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.

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