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.
Don’t be daunted by length.
If at all possible, check first.
Pray with your interpreter.
Keep it relevant.
Matters of style
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.
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.