Less than a year from the time I became a believer, I was coerced by my group leader to take up interpretation. At the time I had no skill other than a desire to serve, and ignorance about the task generated a fearless attitude. Fortunately, two missionaries returning from overseas were available to teach us; they were patient, faithful, and skilled in cultural interactions, making me a very lucky beginner.
Later on, the focus of my ministry was switched to teaching, studying, and writing. In the interpreters team I served a secondary function, trying to function as a ‘spare tire’. It turned out my early interpretation experience played a foundational role in my ministry, as my spiritual life was richly nourished through the first six to seven years of interpretation ministry.
Recently my home church decided to promote a bilingual worship service, in order to provide the younger generation better spiritual feeding through sermons, which required the involvement of more interpreters. There was a series of sharing, discussion and training meetings. My memory was rekindled as I participated. Perhaps the need of my home church is the same as the needs of many immigrant churches, and my recollection and experience may be helpful to many Christians who are attempting to do interpretation. With this in mind, I like to share with readers some of my insight.
First, interpreting is not simple or easy; it should not be taken lightly. An hour spent on the pulpit may require 5 to 10 hours of preparation by the interpreter.
During interpreting, the speaker may relax, but the interpreter cannot relax: During the sermon he has to listen and memorize, then interpret to another language in his brain; as soon as the speaker is done with a group of words, he has to open his mouth right away; once he is done, immediately he has to pay attention to what the speaker says next. If ever there is a ‘blank’ in his mind, he would be ‘hung up’ on the pulpit and embarrassed.
The speaker may speak whatever is in his mind, but the interpreter must never interpret whatever he wants; the speaker may express his mind freely, the interpreter must follow every step of the way. Often times after a sermon, the sweat would permeate the interpreter’s shirt and he could be twice as tired as the speaker. Even today, whenever I heard a bilingual sermon, I would be concerned about the interpreter and involuntarily interpreted in my mind every sentence uttered by the speaker on the pulpit. Call it conditional reflex or professional complication, interpretation is a sacred work that requires 100% dedication!
Is interpreting parroting?
Some friends liked to tease me and call me a parrot that keeps repeating what someone else says, with no innovation or creativity. Although just a joke, it was concurring with my own subconscious view that interpreting had no value or importance. Such thinking would certainly make one slack off from the ministry. However, the Holy Spirit made me realize that the speakers would not adjust the quality of their messages depending on the attendance number at the service. If the message suffered because of my laziness and ill will, I would be doubly at fault to God and man.
The pulpit where the speaker and the interpreter stand is sacred. The interpreter should regard himself also as a speaker, and measure himself with that standard. To the congregation that is alien to, or do not fully understand English, the interpreter is the speaker. To those who have basic understanding, the same message delivered in English and then listened to in Chinese will be reinforced in their minds.
A repeat of the word of God is never redundant or tiresome; the same message delivered in different languages is not a mechanical rerun. If the interpreter has been trained in delivering sermons, or is a pastor experienced in sermons, it is likely that the interpretation is not just an ordinary translation but a transcendent message. A dutiful interpreter is capable of blessing different groups in the congregation.
From another perspective, while the interpretation is important, it is nevertheless a supplemental ministry, and the interpreter should not go from the extreme of ‘self-depreciation’ to the other extreme of ‘unbridled dominance’.
The dress of the interpreter should be low-keyed, his manner subdued. When a mistake is made he should not make a face, roll his eyes, or shrug his shoulders, thus making a bad situation worse. Of course, if the speaker uses his limbs to express himself to better deliver a message, the interpreter may follow in kind.
Efforts in learning
In the first couple of years doing interpretation, I often felt I was not adequate, and debated whether to leave this work, yet I deeply loved the challenge it brought. It is not easy to sit next to the speaker, so to speak, as “10 minutes of work on the pulpit requires 10 years of effort”; observed performance comes from hidden diligence. Such is the nature of preaching, as well as interpreting; there is no short cut in discipleship. Regular and sustained reading of the Bible and spiritual books is the normal homework for every Christian, and in addition, every interpreter must constantly be familiarized with theological terms and their counterparts in Chinese. After all, our generation is much more fortunate than those several generations back, when the Chinese Bible was in the process of being translated. We no longer argue over terms such as ‘Zeus’ and ‘God’. Whether you like to use the two-syllable ‘Shangdi’, or the single-syllable ‘Shen’, the Christian and non-Christian audience will know you are talking about God. After 200 years in China, most Christian theological terms have been given generally accepted translations. Let the word of God become your word, and your inward content become your outward expression.
Watch how others do it. A Christian should seek to excel in everything he does, and should not lower his standard just because it is a church ministry. The standard of interpretation on the pulpit should not be lower than the professionals doing their jobs in the court, hospital, or in the foreign ministry. Pay attention to any bilingual conversation that happens close by; observe and imitate experienced interpreters. If you cannot find live interpreters to learn from, you can learn from DVDs of sermons with interpreters, particularly those who themselves are qualified speakers. A Chinese idiom says ‘Aim for the highest to get in the middle’; The Apostle Paul got to be who he was by imitating Christ. Only when you set your eyesight on the highest will you be motivated to run successfully.
Contemplate the best wording not only when you are preparing a speech, but in your daily life, so that it can become a ‘professional habit’: how to translate this word, how to convey this sentence, and how to deliver this message. Before you go on the pulpit, find a few friends who share your enthusiasm to sit in the front row to listen and evaluate your performance, and mark your mistakes or interpretation that fall short. Meet together after the sermon and discuss the pros and cons of your performance. Such team work can also help one another to suggest a word when the interpreter on the pulpit gets stuck. In this day and age of technology, it is also feasible to videotape the entire interpreting process and study the tape afterwards, and judge yourself from the perspective of the audience.
Practice makes perfect. In an immigrant society, there are many opportunities to interpret within or outside the church. Interpretation being to translate from one language to another, any practice will enhance your language skill. If your ministry in the church is to verbally interpret from English to Chinese, it will be helpful to your work by doing some Chinese-to-English interpretation and written translations.
It is also important to progress in stages. Training leads to pulpit service. From serving in small groups one can advance to interpreting in Sunday services; from serving in home church to combined inter church services; and from sequential interpreting to simultaneous interpreting. Every new stage presents a new challenge. For example, going from a small group to the sanctuary, the interpretation speed must slow down correspondingly. As the distance that sound travels increases, the effect of time-lag on the audience also increases.
Interpreting without written script
Everyone who begins to learn interpretation, just like me, probably would study the written script over and over, and write down the correct translation word for word, treating each as a life-saving device in times of emergency. However, let me say that an interpreter who is technically and spiritually mature does not read from the script when the occasion comes, no matter how much time he has spent on it beforehand.
The most obvious reason is that if you bow your head on the pulpit to read from script, you will lose your eye-contact with the audience. Further, when you are reading from script, you still have to pay attention to the speaker’s words. If you are mentally prepared not to read from script, you can focus your full attention on the speaker, and how to interpret correctly.
If your confidence is built on the document you prepare and not on your understanding of the whole message during your preparation, then, when the speaker makes some change in sequence, wording, or illustration during the sermon, you will be unprepared and flip your papers, and end up saying something incomprehensible. In particular, on the pulpit of large meetings, the interpreting process is as intense as going into a battle, and any slight change or words not written on the script will make you blank out.
Perhaps you can ask the speaker to deliver the message entirely following the written script. Would it not be beneficial to all? Of course technically this is entirely feasible. However, such a message is not lively preaching, but rather mechanical reading. In that case the speaker will read from his English script, and you read from your Chinese script, and there is no interaction between God and people, or between persons. Did we not pray that God anoint the mouth of the speaker so that words can spill out of him like a spring of living water? How can the living word of truth be locked into black and white prints? Everyone who has served on the pulpit will acknowledge that during sermon delivery, the Holy Spirit may send down new illumination to renew, transcend, or even replace the original script. If we equate the written script as God’s word to be delivered to His people, the work by the Holy Spirit will certainly be much more limited.
In addition, interpreters often wish that they would receive the speaker’s script a few day, or even a few weeks ahead of time. However, no speaker will admit that the script is so perfect that no change is required. We also do not know if God would give the speaker some new insight between the time of script submission and the day of the sermon, resulting in different degrees of change from the original.
Even if we make a bold assumption that the speaker has no new insights during this period of time, it would be difficult for him to maintain anew his passion and his feeling of being touched by God, all the way to the time of sermon delivery. The longer the time between script submission and the delivery, the more likely the sermon is formalized. In fact, it may not be a good idea to request the sermon script too early.
If you have a chance to interpret for different speakers, you will discover that each speaker has a different way of receiving the message from God. Some speakers will not accept preset topics, or will not promise to submit sermon script, because his preparation is to wait before God. As long as God has not spoken to him, he will not have a script. If God gives him a message only a few hours before the service, you just have to wait there. In such instances the true worth of the interpreter will be revealed. Of course, if you have his videotaped sermons, you can watch ahead of time, in order to be familiarized with his accent, vocabulary, speed and style.
It is exactly because interpreting depends on interactions between God and man, as well as between individuals, that every event is filled with an ‘unpredictability’ challenge. Also because such interactions are spontaneous, every interpreting event has an unrepeatable quality. A typical example is interpreting prayers. Prayers are speeches from the heart, which are necessarily spontaneous; almost no speaker will write his prayer into a script, and the interpretation likewise is unpredictable and unrepeatable. Usually prayers are the most difficult to interpret. The challenge of interpreting a prayer is the same as interpreting the entire message. It is not to say that we do not have to prepare, but rather we should be so familiar with the script that we do not need it. When the speaker prepares his sermon, God’s message becomes his message; when you prepare, the speaker’s message becomes your message.
Never allow the translated script that you have labored for many hours to become your bondage, which could also be indirectly a bondage to the speaker and the congregation that you serve. Otherwise, you will limit what the true and living God can do among us.
Concerned for the difficulties an immigrant audience may face, many English speakers tend to slow down their speed and simplify their content. To prevent such slowing and simplification from diluting the message the interpreter plays a critical role. Just imagine: if your communication with others has to pass through a different mouthpiece, how painful and uncomfortable you would feel!
The task of interpretation is supplementary in nature, a stepping stone between the speaker and the audience, and should never be a stumbling block. Our responsibility is to make sure the Spirit that moves the speaker likewise moves the congregation, and to remove any obstacle that prevents the word of God and His Spirit from moving freely among us. Therefore, rather than asking for a script we should be free from it, and rather than asking for an early submission of the script, we should allow ourselves more time to be prepared.
My personal experience is that interpreting without a script brings more freedom. In a meeting where God can freely move, you as the interpreter of the word of God should also be free; in contrast, in a meeting where God is defined within the written word, you who interpret God’s word are also defined. The best way is to ask the Spirit that moves the speaker move you twice as much, because the challenge you face also doubles.
The art of regret
Finally, I would venture an advice for those who would like to try interpretation: interpreting is a skill as well as an art, an art of regret. We like to call a movie an ‘art of regret’ because once it is edited into its final version, it cannot be changed. Interpreting also brings about regrets; once a word comes out of the mouth, it cannot be taken back. Sometime as soon as something is spoken, you discover a better interpretation, but the speaker has already begun his next sentence. Sometimes an appropriate interpretation will jump into your brain only after the fact, yet you cannot go back up to correct it. Sometimes it has to wait a week, a month, and even longer to learn a good interpretation… “How come I never thought of it?” could be the question that resonates most frequently in the mind of most interpreters. However, I am comforted that God only demands our faithfulness and goodness; He does not want us to wallow in our past mistakes, but would encourage us to ‘forget the past, strive for the future’ when we discover our imperfection.
The standard of written translation is ‘faithfulness, readability, and literacy’; but verbal interpretation requires fluency without too much faithfulness to detail, and one should not blame oneself too much for mistakes. In addition, not every phrase or concept in one language can be readily conveyed when interpreted into another language. Such incompatibility between different languages should not become an interpreter’s burden.
While interpretation can be challenging and time-consuming, I often encourage young people to try it out; because I believe that everyone who tries would receive abundant blessing like I have. While interpretation benefits the audience, the one reaping the most reward is you, the interpreter.
In general, the speakers who use interpreters are pastors and preachers blessed with the gift of preaching. To get close to them and study their sentences is a good way to learn; imitation leads to learning. Further, in the process of preparing translated scripts you have opportunities to consult and learn from the speaker, and unknowingly get immersed in the presence of their spiritual lives. In Chinese churches there should be no lack of examples of ‘interpreter becoming preacher’. Good interpreters can naturally transform into good speakers, and become group leaders, Sunday school teachers, and to be involved in the ministry of teaching and Bible hermeneutics.
Then again, not everyone is gifted with interpretation. If, after receiving training and practice, you discover that you do not have such gift, never be discouraged. God must have prepared a different ministry well suited for you.
The author came from Shanghai, and is currently living in New Zealand.