Over the next few months many of our churches will send teams overseas on short term mission trips. As part of that experience, you may be called upon to preach. The reality is that few of us are fluent in multiple languages, so a translator can be helpful or even essential. Here are a few tips to help in that task; tips that might also be useful in reaching out to our increasingly diverse communities at home.
Prayer should always be central to preaching, but is critical especially when speaking through a translator into a language that is not naturally our own. We need to pray during the preparation of our remarks. We should be in a flow of prayer during our sermons or lessons.
Pray with your translator, or better yet, ask them to pray for you both. We would do well to pray for those who will be hearing the messages we and our translators will deliver. We are not simply delivering a speech; we are sharing the Good News of Christ. We dare not think we can accomplish that without the help of the Holy Spirit. Pray early – pray often.
Let’s take care in how we utilize our translators. Start by learning their names, which may sound basic but can be easily overlooked during a hectic schedule. Translators are not language tools; they are a sisters or brothers in Christ. They may have had a long journey with the Lord or may be a new believer. They may be truly multi-lingual or they may have just slightly more language skills than we do. Knowing them better will enable us to serve together more effectively.
We can help them by sharing our key points and main themes in advance. Ask the translator for advice and feedback. This will improve the message and allow them to feel a part of the preaching process.
We should publicly thank our translators for their assistance. Theirs is an important ministry and we ought to encourage and support them. Presenting them with a multi-lingual Bible or some study tools in the local language can be practical ways of showing that we care.
Working with a translator may require that we prepare our messages differently. Not all words or concepts translate easily. When we add the challenge of bringing ancient Biblical languages to a modern setting, the task can seem overwhelming.
Know something of the local history and traditions. A translator can be very helpful in this regard. Any effort to use some phrases of greeting or blessing in the local language will be very much appreciated. Using images drawn from the everyday life of the people we are sharing with can make it easier for the translator to convey a concept.
Remember that we are preaching not only in a different language but cross-culturally as well. Avoid using slang or idioms that might be confusing in translation. Humor seldom translates well and more than one translator has had to try to interpret a preacher’s joke without success. Don’t be that preacher.
Be sensitive to educational backgrounds and literacy levels. Even if the translator is proficient in our language they may be unfamiliar with theological terms or church language. The primary responsibility for effective communication rests with the preacher, not our translator, and certainly not with our listeners. Prepare to speak simply and clearly.
When we share with the help of a translator timing is very important. Any sermon delivered through a translator will take at least twice as long. Know the time expectations. Invite the translator or another volunteer to read Scripture directly in their own language. This allows them to participate in the preaching process and can speed things along.
Even if the clock is not critical, the timing of delivery is always important. Use concise but complete sentences. Try to avoid choppy clauses or run-on sentences. Don’t speak so rapidly that the translator cannot keep up, or so slowly that there is silence. Make it easy for the translator to not only follow but to anticipate. Look upon those translation moments not as a delay but as an opportunity to listen and adjust.
Speak audibly and clearly so that the translator can understand. Be careful with gestures as some hand motions may be affirming in one culture and offensive in another. Don’t put your translator in an awkward position of trying to explain. We are the guests and we should make sure everyone knows we are glad to be with them. You don’t need a translator to share a smile.
I was tasked with leading several sessions for church leaders in central Ghana and our team arrived at the rural church to find an eager group of students. It was only then that we discovered that we faced a challenge. The principal language of that region is Asante Twi and we knew we would rely on the help of the pastor who was fluent in both English and Twi. What we did not realize was that there were a number of people present who were from another region who primarily spoke the Fante dialect. We prayed hard and fast and God led us to the right person to help translate from Twi into Fante. We went on to spend the day sharing the Scriptures while working in three different languages.
Whenever I think of that I am reminded of Acts 2 and the first Christian Pentecost. The disciples had been waiting for God to use them. Suddenly they were faced with the challenge of preaching in several languages to people of many different cultures. What was initially a problem, however, became an opportunity. “Everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. At that time there were devout Jews from every nation living in Jerusalem. When they heard the loud noise, everyone came running, and they were bewildered to hear their own languages being spoken by the believers” (Acts 2:4-6, New Living Translation). As a result, thousands came to know the Lord.
Preaching with a translator might begin as a challenge but it can become a wonderful opportunity when the Holy Spirit gets involved in the process. May it be so for each of us as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
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