Appendix 4: Tips For Speaking Through An
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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:
|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.