Interpretation without communication

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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.