Interpreters Aren't Interrupters

Help for those having to work with an interpreter.

Borge Schantz is youth and lay activities director for the Afro-Mideast Division.


SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS are currently working in 189 of the 220 countries, islands, and island groups listed by the United Nations. We have publications in 199 languages and oral work in 367 additional languages. Thus the work of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, be it preaching, healing, evangelism, or administration, is very often managed through an interpreter, with English as the source language. Every day of the week, missionaries and visiting leaders are relying completely on an interpreter for the communication of their message, be it of spiritual or practical nature. No matter how well-prepared or eloquent the speaker may be, he will be able to communicate only as well as his interpreter can under stand and put his thoughts into another tongue. Thus the importance of the interpreter's ability to interpret properly cannot be overestimated. Wittingly or unwittingly, he is a medium that can hasten or delay the work of God.

With this in mind, I would like to suggest a few practical hints that should help those having to work with an interpreter.

The Sermon. The great fundamental truths of our message must be presented in simple, plain words. Make sure your message is not dependent upon any particular twist or expression of any language. When a sermon is being translated, references to Greek and Hebrew words are more out of place than when the minister speaks to those of his own language. The message should not depend on specific words, as these words can have a different meaning in the language the sermon is translated into.

Bible Texts. Before the minister who works through an interpreter goes to the pulpit, he should make sure that the Bible texts he is using in his sermon have the same meaning in the language his sermon will be translated into. This is especially needed when the Bible text in English or any other source language has an idiomatic expression based on Hebrew cultural background. The expression in Proverbs 25:22, "heap [ing] coals of fire upon his head," was a real problem for me when I was a boy. Some people take the text to mean that the Bible advocates a diabolical method of torturing people to death.

The use of a simple Bible translation is especially needed when preaching to a people who have not had the Bible or parts of it translated into their tongue.

In such cases the right oral rendering of the Word of God is dependent on the interpreter and not the professional Bible translators.

Poetry, Humor, Ambiguous Words, Slogans, et cetera. These items can be a real problem to the interpreter. A poem is difficult to translate even when the interpreter has time to go through it in advance. In a consecutive translation it is almost impossible. The other alternative is to put the poem into prose (which is accepted in modern literature). But when this is done, the end result will in most cases be poor and uninteresting. If poetry is not too essential to what is being said, and it seldom is, it is better left out. The same goes for slogans and mottoes, unless the interpreter has had some time to work on them. In a promotion program, a motto or slogan can be of importance. Always make sure that it is translated in the best way. For translated sermons, humor should be avoided, particularly since it differs from culture to culture. Often points in humor are dependent on play on words and are therefore not translatable.

Quotations. The question of quotations is a different matter, especially if they are from the Spirit of Prophecy and are used outside of North America, where all the books are not available. A quotation from the writings of Ellen G. White can be an important addition when used to stress a point. The quotations should be translated carefully, and, therefore, the preacher would do well to let his interpreter go through them beforehand.

Pronunciation and Sentences. Use clear and distinct pronunciation. This is probably more important than speaking slowly. Also, use short, complete sentences. Since many foreign languages have a completely different sentence structure, the speaker should never stop in the middle of a sentence. If he is not able to complete a sentence, at least the thought should be completed.

Culturally Conditioned Illustrations. Translating is more than matching words from a dictionary. It is a piece of human behavior; it is a phase of culture and cannot be studied in isolation. Therefore the speaker cannot be too careful when he draws lessons from his home country. Western customs, technology, family life, the use of Western political systems, courtroom procedures, and social welfare benefits do not ring a bell with many people in the Third World; neither do illustrations taken from space traveling. Likewise, what is accepted as good manners in one culture may be downright rude in another.

Relationship With the Interpreter. The speaker should always keep in mind that interpretation is an exhaustive and tiring task. More concentration and alertness is required of the interpreter than of the source. The speaker should give the interpreter enough time to familiarize himself with the message he is to convey. It is essential, if at all possible, for the speaker and interpreter to go through the high points of the mate rial, paying special attention to the items mentioned above.

Pointers for Interpreters

Training and Insight. Translation can be taught only to a certain extent in the classroom. The ability to translate is something that a man either has or doesn't have. Of course, this gift can be developed by training. The interpreter must possess a thorough knowledge of the language from which he translates and a complete mastery of the language into which he translates. Skill in handling the receptor language is most important. Most errors made by interpreters arise primarily from their lack of thorough knowledge of the receptor language.

In addition to this complete mastery of the receptor language, the interpreter must also possess what the Germans call a "Sprachgeftihl" (feeling for language). It is not sufficient for the interpreter to get just the general drift of the meaning. He must understand not only the obvious content of the message but also the delicate meaning and the important emotive value of words that give the message "flavor and feeling."

Personal Relationship Between Speaker and Interpreter. The right relationship here is extremely important. In addition to the technical knowledge mentioned earlier, the attitude of the interpreter toward his principal will give dynamism, vigor, and spirit to the translation.

One of the primary rules of interpretation is that the interpreter must not permit his own ideas, feelings, prejudices, or convictions to influence his work. He is expected to present the speaker's idea while he is performing his task. The interpreter's voice is the voice of his principal, who, in many cases, has come from afar, incurring much expense. He should be given a fair chance to present his point and promote his cause, uncolored by an interpreter's thoughts.

Paraphrasing and Translating Difficult Passages. A translator has to be an artist. He sometimes has to create new words and expressions, especially if he translates into a receptor language in a primal situation. He can also use the word from the source language where the receptor language has no equivalent, but then he must explain what it means. Paraphrasing or explanation is the last resource for the translator; it is only to be used when there is no other alternative.

Being an interpreter is a difficult and demanding job. It does take hard work, planning, and preparation behind the scenes, which is seldom seen or appreciated by the public. Often he is called a "parrot" or "interrupter." He is blamed for speaking too fast, too slow, too loudly, too softly, too extendedly, or too briefly. When the speaker is introduced, the interpreter is sometimes forgotten and receives no thanks after his performance.

He is rewarded, however, by the knowledge that he is an important link in helping to spread the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth and keeping a worldwide church unified. His calling is a divine one. Without him, the work of God could not be so wide spread.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Borge Schantz is youth and lay activities director for the Afro-Mideast Division.

October 1977

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