Interpreting and the Church


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October 17, 2019
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Since 1968, the United States has been celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. This period lasts from September 15 to October 15, a time frame that encircles the liberation dates of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. We take time nationally recognize the deep roots of Latinos, to learn more about the vital impact they have had in our country, and to appreciate the vitality they bring to American culture.

As the demographics of our churches have changed and society has become more and more diverse, interpreting languages for church services has become increasingly common as churches try to be more welcoming. Also, interpreting at church services and religious conferences reflects the changing reality of today’s global church. By including those brothers and sisters who speak different languages, the church becomes more inclusive—barriers of division and distrust are broken down. Perhaps Sunday morning will no longer be the most segregated time of the week. In providing interpreters, we can help reduce confusion, improve communication, and and thus better reflect the miracle of what occurred on Pentecost.

While many people might think that interpreting church services generally entails interpreting from English into another language, the reverse is also quite true. Many newer church plants are in minority, first-generation immigrant communities, which means church activities and services would be held in a non-English language. In order for the supervising or sponsoring church to provide effective guidance and cooperation, interpreting into English is required for visitors to the service. In addition, many non-English speaking churches regularly hold combined services with an English-speaking church, with the entire service being celebrated in a bilingual fashion. Also, when the non-English speaking church is in need of pulpit supply, but no pastor is available to preach in the other language, an English speaking pastor is invited to preach through an interpreter. With the growing importance of churches from the global south, religious conferences quite regularly need interpreters both for featured speakers from other countries who prefer to share their thoughts in a non-English language, and for the non-English speaking attendees who are part of the listening audience.

As churches contemplate providing interpreting services, a question that needs to be answered early on is a logistical one: will the interpreting be simultaneous interpreting via the use of wireless equipment for those individuals who do not understand the language being spoken, or will the interpreting be consecutive from up front so everyone can hear what is said in both languages? The answer will depend on the particular situation: how many people need the interpreting? Will the interpreting be only in one part of the service (e.g., the sermon)? Will the interpreting be bidirectional (e.g., two pastors speaking in different languages)? Is the church willing to invest in the purchase or rental of the needed equipment in order to provide simultaneous interpreting?

With simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter is generally in a soundproof location listening via a sound feed to the booth. This allows for real-time interpreting, so the overall time of the service is not increased. It is very welcoming for visitors and allows them to feel that they are fully participating, since they can understand all that is being said. However, proper simultaneous interpreting requires someone who has been trained in simultaneous interpreting.

Consecutive interpreting, on the other hand, is when the interpreter is up front with the pastor or speaker and interprets after each phrase is uttered. Important advantages of this method are that it can be done with very little additional equipment, it can be arranged on short notice, it can be used in a wide variety of situations, and it can be bidirectional—in that two pastors speaking different languages can divide the service with the interpreter enabling everyone to understand the entire service. However, people need to realize that generally the service will be approximately 80% longer because of the time needed for interpreting. In addition, if the pastor or speaker is not accustomed to working with an interpreter, an uncomfortable situation might be created when the message does not flow naturally at times, with some listeners becoming frustrated.

In order to create a more welcoming environment when interpreting takes place in church, especially during combined bilingual services, there is an additional consideration. Whenever possible, all the information that is projected should be in a bilingual format, including Bible verses, sermon notes and outlines, and even songs.

Interpreting in church also has unique challenges that are specific to this subfield. In addition to general interpreting challenges (vocabulary, speed, register, intensity, specific content, etc.), interpreting at church also requires mastery of the vast realm of Biblical knowledge in both languages. Many names, such as the books of the Bible and those of specific individuals, are very different in the two languages, with which the interpreter needs to be quite familiar. Pastors and speakers also quite commonly quote historical figures, such as Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther; again, the interpreter needs to know those names in both languages. Another challenge quite specific to religious interpreting is when a pastor quotes a verse from memory, without looking up the passage in the Bible. If interpreters have not memorized the verse, they will need to look it up or, to their discomfort, they will need to paraphrase if they don’t have time available to find it in the Bible. When songs are announced, many times the title of the song is very different in the two languages, and the interpreter may not be familiar with the song.

Furthermore, different denominations have their own unique subset of religious language. Is it a parsonage or a manse? Does the church celebrate the Lord’s Supper, communion or the Eucharist? Is it a sermon or a homily? When people are worshiping in church, congregants generally feel more comfortable when the word choice sounds familiar to them. For many people, it can be unsettling when things sound even a little odd and unfamiliar, or when it feels too much like an interpretation.

Another challenge for the religious interpreter is the overarching importance of not saying anything heretical. It can easily happen—word choice, nuancing a phrase differently, an improper term that might be used, or just simply missing a key word that the pastor said. Religious interpreters are in the difficult situation of needing to monitor their own output as carefully as possible at all times. In certain situations, the interpreter will need to mentally ask the question: would it be preferable to state something a little more vaguely, rather than going out on a limb by being more specific and perhaps saying something heretical? After the service, if church visitors have troubling questions about the content of a sermon, who should take responsibility—the pastor or the interpreter?

For almost all interpreting venues, organizers can find trained, certified, and professional interpreters. However, for a church service, is it better to have an untrained interpreter who is a Christian, or a highly qualified interpreter (who is familiar with the language of the church) who perhaps is not a Christian? Christians generally argue that what a pastor preaches is being inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, can the same be true of the words of the interpreter?

Similar to most interpreting situations, preparation is key to high caliber interpretation, including prayer for religious services. The interpreter is the voice of the pastor for those listeners who do not understand the language of the pastor. Such religious interpreting is both a privilege and a blessing, as our churches continue to strive to be more inclusive and welcoming to our brothers and sisters, regardless of the language.

About the Author
  • Piet Koene serves as Professor of Spanish, Translation, & Interpreting at Northwestern College.  Professor Koene is a professionally certified translator and interpreter.

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  1. Thank you for posting this article on interpreting in/for the church. I am bilingual (spanish/english) and I have been interpreting for the church now for almost 3 years. I am by no means professional nor thoroughly acquainted with biblical terms , which at the beginning made everything harder than what it actually was/is. The pastor and I have a wonderful relationship and he provides me with his notes a few days before, but I still find it hard interpreting. My question for you is: if you had the notes beforehand and you still found the interpreting difficult, does it mean the problem lies with the interpreter and his (nascent) skills? The pastor speaks VERY quickly, has a southern Ga. accent and is given to get very excited when he starts to preach! Any comments and/or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

  2. Great article! My church has recently been pushing to be more inclusive to the internationals in our community. I am an interpreter between English and Portuguese. Some good things to consider here.

    We have started using a system called Interactio for our interpretation. It has really helped with the setup and the listeners can connect conveniently on an app. It has made it really easy for us to coordinate between the interpreters too. We have even done remote interpretation with some interpreters at home and listeners as well. I thought I’d share in case this could help some people in a similar situation, especially now since most churches are not meeting in person.

  3. It is a very important topic that sheds the light on real hindrances faced by interpreters in churches, mosques, or at any international conferences related po the issue of Religious Dialogue. I, Muslim, had experienced this task as being invited to fulfill the task of interpreter with one American interpreter at a conference dealing with Islam-Christian dialogue . I was to interpret all Arabic/ Muslim speakers into English language for Christian listeners . On the other side, my American colleague used to interpret Into Arabic for Muslims. One important factor , I personally noticed is the tone level of the Christian sound that was low and a bit sensitive, it touches the hearts before the minds . On my side, I was interpreting loud sounds , that might not reach the hearts of the Christian listeners …may this is due to our culture….Other issue is related to the choice of words, sometimes as being a Muslim, I would say for example Jesus the messenger of Allah instead of saying The son of God… I used to say Allah instead of God. In my opinion, once faith and culture has always monopolized the spirit of the religious interpreters ….a matter that renders the interpreter a traitor as confessed by Niccolo Franco in 1539.

  4. How to do church interpreting
    By: Rebecca Gutierrez
    gutierrezrebecca00@gmail.com

    I have put together this note for church interpreters about HOW TO DO CHURCH INTERPRETING because I feel there is a need for instruction in this setting. I pray that it would be a blessing to every church in need of church interpreters as more and more churches are becoming bilingual.

    I have interpreted for many years and feel that I am qualified in this field. Not because I have stated that but because my past superiors have indicated this to me. My first interpretation experience started in the theological domain many years ago. Then I was able to interpret for the public schools. I then ended my interpreting/translation career in the legal field. I have trained many interpreters throughout the years. It is my desire to see brethren with interpreting gifts in the body of Christ to expand their knowledge in this field.

    Here are some tips that you can follow. There are NO books that teach about theological interpreting. But I believe that my experience throughout the years has helped me to learn this particular field. I have watched many interpreters and have noticed that they could use some training so I am providing this information. Feel free to share.

    I would establish here though that these rules in theological interpreting, DO NOT ALL apply in other fields of interpretation. For example, in a courtroom an interpreter would NOT be allowed to show emotions, such as shouting, crying, laughing, giggling, etc.

    Another thing I would mention is that interpreters are not translators. Interpreter use their spoken voice, whereas translators translate documents in the written form.

    The following are some rules to be applied in theological interpreting:

    Find some time to be alone where you can pray and breathe deeply for several minutes before the interpretation. As this will help you to relax your mind and your body. And if your body and mind are relaxed you will do a better interpretation.

    If the speaker addresses YOU, the interpreter in front of the congregation to say something to you particularly or ask you a question it is okay to respond briefly and accordingly. For example, the speaker says to the interpreter, I am so pleased that you will be interpreting for me. The interpreter can answer, thank you very much. It is a privilege.
    If the speaker asks something like, Brother interpreter, are you comfortable at this pulpit/podium here next to me? You can answer accordingly. If something needs to be tweaked up or fixed it should be done BEFORE the interpretation actually begins. It is okay to address it. It is also very important that the interpreter read through all the notes and all the Bible verses that will be mentioned during the preaching or the conference or whatever is taking place. If the speaker does not have physical notes or paper it is okay to ask him or her if you can peek into his or her laptop or whatever electronic device is being used. Interpreters should have time to look at the notes and ask any questions they may have in regards to what is written in there. They should briefly discuss this with the speaker, the preacher or the conference speaker-whomever they will be interpreting for PRIOR to starting. (It should just take several minutes to get this done.) If it takes longer than a few minutes perhaps this interpreter is not ready to be interpreting in the church.)

    You can take this season of time to practice and start learning the Scriptures, Bible verses and perfect yourself in this ministry. Not every bilingual Christian will be able to participate in the interpreting ministry as this is a gift. Just like singing is a gift or playing an instrument, etc.

    -Try not to place your hands on the pulpit/podium. Sometimes people do this when they want to feel grounded because they’re so nervous. If the speaker might want to move about you are blocking him/her from doing that. UNLESS you are sharing space with the speaker and this is where you place your Bible and your notes.

    Never dress formally if the person you’re interpreting for is not dressed formally. For females, the same could apply, also don’t wear clothes that are revealing or that would distract the people from paying attention to the speaker. Don’t wear jewelry where people can hear the bangles clinging on your wrists.

    Never add to the interpretation. If the speaker did not say something don’t add in words that were never spoken.

    Never “help” the speaker say or express the words that want to come out of his or her mouth. He or she might be doing that to try to convey the best word/s. But again, do not assist the speaker in uttering words. (Unless he/she asks for your help.)

    If the speaker raises his/her voice to say something. You too should raise your voice at the same level as the speaker to interpret it.

    Do not make physical gestures or facial gestures unless the preacher or speaker does it first; you may imitate what he/she is doing-believe it or not.

    When and if you feel that the speaker is talking very quickly and you can’t catch up, you can place one hand gently on the backside of his/her shoulder. Of course, whichever shoulder is closer to you. Now remember you must establish prior with the speaker that you will be doing this if he or she starts speaking too quickly. It will just be a reminder for him/her to slow down a bit.

    Now here’s another thing you might encounter as it had happened to me so many times even outside of church settings. Sometimes the speaker might forget that you are standing alongside him/her trying to interpret for them. It is okay to whisper to the speaker and ask if he/she could pause so that you could do the interpretation. Usually the answer I get is, oh yeah, I’m sorry I forgot you were interpreting. Sometimes breaking the formality of a situation is also okay. It helps to ease the tension.

    If the speaker said something funny to the audience and laughed a bit you should do the same thing when you interpret. (In a tribunal courtroom) a court interpreter would not be allowed to do this, but in a church setting you can.

    If the preacher/speaker jumped, skipped, hopped, raised his/her hands, etc., you too should do the same.

    If the speaker started crying a bit during his or her preaching, you are not obligated to cry with the speaker unless you are so moved and touched to the point that it has also affected you emotionally; it’s okay to cry. Compose yourself quickly so you can concentrate and continue the interpretation.

    Now I will say something here. Theological interpreting is not the moment to behave shyly. Let me explain this better. You should try to express the same impetus as the speaker. If the speaker is an introvert try to be an introvert. If the speaker is joyous and happy and lively try to do the same.

    Interpreting in church should be done with authority, conviction and carefulness. Carefulness especially because you want to make sure that you are not conveying another message. Because one word could mess up the whole preaching.

    It is good to always make sure that the interpreter also be provided with water. Make sure the water is not too cold or has ice in it as this may strain your vocal chords. Also ascertain that it be water and not any other liquid as it will not help in the quality of your voice. Always find the opportune moment to take a drink, for example when people are clapping or when the speaker stopped speaking to take a drink.

    If during the interpretation, the speaker starts speaking so fast that it is just impossible to interpret, make sure you have established a nonverbal communication method between you and the speaker. Therefore, in this case it is okay to quickly whisper to the speaker and ask them if they can pause to give you time to interpret. Now you must make sure that this does not happen more than once. If you feel that the speaker is just on a roll and does not give you time to interpret you’re going to have to go with plan B which is try to paraphrase what he or she is saying and utter those words to the congregation.

    Do not leave the speakers side until done and are indicated to do so.

    Hopefully this will be a guide to help you become a better interpreter.

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