell his family and friends how much the Asians had appreciated his jokes. It was only some years later that he learned that, in every instance, the interpretation went something like this: “Our brother is about to tell a joke. You will not understand it. Please honor him and laugh when I tell you.”

Related to the whole issue of style, is that of timing. For a start you need to realize that translation will at least double the time it takes to present your message. Often this is not such a great problem. Where congregations in the west are mostly happy with a 30 to 45 minute sermon, those in the third world are usually hungry. They generally want an hour at least, and two hours is often better.

However, as in the west, it is polite to check first how much time you will have, and factor in the time for interpretation. If people have to be out of a building by a certain time, your message is not going to be well received if it goes beyond that time.

One small thing you can do to help keep time down is to leave large slabs of Scripture reading to your interpreter. The people really don’t need to hear you read it in English; they just need to hear it in their own language.

The second issue with timing is phrasing. If you talk for too long before giving your interpreter a chance, there is a possibility he will lose track or what you are saying, and will only present a much abbreviated version. On the other hand, if you say too little you will probably find him looking at you strangely and urging you to go on, so he can get a better grasp of what you are saying. Remember, in some languages the sentence structure is different from ours, and he may need to hear the end of the sentence before he can translate the beginning.

Another stumbling block can be the pace of your speech. Native speakers of any language tend to speak more quickly than those for whom it is a second language. Not only that, but some of us tend to get excited about our message and catch fire, rattling off words like bullets from a machine gun. Putting a lid on that can be difficult, but passion harnessed is no less passionate, and holding back a little will give your poor interpreter a chance to keep up.

For most of us when preaching in English, we are caught up in our message, and flow along with it. When using an interpreter, it is a very different matter. If, like me, you don’t use notes, it can be difficult to maintain your momentum. It is all too easy to be distracted by what someone is wearing, or something about the building, or thoughts of the rest of your itinerary. This is particularly true for long translation segments, and another good reason for keeping your phrasing as short as possible without hindering the message.

One of my most difficult translation experiences was in Mumbai, on my first trip to India. Because they were drawing from a diverse cross-section of the community, my message had to be double translated. I spoke. Then my first translator spoke. Then the second translator spoke. Then it came back to me, by which time I was thinking, What on earth was I saying? It was a long night, in more ways than one!

Challenges in English
While most of my preaching in missions situations has been done through interpreters, occasionally I have been asked to preach or teach in English. This in itself offers some challenges. You are never really sure how much of the English language the hearers understand. You can’t always know by talking to them, because often people understand a language before they are able to speak it. You don’t want to insult them with baby talk, but at the same time there is no point in using language that is beyond their understanding.

In these situations, keep your language simple, and your grammatical construction clear and concise. Speak slowly and clearly, and try to “read” the congregation for feedback indicating they understand what you say. If you see the “light go on” in someone’s eyes, you know they got the message.

Trust God.
He has called you to preach. He has called you to this place, to minister to this people, at this time. (If you are not sure of that, what are you doing there?) Even if you make a total mess of it, He is able to bring it to good. But if you trust Him, He is able to work it out so that you don’t make a mess of it.

I was ministering in a tiny village on one of the islands of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. Vanuatu was once administered jointly by the French and the English, an arrangement officially known as the Condominium but referred to by locals as the Pandemonium. As a result, the people speak French or English, as well as their tribal languages, and a form of Pidgin known as Bislama. This particular village spoke French. The only one who spoke English well enough to translate at all was the elderly pastor, and he was struggling.

After the first session it was obvious that translation was going to be a serious challenge, and I was scheduled for two weeks of four-sessions-a-day ministry.

“Lord,” I prayed desperately that night. “I need a day of Pentecost. I need to be able to speak in English and have them understand in their own languages.”

The next day before the meeting one of the ladies came up to me and the pastor, and said in broken English, “You don’t need interpreter. We understand like you speak Bislama.” Not quite the Pentecost experience I asked for, but I figured it was close enough.

Finally, learn to laugh.
There are few challenges that can’t be overcome, few faux-pas that can’t be forgiven, by a laugh and an acknowledgement that “I’m just a dumb foreigner!” Often people come up to me, obviously embarrassed, and apologize that they don’t speak English very well. They relax instantly when I laugh and say, “You speak English much better than I speak your language!”

Speaking through interpreters, has its share of challenges. Is it worth it? Sure is! The discipline of using an interpreter will improve your preaching, and the experience of missions as a whole will change and enrich your life.