Interpretation without communication


Way back in 1982, I knew a missionary in Abidjan. At one time, he had just returned from a trip to another city in the country where he had preached at a church. I asked him how it went. He laughed and told me that he had preached in French and the church supplied an interpreter to translate him into the local language. After the service, the interpreter told him:

God really helped me to translate you, because I didn’t understand anything you said!

It appears to me that missionaries and African church leaders sometimes assume that as long as a person speaks both languages, he or she can be an interpreter. The business and diplomatic worlds know better.

In Africa, it is not uncommon that educated people speak their local language and the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country), but have never actually read the Bible in their language. They may not know the names of the books of the Bible in their language, or how to say “Holy Spirit” or other key words in their language. They know all that in the official language, but not in their own. As most interpretation goes from the official language to the local language, you can imagine the kind of disaster than can occur if such a person is asked to translate a sermon or evangelistic message. Then there are can be other problems. The person speaking might speak too fast, or have an accent the interpreter isn’t used to.

I have sat through church services that were both well-interpreted and inadequately interpreted. Usually I understand the language of the speaker, but not the language into which the message is being interpreted. But it is still clear that the interpretation is lacking. For example, the person speaking may say something that elicits a strong response from the members of audience who speak his language, but when that is interpreted into the other language, no one reacts. Or perhaps the person speaking is telling a longish story that it is building to a climax. At the climax, the same thing happens – no audience response to the interpretation. This is more marked in churches where it is usual for listeners to verbally interact with the preacher during the sermon. When only those who understand the speaker’s language are interacting, something is wrong with the interpretation.

Few Bible schools or theological seminaries offer courses in interpretation or translation, even though their graduates will end up doing that from time to time all their lives. Their graduates will also be responsible for selecting members of their congregations to interpret, which they will do, most often without given them any instruction or training. How can they? They never got any themselves!

Fortunately, a number of Bible schools and seminaries in Africa have notice these problems and started to address them. They may require that pastoral students to study the key Bible terms in their own languages, or require them to write a synopsis of their thesis or key papers in their own language. One requires post-graduate students to give a summary of their thesis in their language at graduation when friends and family from their language are present.

Others, however, are still putting great effort into having their students understand the Bible but little helping them clearly communicate that to others. Some never even mention language to their students even in countries with many, many languages.

Not just anyone can translate

Because I am involved in Bible translation, I read about translation – all kinds of translation, not just Bible translation. These days, that means reading on the web. I came across an important article by a professional translator and researcher in translation issues, Nataly Kelly. It is entitled “Clearing up the Top 10 Myths About Translation“. A number of the 10 myths are not very applicable to Bible translation, but one is applicable not just to Bible translation, but to all kinds of Christian ministry in places where there is more than one language – which is most of the world. So what is this myth?

Any bilingual can be a translator or an interpreter.

Nataly goes on to write:

The ability to write in English does not make a person a professional writer. The ability to speak English does not make a person a professional speaker. Likewise, the ability to write or speak two languages does not mean that a person can translate or interpret. Plenty of people who are perfectly fluent in two languages fail professional exams for translation and interpreting. Why? Being bilingual does not guarantee that a person will be able to transport meaning from one language and culture to another without inflicting harm in the process.

Why do I think that this is important for Christian ministry in areas where there is more than one language? Well, because it seems to me that many missionaries, evangelists, pastors and even whole churches do not know it. Churches in settings with more than one language pick a person from the congregation to translate the Pastor’s sermon. They do so only on the basis that the person speaks both languages. The interpreter receives no orientation or training, nor is his or her interpretation evaluated.

Short term missionaries come and pick just any person who speaks the local language and English to be their interpreter. The interpreter may even be interpreting Bible stories in the VBS classes run by the short-term missions team. The result is the message gets lost in poor translation. But that is not what God intended, because we read in Deuteronomy chapter 30:

11 “This command I am giving you today is not too difficult for you to understand, and it is not beyond your reach. 12 It is not kept in heaven, so distant that you must ask, ‘Who will go up to heaven and bring it down so we can hear it and obey?’ 13 It is not kept beyond the sea, so far away that you must ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to bring it to us so we can hear it and obey?’ 14 No, the message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart so that you can obey it. (NLT)

Congolese translator candidates

A leading Congolese Bible translator teaching potential translators selected by their churches. Out of this group, only one or two will be chosen. Photo by Doug Wright

We need to be wary of making God’s message difficult or far away. Unfortunately, naïvety about language causes some to do just that. When churches and missions were offered (they did not ask, we offered) training for their interpreters in Burkina Faso, they came back afterward to say how much more people understood of the sermons, thus affirming that the interpretation of sermons needed improvement and that they did not know that improvement was needed.

Here in Ghana and most places, all Bible translation is done by native speakers of the languages. But not just any native speakers. Churches send a group of at least 8 potential translators matching a specific profile to a short course in translation. In 5-10 days we can see which are gifted in translation and which are not. The gifted ones are chosen as translators. It is not just any person whom God has gifted to translate into his language.

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

Bible Translators receiving specialized training in Tamale, Ghana

But we do not stop there. Bible Translators receive specialized training and that training is renewed regularly. For example, if the national translators in a language has translated the Gospels, and they plan to translate the Psalms next, then they will get special training on translating poetry before they start. The need for training is why we made it a priority to help a Christian University in Congo start a training program for Bible translators.

It will seem odd to those of us who speak English or another major language, but it is not uncommon to have pastors trained in English in Africa who do not know the names of the books of the Bible in their own languages, nor the correct words for key concepts like faith, salvation or repentance in their own languages. The Ghanaian responsible for pastoral training for a large denomination here in Ghana confirmed this to me just this week. This is because their schooling and training is entirely in English. If you take someone like that to be an interpreter into his language, you will not get a good result, even worse if you just take any person off the street.

Interpreting the pastor’s sermon, or for a short terms team does not need the same degree of rigor as Bible translation, but they do need more than just choosing anyone. Businesses, governments, book publishers, Nataly Kelly and many more know that they need professional translators with specialized training to get their message clear. Sometimes we Christians don’t, proving Jesus’ words:

For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. (Luke 16:8 ESV)


If you liked this, you might also like:
Jesus walks on bones
Eternal life goes missing