Editor’s note: A significant number of our readers are asked to speak through translators either in their own country or in other countries. We hope that this article will make their presentations even more effective.
The European pastor needed an icebreaker. At opening night on his first evangelistic series in a rural African village, a sea of serious faces stared up at him. So he told a joke. His trusty translator sprang into action. A few people in the audience nodded solemnly; everyone else remained serious. One look at the pastor’s face told the translator that radical action must be taken. “Our illustrious speaker has just said something he thinks is funny. Let us not embarrass our guest who has come so far to speak to us. Laugh right now!” Giggles, smiles, and then a wave of laughter broke out. The ice was broken—the day saved by the translator.
In an age of global mobility, the Great Commission still urges us to preach to “all nations” (Matthew 28). This often means speaking through a translator. Sometimes it even means preaching through three or four different translators. And, clumsy as it often seems, it works. God’s Word is heard. Hearts are touched, and people turn to God.
Chances are that sometime in your ministry, at home or abroad, you may be asked to preach through a translator. Here are some suggestions (picked up over the years on several continents) that can help make your sermon more transparent and easier to translate.
Tips for preaching with translators
Know your translator. If at all possible, spend time with your translator before the sermon. You can quickly judge your translator’s knowledge of your language and simplify your language structure if necessary. You will also be giving your translator time to get used to your accent and manner of speaking. Ideally, the translator should have a copy of your sermon a few days or weeks before. If this is not possible, try at least to give the translator a quick outline of the sermon so that the translator will know where you are going. You want to be careful about the translator looking at the manuscript or outline during the sermon delivery. The manuscript or outline may actually distract the translator from hearing you.
I remember trying to do a last minute translation to German from a Spanish sermon. We had no German Bible handy, and the preacher based his sermon on a Bible text that spoke of “persevering faith.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the German word for “persevering.” The whole point of the sermon was an exposition of the perseverance part of faith. How I wished that I had an opportunity to review that key word before the sermon.
Watch the time. A translated sermon is generally twice as long. So for a forty-minute time slot, your sermon should not be more than twenty. In many cultures time isn’t an issue, so you will be able to preach for an hour or more without any problems—and that’s good news. Just ask beforehand how much time you have. If you only have a certain time slot, it may be easier to make a new sermon than to prune your longer one. Also, a lot of preachers save time by not reading Bible passages but letting the translator directly read the passage in the target language. I have also seen preachers and translators mark their Bibles before the sermon with slips of numbered paper to make finding the Bible texts easier and quicker.
Speak slowly and clearly. Your translator has to listen to you, understand each word, and guess at where you will be going with this idea and think of the best translation all at the same time. By speaking a little slower than your normal pace, you give the translator more time and make the job easier. Speak loudly enough for the translator to hear clearly without drowning out the translation. I have heard some sermons in which the preacher shouts, leaving the translator barely audible. This is particularly noticeable when no amplification system exists.
Keep your sentences short. Not all languages are structured the same. Some languages have the verb near the beginning of the sentence while others have it near the end. Your translator will need a complete clause in order to translate. For example “towering above the world’s misery” will be more difficult to translate than “towering above the world’s misery stands the cross.” The translator now has the option of changing the sentence around and structuring it properly in the target language.
Establish a pause rhythm. This gives the translator a clear space to translate. The translator can keep pace and won’t have to try to jump in every time you pause for a breath.
Pay attention to the translator while he or she translates. Some preachers jokingly refer to their translators as their “interrupters.” The truth of the matter is that the preacher can be the interrupter and sabotage the message by paging in his Bible or adjusting his tie while the translator speaks. Anything that distracts the audience should be avoided. Quietly looking at your notes or looking at the translator would probably be best.
Things to avoid
Idiomatic expressions definitely season a good sermon. However, they can be extremely difficult to translate. Your translator will need a near native-like ability in your language to do your sermon justice if you make extensive use of idiomatic expressions. What is a translator supposed to do with an idiomatic expression like “keep in touch” when, clearly, touching is out of the question because the person plans to leave the country?
Word plays are excellent ways of making a point stick but, of course, do not easily translate. We recently heard a preacher here make the point that Christianity is not another “-ism” like “communism or socialism.” Fortunately, it worked in the Spanish translation, but it may not always be that way.
Humor is not only linguistically but also socially bound. Even with a good translation, a joke may simply not be funny in another language. While teaching English to my students in Peru, I told an English joke. No one laughed. I then proceeded to explain the joke. Still, no one laughed. My husband is German, and I was born in South Africa. In Peru if a joke is not funny, they call it a “German joke.” I had just about given up on my joke when one of the students mischievously announced that he thought that South African jokes were even worse than German jokes. Now that was a joke that they appreciated. It must have been ten minutes before the laughing died down and we could continue with class.
Certain Bible passages are generally well known, and the preacher often quotes them without actually looking up the verse in the Bible. This is generally not a good idea when preaching with a translator. The audience and translator may not be familiar with the quoted verse, and its use may seem quite out of place. For example, a non-Christian translator and a Hindu audience may be surprised and puzzled by the unexplained quote of John 3:16.
Care should also be taken when using well-known Christian writers without having the reference handy for the translator to read, because this creates two problems for the translator. Firstly, there is a sudden dramatic change in style. The translator who has just adjusted to your sentence construction may now be thrown into eighteenth-century English. Secondly, the vocabulary changes dramatically. A preacher recently inserted the well-known C. S. Lewis quote, “Pain is God’s megaphone to a dead world,” into a sermon on the prophecy of Daniel. The translator had obviously never heard of C. S. Lewis or megaphones; thus, the translation of the phrase lost its punch.
Watch the measurements. Although this may be obvious, I find over and over again that preachers forget that not all the world thinks in their monetary currency, yards, meters, and inches. Also that unexplained reference to picnicking in July—for people living in the Southern Hemisphere—sounds very cold and wet.
These pointers will be very helpful when preparing a sermon to be translated or when preaching with a translator. God can, and does, often use two people, a preacher and a translator from different worlds. Within moments the two blend into one, and we no longer hear a preacher and a translator, but rather the voice of God powerfully pulsating through the audience.