Speaking through an interpreter

An interpreter need not be an interrupter. Here are six principles that will help both the speaker and the translator.

Esa Rouhe is the assistant pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Tampere, Finland.

Modern communication has turned the world into a global village. Many of us pastors and evangelists often find our selves facing audiences across linguistic, national, and cultural barriers, requiring communication through interpreters.

Communication in any situation is a difficult process, but speaking through an interpreter is even more challenging. How shall we improve the situation for all three parties—the speaker, the interpreter, the audience—as well as for the message itself? From my experience both as a speaker and as an interpreter, I suggest six principles to follow when using interpreters.

1. Consult with the interpreter in advance. Often the speaker and the interpreter may have had no previous acquaintance. Before going on the rostrum, they should get to know each other a little. Even a brief discussion gives the interpreter advance notice on the speaker's use of words—pronunciation, accent, vocabulary. Speakers should in form their translators of any special terms they may be using—such as technical words, statistics, or any unusual linguistic formations. Translators will thus be prepared to do their job with confidence.

2. Surprise the audience, not the interpreter. An interesting speech often contains surprises, but they should be reserved for the audience. If the interpreter is not absolutely sure what you mean by a story or a fact or a joke, he or she would find it difficult to convey your expression and meaning to the audience. To be sure the interpreter does not miss your intention, share the difficult portion in advance. If you have a written sermon or an outline, give a copy to the interpreter. Discuss with the interpreter any remarks or expressions that the audience may find difficult or offensive.

3. Don't rush the interpreter. Interpreters need their share of time. In some languages translation is easy; in others, certain words and expressions call for explanatory presentation. Fortunately, interpreters often cut down repetition and may not need the long pauses that speakers sometimes take. Generally, translation requires about three fourths of the time of the speaker.

Since both preachers and interpreters function under some pressure and excitement, speakers tend to start the next sentence before the translator finishes with the previous one. When this happens, the audience doesn't get the full message, and the interpreter gets frustrated. So don't rush. Let the translator have the needed time.

4. Speak naturally and clearly. Interpretation does not necessarily require that speakers alter their normal mode of speaking. Too slow a delivery may sound theatrical, and too fast a one may make it difficult for the translator. Just speak with good rhythm at a normal rate. If you use abnormally short sentences with only a few words at a time, the presentation may sound irritating to the hearers and the translation more difficult—particularly with transitions and cohesiveness. Differences in language structure also affect the flow of translation; sometimes it may be easier to translate whole sentences than short clauses. The ideal rhythm in translated speech is two to three sentences at a time.

Forget the native eloquence of your language. You may deliver a speech in majestic Shakespearean English, but that means nothing to your non-English audience. The translator must convey your message in the common language of the audience, perhaps skipping all your verbal acrobatics. Hence, avoid poetry, or even high prose when the eloquence and flow of the original eludes easy translation. The same goes for play on words, idioms, and other grammatical variances that sound good in one language, but are impossible to relate in another. The simpler the language, the easier to translate.

5. Use illustrations with good taste. Illustrations brighten a speech and keep the audience alert, but speakers who are being translated should choose them care fully. Is your story culture specific or universal? Is it essential for making the point? Is the audience sufficiently aware of the background required to understand the illustration? Will it help win the hearts of the audience?

When visiting a foreign country, Billy Graham often uses illustrations from that nation's history or culture—something dear to the people—and he immediately wins his audience. Will your illustrations charm or offend sections of the audience? Especially be careful with war stories— some in the audience may have been on the wrong side of the war.

6. Above all, represent the heavenly kingdom. Ellen White once warned the ministers against making political statements. 1 Pastors visiting other countries should take this counsel seriously and refrain from making statements supporting or opposing any political ideology. Such pronouncements, even if true, could cause offence and bring embarrassment to the church. The best course is to be a patriot of the heavenly kingdom.

While it's true that we cannot escape our national or cultural roots, we are primarily ambassadors of God, ministers of the gospel. Therefore, the message that we deliver, particularly in a foreign land in a foreign language, must not communicate any national bias or prejudice.

The universal language of love is the proper vehicle for conveying the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

1. See Ellen G. White, Testimonies to Ministers (Mountain View, Ca.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1923), pp. 331,332.


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Esa Rouhe is the assistant pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Tampere, Finland.

March 1992

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