Talk Things Through Beforehand

Helpful hints to those who must use interpreters in mission fields.

By J. F. WRIGHT, President of the Southern African Division

We live in a world of many languages, tongues, and peoples. The language problem is present in nearly every mission territory, but it is more acute in some of our divisions than in others. The more familiar a missionary is with the language of the people among whom he may be called to labor, the more valuable will be his service in their behalf. However, in many instances it is found almost impossible to cope with the language problem otherwise than through the use of interpreters. This is especially true of those general workers whose duties require them to travel extensively. It is also true to a certain degree of local and union field leaders who may be confronted with several language areas within their own territory.

Where it is found absolutely necessary to use this avenue of approach to native peoples, the value of an interpreter is either greatly enhanced, or likewise diminished, by the man­ner in which the speaker relates himself to the interpreter before he speaks. Naturally, the minister wishes to get his message across to the people in the most effective manner possible, and rightly so. But the results ob­tained will depend to no small degree upon how the speaker and the interpreter work together in the discharge of their responsi­bility when they appear before the congrega­tion. Too often the importance of this rela­tionship is little thought of, or entirely over­looked. Hence, the people are made to suffer. In short, the people simply fail to get the message of the hour as they should. Like­wise, they fail to respond intelligently to any call to consecration or for means, at the close of the service. Therefore, a few things which ought to be kept in mind and observed are worthy of consideration.

1. Learn Customs of People. One should be keen to observe differences in customs and habits if he hopes to get close to the people through the use of an interpreter. Unless this is done, the interpreter will not be utilized to the best advantage. Especially is it needful to learn their ways when one is laboring among a native or primitive people. Not only do the languages vary according to tribe and country, but the customs vary. Too often the missionary adopts the attitude of "I know it all," and is not willing to learn anything from the na­tive. It is truly unfortunate when such an attitude prevails. In fact, it is a serious, grave mistake, for such an attitude works to the undoing of much that the missionary un­dertakes in carrying out his program.

By all means, the missionary or visiting min­ister, as the case may be, should seek to be a learner, as well as acting as an instructor. or an observer. This is especially true during one's early experience in the mission field. The missionary should seek by every means. at his command to see things from the native point of view. Unless this is done, he is in for some hard knocks and disappointments. On the other hand, if he is willing to give some time to the study of the people, and will en­deavor to understand their ways, habits, and customs, he will be richly repaid for the effort put forth. He will certainly know better how to work through his interpreter, and will be able to express himself in a much more helpful and understandable manner.

2. Talk over the Sermon. In considering the sermon that is to be preached through an interpreter, we shall consider it under three subheads. a. First, the outline. An outline may be carefully and prayerfully prepared, it may be logically arranged and simple in con­struction. But if no time is taken prior to the service to acquaint the interpreter with the subject matter to be treated, the effort put forth during the sermon may fail to achieve the desired end. In more than one case it has been observed that the effort put forth by the speaker was largely in vain, all because the message was not conveyed as a properly connected presentation to the people. The interpreter did his best to perform his task well, but the speaker was new to him, and he did not know what was coming next, and was therefore placed in a very awkward position. Such an experience is most unfor­tunate, and need not be. It can be entirely avoided—provided the speaker will take a little time to confer with his interpreter prior to the time of the service.

Sometimes, however, we hear someone say: "Why go to all that bother ? After one has tried to make things clear and simple, isn't it the work of the Holy Spirit to help tWe'people to understand ?" Yes, to a degree that is true. But remember, it is not the work of the Holy Spirit to do what a speaker can do in helping his interpreter to get clearly in mind the mes­sage to be presented. It would avail much more for all concerned if the interpreter were placed in a position where he could work in­telligently with the speaker, following the chain of thought from the beginning of the service to the close.

"Is all this that important?" you ask. Let us take time to think it through. If you are a new recruit to the mission field, or a visitor, and a stranger to your interpreter, naturally he knows just as much about you as you know about him—and that is nothing. He knows nothing about you, your ways, your methods, your thought. He is not a mind reader, though the native is usually a very keen observer, and will assign you a fitting name. So unless you take a little time before­hand to acquaint him with what you expect to present, you work an extra hardship upon him and place him at grave disadvantage. The interpreter does not have an easy task, and it is nothing short of due courtesy to him that you take a few moments to acquaint him with the message of the hour, at least in a general way. Then both the speaker and the interpreter can better cooperate as they stand together in the sacred desk to deliver the mes­sage which the Lord would have His people receive.

b. Next in order, let us take the texts to be used. It is verY important that the speaker go over these texts beforehand with his inter­preter. Often it will be learned, as I have discovered, that the texts to be used may read quite differently in the native translation as compared to the King James Version. The native Bible may convey a very different shade of meaning. It is therefore well that this be discovered beforehand. If this is not done, the interpreter may use the text in such a way as to miss the mark, entirely in the sermon.

Some years ago while I was attending a camp meeting in North Nyasaland, I was in­vited to speak on the Sabbath question. Sev­eral chiefs had come especially to hear more of this doctrine. So I took great care to go over all my texts with the interpreter, who happened to be a good Bible student and a minister of experience. To my utter surprise I found that certain of the texts in the New Testament translation from which he must read made it very easy indeed to teach that Sunday was the proper day to observe as the Sabbath. Having this information before­hand helped both of us to work more har­moniously in presenting the truth to the peo­ple as it should be presented. So it is very essential that you go over the texts of Scrip­ture with your interpreter, for in thus doing, you may save unnecessary embarrassment and confusion.

c. Go over your illustrations. Be sure that your illustrations fit, and that the people will grasp the point you are trying to make. For example, it is of no use whatsoever to talk about a lamb or a sheep in a territory where the people never saw such animals, and know nothing about them. Some speakers have used illustrations at times which missed the mark entirely just as completely as did the text and the sermon of the young preacher who called forth this comment from an old bishop: "My young friend, if your text had had the smallpox, your sermon never would have caught it." If the people are to get any­thing from the illustration used, they must be able to compare or connect it with some­thing in life that is more or less familiar to them. Otherwise it falls upon uncomprehend­ing ears and accomplishes nothing.

Therefore, it is indeed wise for a speaker to take a little time to go over his illustrations with his interpreter. See to it that they are suited to the people and to the occasion. Often the interpreter can offer some very helpful suggestions in case your own story is of no particular value to his section of the country. The native people really love stories. They are very apt at telling them themselves, and often use proverbs and parables. So when the speaker can use them to good effect, and the people understand, this helps to clinch the truth in their minds as will no other effort put forth. So by all means use illustrations, and use them frequently. See to it, however, that they are suited to the people and to the country wherein you are laboring. Also see to it that the interpreter fully understands what you mean and what you wish to convey.

If you wish to reap the most satisfactory results when you are prevented by language barriers from speaking directly to your au­dience, it is imperative that you know some­thing of the customs of the people and that you go over your texts and illustrations with your interpreter before your sermon.

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By J. F. WRIGHT, President of the Southern African Division

May 1940

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