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the tag team: preaching with an interpreter – george wieland

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Scotland, land of my birth, is out of the top ten! The 2013 census reveals that more NZ residents were born in South Korea than in Scotland, whose former number 9 place is now held by the Philippines. These all sit below Samoa, Fiji, South Africa, Australia, India, China and England.

This diversity brings a proliferation of languages, reflected in NZ’s Christian population. Alongside English speaking churches there are hundreds of congregations operating in other languages. We face the challenge of realizing unity in Christ across barriers of cultural and linguistic difference, with all of its exciting potential for growth in the knowledge of the God, life as the family of God, and partnership in the mission of God.

To participate in this as preachers, we need the skills of preaching with an interpreter, whether to meet the needs of groups within our home churches, to speak to congregations that use different languages, or to participate in ministry overseas through relationships with immigrant groups here. Some reflections on what that involves.

When a sermon is interpreted God is speaking through two people. Translation can’t be exact, it always involves interpretation for different thought forms and another context. Embrace it! The interpreter is a partner in the task of bringing the message from God – tag team preaching!

When you share in such contexts a relationship is being built. The invitation to you to preach almost certainly represents a desire for a deeper relationship, not only with you but with the church or denomination that you are perceived to represent. Grasp the relational opportunity.

The privilege of opening up Scripture with people whose life context is different to your own opens you up to fresh insight. For example, my appreciation of reconciliation in Christ was deepened when I preached to an Auckland congregation of refugees comprising combatants from opposite sides in their civil war.

 Non-verbal communication is hugely important. Even if people cannot understand what you say they can pick up a lot – for good or ill! – from your facial expression, gestures, what you wear, how you hold the Bible, etc. Be intentional about it.

Help the interpreter. Interpreters vary, of course, but the following often help:

  • Provide something in advance: a summary of your message; Bible references; the sermon outline (headings or summary statements); any key phrases; details of illustrations.
  • Talk with the interpreter before the service/occasion. Check that he or she understands you (don’t ask, “Do you understand?” – start talking and gauge the response); check that your key phrases work; explain anything that’s unclear, and adjust if necessary; pray with them.
  • Articulate very clearly. Speak more slowly and pronounce words more deliberately than normal. It feels awkward but it does help! Appreciate that Kiwis can be difficult to understand for people who learned English elsewhere.
  • Use short sentences that contain complete thoughts. Translation is idea-for-idea, not word-for-word, so give the interpreter a complete idea to express in the best form for the receptor language.
  • Avoid irony. It doesn’t translate. Ask yourself, “What would this mean if they took it at face value?” “Yeah, right!” would become, “Yes, that is correct.”
  • Beware of Kiwi colloquialisms such as “interesting” (when you mean “challenging”) or “average” (for “disappointing”).
  • Alliteration won’t translate!
  • Say half as much as usual. A 30 minute sermon = 15 in English and 15 for the interpreter.
  • Back to the tag team – for listeners the sermon flows best when there is no gap between one partner finishing a sentence and the other starting. A fluent interpreter will begin while you’re still sounding the last word or two, and you can do the same.


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