Debating Bible Basics Duncan Heaster  


Appendix 4: Tips For Speaking Through An Interpreter

Ez. 3:4-7 contains God's comment on language barriers. In that passage, God comments that had Ezekiel been sent preaching in Hebrew to nations who didn't know Hebrew, somehow they would've understood and responded. In other words- in the preaching of the Gospel, the language barrier can easily be overcome, somehow, with God's help and the desire of an audience to understand God's truth. It's an encouragement to us in our efforts to 'get the message over' in languages other than our own.

After years of translating Christian speakers, and being myself translated, I thought the following little points might be of value to brethren speaking through translators whilst on mission work:

- Realize that translating is more stressful than speaking. Try to take attention off the translator by asking members of the audience to read out loud the Bible verses you quote.

- Make it clear if you do not want the translator to add their own comments to your material. However, sometimes this is necessary.

- Realize that a translator may have mistranslated one of your earlier sentences. In this case he or she may have to backtrack at some point. Be prepared for this and allow them to do it.

- Presenting a class through translation isn't as simple as giving the presentation you would usually give in, e.g., English. If you're going to do a good job, you would need to re-frame and re-prepare your material before presenting it through a translator. Too often, speakers will take with them a talk they have given in their hime country and assume it will just go through the translation process and come out the in the ears of the hearers just as it sound in their ears. Some time, go to an online translation program like Google and type in a paragraph of your text and translate it into another language; and then translate that back into your language. This is the kind of muddled, stilted message which often comes through amateur interpretters. 

- Straightforward statements come through more clearly than figurative, allusion-based use of language. Words which in your language may be obvious triggers for certain ideas don't work the same way through translation. They are words, and tend to stand alone. In all your preparation, remember that it is the glory of God we have in view, through sharing His word with others. It's not about us. Jesus spoke the word to people "as they were able to hear it", not as He was able to expound it (Mk. 4:33).

- When a translator is translating the response of someone else, ensure that they adhere strictly to their role as translator, and that they aren’t adding their interpretation of what the person is saying. I well remember opening an interview in Asia with the question: “Why do you want to be baptized?”. The candidate said about 5 words, but the translator went on for about 5 minutes!

- Avoid idioms and small talk. Keep language simple. Realize that it is not enough to merely repeat material you have previously given to a Western audience- it will need some adaptation. If you are talking about David, call him David- and not “the sweet Psalmist of Israel” [that’s a real example from a few years ago!]. Avoid throw away comments.

- Leave out all references to Western Christian politics.

- Leave out references to the idea that Russia=Gog and will invade Israel. This subject inflames strong feelings and will not contribute to a happy time together.

- Be as visual as possible. Keep it simple, in the sense of following a clear and direct logical progression of thought; because the process of interpretation makes it difficult to follow anything more complex. But don't let this make you adopt a simplistic approach.

- Language knowledge is on a sliding scale, between totally bi-lingual and knowing nothing at all, not even the alphabet. Don't assume that people who interpret you either "know English" or "don't know English". It's not that simple. The fact you don't know their language and they appear to know yours doesn't mean that therefore they are fluent in your language, e.g. English. The chances are they will understand say 80% of what you are saying. The rest they will guess from the context. The 20% they don't understand may be because of not understanding your accent, or not knowing the words you are using, or because they misunderstood your previous sentences.

- Don’t use “thee” and “thou” and their associated old English endings. Almost no local translator will understand them. Appreciate that almost none of the translators are professionals. If they make a mistake or can’t understand you, they get phased and very stressed, and the quality of their translation declines. Appreciate that it’s far more stressful for them translating than it is for you speaking. Therefore thank them warmly at the end. Show your recognition of the fact that without their services, you’d be unable to serve the congregation.

- Keep sentences short. Be translated sentence by sentence. Complex sentences are either partially forgotten by the translator, or lead to confusion in the mind of the audience. Consider the sentence: “The difficulty with explaining the devil and satan, which subjects are so widely misunderstood [actually, my mother in law to this day won’t accept our explanations on this subject], is that people don’t realize that ‘satan’ is just a Hebrew word meaning ‘adversary’”. This needs cutting down to: “The devil and satan are widely misunderstood. People don’t realize that ‘satan’ is just a Hebrew word. It means ‘adversary’. That’s why some find it hard to understand this subject”. And omit all reference to your mother in law.

- Watch the translator while he / she is translating. A common problem is that the translator is in mid sentence, pausing for thought or breath, and then the speaker continues on with another sentence. Never interrupt the translator while they are speaking. Let them clearly finish their sentence before you start speaking again. This is perhaps the most frequent and most frustrating problem between speakers and translators. Some Western brother gets in full flow making his case and getting excited, talking quickly, sentence after sentence, and the translation just trails off… [and he wonders why there are all those blank looks in the audience in response to his wonderful exposition!].

- Realize that jokes often don’t come over through translation.

- Avoid double negatives, e.g. “It’s not clear that this is not the case”.

- Repeat the chapter and verse numbers several times. Translators are often so busy thinking about the words you are saying that they forget the numbers.

- Realize that non-English Bibles may vary from the English version which you are using. The numbering of some chapters and verses, especially in the Psalms and Daniel, is often different. Some Bibles tend to follow the Greek Septuagint translation for the Old Testament, which means that they have a different numbering for the Psalms- after Ps. 7, the Psalms are one number behind the English, e.g. Ps. 23 English is Ps. 22 in e.g. Russian. Also, where there is an opening editorial note to the Psalm, this counts as verse 1 of the Psalm. Therefore, the verse numbers in e.g. Russian in those Psalms are plus 1 from those in the English Bible. E.g. Verse 23 English becomes verse 24 Russian. Also, the order of the NT books in the Russian Bible is different- the English Bibles arrange them in size order from what I can see. The following chart should help with the Psalms:

Hebrew Psalms Greek Psalms
1 - 8 
9 - 10 

11 - 113 
10 - 112 
114 - 115 
114 - 115 
117 - 146 
116 - 145 
146 - 147 
148 - 150 

- Try not to base arguments on individual words [even though Scripture itself does this], because the local language version may be different. For example, an argument based on the translation “Shall the Son of man find the faith on the earth” loses all power in a language [e.g. Russian] where there is no concept of a definite article [“the”].

- Never come over as condescending towards the translator. Warmly thank him or her afterwards and show appreciation of the fact that it’s a difficult job. Apologize for the fact that you don’t know the target language. And above all, pray that the message of the Gospel will get through.