Friday, 19 June 2009

Why you should never preach THROUGH an interpreter

But you should always preach with one!

Imagine this, you have been asked to travel abroad to speak in a church where almost no one speaks any English at all. You finish your notes and your packing and start to think about what is ahead of you.

“Great,” you think. “I’ll get to speak through an interpreter. I’ve never done that before.”

You start to speak and everything seems to be going well. People seem to be giving you their undivided attention and you are flowing really well. But suddenly, disaster strikes! In the middle of your funniest, but most touching story, the interpreter stops and tells you that they don’t understand. Now you find yourself in the middle of explaining what you meant to the interpreter as the congregation starts getting fidgety and your precious flow flies out of the window.

“Typical,” you think. “Maybe I should just stay at home next time.”

Sad to say, stories like this one are not uncommon. It is true that even the most skilfully interpreted sermon will never quite match a monolingual sermon for flow and naturalness. It is also true that even the best interpreters will find themselves lost at times and will have trouble catching what the speaker said.

However, there is still hope. We don’t need to give up on interpreting altogether. After all, with the rise in immigration and the growth of international travel, being able to speak to people whose first language is not the same as yours is becoming essential if the church is to grow.

I believe that, in this case, one small change can make a world of a difference. Change a preposition and you will see an incredible improvement in the quality, flow and even impact of your interpreted sermons. If we stop saying and thinking about “preaching through an interpreter” and instead begin to speak and think about “preaching with an interpreter,” we are sure to see amazing results.

Why should one word make such a world of a difference? Well, it’s all down to attitude. Preaching “through” an interpreter gives us the impression that interpreters are language machines – nothing more than a piece of necessary equipment to get the job done. In this view, it might even be better if they were machines. After all, being human means that we are all prone to mistakes. The idea of preaching “through” someone means that we see interpreters as a barrier between us and the congregation. It is as if language is a wall or barrier between us and the congregation and interpreters are some kind of tunnel inserted into the wall. While the “tunnel” might let sound through, it is inevitable that it will also cause echoes and distortions. The sound that “comes out” might not accurately reflect what “went in.”

This leads us to the subject of mistakes. If we start from that view that we are preaching “through” an interpreter, then any mistakes will necessarily be the fault of the interpreter. If interpreters are “language machines” then it is the fault of the machine if the interpreting goes wrong or if the wrong meaning is communicated.
What happens when we shift out perspective and talk about preaching “with” an interpreter? The first, and most obvious, change is in how we see the interpreter. “With” automatically creates a feeling of cooperation and teamwork. Instead of the interpreter being a “language machine,” they are now seen as a teammate or an ally. Instead of the previous image of a tunnel through a wall, we now might imagine interpreters more like a guide. Working as our communication partners, they allow us to stay away from the traps and enjoy the views, as well as helping the congregation to understand and explore what we preach.

What about mistakes? Well, if we truly do see ourselves as preaching “with” an interpreter, we will want to minimise mistakes by spending some time beforehand discussing the likely problems ahead. These precious ten or fifteen minutes before we stand up to preach could quite easily pay dividends later on. If mistakes do still happen, seeing the interpreter as a communication partner gives us the humility to admit that we might be at fault. No matter who might have caused the problem, preaching “with” an interpreter will lead us to work together to find a solution.

So there you have it: one word can really make a world of a difference. The next time you are invited to speak in another country or even to people in your country whose first language is not English, spend a few minutes thinking about how you can really preach “with” the interpreter. You may be surprised at the results!

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