Preaching Through Translators

Sometimes it is necessary for missionaries and those who are visiting our overseas di­visions to preach through the medium of transla­tors.

By R. L. HAMMILL, Missionary on Furlough from French Indo-China

Sometimes it is necessary for missionaries and those who are visiting our overseas di­visions to preach through the medium of transla­tors. After a new recruit arrives in the mission field, it requires a lengthy study of the native lan­guage before he is able to preach in it. In the meantime opportunities will usually present them­selves for him to preach with a translator. In many unions, and even in some missions, there are several language groups. The missionary or union officers cannot learn all the languages and dialects. So this also calls for much preaching with a trans­lator.

The preacher must plan carefully for his ser­mon. By the observance of certain precautions, the difficulties can be minimized, and the sermons made more effective. The following suggestions may prove helpful.

In the first place most Bible translations in the indigenous languages are based upon either the English or the American Revised Version. In major languages, they may be translated from the original Greek and Hebrew texts. Therefore, it must be kept in mind that certain texts of the Au­thorized Version are left out of the revisions, and consequently do not appear in most native Bible versions. Examples of this are -I John 5:7 and Acts 9 :5. In the latter verse the clause "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" is not included in the revisions, and therefore not in the translations based upon them. In the Philippine Islands I once introduced this text as a pivotal point in my sermon. The translator appeared puzzled and re­marked that I must have the wrong verse, because he could not find it in his Bible. After that embar­rassing experience I was careful to use the Re­vised Version.

It is best not to base a sermon upon any one word or phrase, because in another language the idea may be quite different for that particular phrase. An example of this is Psalms 68:11, a favorite text of our publishing brethren. In the Authorized Version it reads, "The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that pub­lished it." In the American Revised Version, and in most national versions, this verse reads, "The Lord giveth the word: the women that publish the tidings are a great host." Besides limiting the activity to women, the word chosen to translate "publish" in native Bibles is usually not the word meaning "to print or publish," as a book, but to "tell the good news," which is the meaning of the Hebrew word.

Other examples which might be cited are Rev­elation 22:14 and 5:9. In this latter reference the Authorized Version quotes the twenty-four elders as saying, "Thou . . . hast redeemed us to God," while some other versions give it, "Thou hast re­deemed men to God." These are just a few ex­amples of differences which exist in English translations. Specific instances of variations of native versions of the Bible from the English need not be cited, but they are many Therefore, it is well not to base sermons on particular words without first talking the matter over with the translator, or someone who can check on the Bible version in the language of the people. Then, as a general protective measure, use a revised version.

Some preachers include poetry in their sermons when preaching through an interpreter. At best, poetry loses much through translation, and when given offhand it will always come from your trans­lator as prose, with the sense lost or greatly dis­torted. One preacher was once reading a poem about "ere yon setting sun." The simple language of his audience could not express anything beyond "the sun went out of sight." Nearly all peoples have their poetry, but it is far different from Eng­lish poetry. This same holds true for maxims, mottoes, and quaint sayings which may be very apt in your native tongue but meaningless in another.

Be wary of trying to introduce humor into your sermon if you do not know the language or the people. A very little sly humor sometimes helps a sermon, but this is difficult to employ through the medium of a translator. The sense of humor of other nations is different from ours. It is diffi­cult to tell humorous incidents about your voyage, about fellow laborers, or the like, in such a way that your audience will appreciate it. I have seen audiences sit silent, pondering what the speaker was talking about, when he expected them to laugh. Natives can easily enter into and appreci­ate our earnestness, but it takes long acquaintance with them and their psychology to use humor to good effect.

A good rule is always to preach the great funda­mental truths of our message, in their simplicity, none of which are dependent upon certain words or sentences, or upon the particular twist or expression of any language. Talk with your trans­lator beforehand about the general trend of your sermon. Be sparing of figures of speech and rhetorical phraseology. Go slow, taking no points for granted, and you will succeed in getting your mes­sage across to the hearts of your audience.


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By R. L. HAMMILL, Missionary on Furlough from French Indo-China

July 1946

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