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bits from bob....

Speaking or Preaching Through a Translator

by Bob Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

An ongoing challenge in many mission works is the need to use translators for teaching and preaching. The purpose of this article is to give some guidelines and helpful suggestions for those who are preparing materials for presentation through a translator. In my experience, many who have the opportunity to preach or teach in foreign countries spend quite a bit of extra time preparing some of their best lessons, often peppering those lessons with special phrases, unique words, special illustrations and humor, and complex conclusions. These would perhaps be impressive for some English speaking audiences in the United States, but for the typical audience on the mission field, they often present great difficulties in communication, translation, and application. Consider the following principles and guidelines in your preparation. Practice your lesson using these principles before you leave on the mission trip. Because much of my mission experience is in Spanish-speaking countries, the illustrations use English and Spanish as the spoken and receiving languages. You can easily make the application to other situations.

  1. Speak slowly, clearly, distinctly. It is vital that the translator hear you and hear you correctly. It is easiest to translate into your native tongue. As a result, our translators are often quite fluent in Spanish, but sometimes inexperienced in English. Few things are more distracting to the message of Christ than to have a constant checking and rechecking by the translator of what the speaker said.
  2. Speak a complete thought, but only one (two at the most, depending on the skills of the translator). It is important to complete the thought before the translator begins, because the language of the listeners may have different verb conjugations or grammatical structures.
  3. Use simple, everyday words. Avoid complex and technical words. As explained in the comments on the first guideline, complex words increase the probability that your translator may not understand you, or may fail to express exactly the concept you had in mind.
  4. Avoid figures of speech, which seldom translate perfectly to another language. The same goes for jokes that depend on word plays. This principle requires special diligence because we do not realize at times the extent to which we use figures of speech. Many of these ways of speaking are cultural. If the translator does not understand what you are saying, the message will be garbled. If the translator does understand the figure of speech, he or she often has to think quickly to find an appropriate parallel or explanation of what you are trying to communicate.
  5. Avoid jokes or stories with double meanings. Avoid jokes or stories that are culturally informed and may lose their punch in another culture. Another warning against word plays also fits here. Many stories and words will not be funny when interpreted and the listeners will only be confused, and attention will be taken away from the message.
  6. If you are speaking from the Bible, tell the translator in advance of the texts you will be using, so he/she can become familiar with them. In Bible readings, it may be possible to use time effectively by having the translator simply read the text, with no necessity of a first reading in English. Of course, this depends on the audience and the needs of your listeners.
  7. Using a translator gives you two advantages: you have a brief moment when you can collect your thoughts, and you have time to notice audience response. Use these advantages well. Be sensitive to how the presentation is progressing and how it is being received.
  8. Avoid difficult theological terms, or be prepared to explain them, even if a typical U.S. audience would probably understand them. Sometimes theological terms have different meanings to different religious groups. Sometimes theological terms are unfamiliar, or misunderstood. It is a good idea to plan time for explaining such concepts, especially if you do not know the audience well.
  9. If you get to talk to the translator in advance, encourage the translator to use the same emotion and enthusiasm as you do. Beware of how repetition will sound when something is said not two or three times as we might do in a mono-lingual presentation, but four to six times counting both the speaker and the translator!
  10. Practice. One way to practice is to use another English-speaker whose job will be to "translate", that is, to restate in other words or in different word order, the same thoughts you speak. You will help you practice speaking complete thoughts. Many of the suggestions above can also be practiced in this way.

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Last updated March 7, 2011