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Sharing the Pulpit with an Interpreter

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"Interpreter." Photo by TEDx RIT; licensed via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Imagine you have been invited to preach at the Korean church in your neighborhood. Or you are leading a mission team to Mexico and will be preaching at the Sunday service, but you don’t speak Spanish, or Korean. Helpfully, you are informed that the sermon will be translated by an interpreter who will stand by your side interpreting as you preach.

You know that having to stop and start your sermon to allow for preaching will change the flow but what else do you need to consider before undertaking this task? How can it be done in a way that is not only useful for the congregation but even enjoyable for yourself?

Preaching with an interpreter requires rethinking your usual sermon preparation and delivery. However, it can also be an energizing dynamic that stretches preachers to try something new.

Embrace the dance

There is a rhythm to preaching with side-by-side interpretation. If this is your first spin on the dance floor it may feel awkward, and you may keep stepping on each other’s toes to begin with. However, there are some simple steps you can practice before moving onto the dance floor with your preaching partner.

Plan your pauses ahead of time

The amount of material interpreters can retain varies, but they cannot remember everything you say if you don’t provide a break until you are halfway through the first page of your sermon manuscript! If you use a full sermon manuscript leave a line break to remind yourself to stop for the interpreter to translate. The recommendation is after every full stop.

Remember, if your statements are too short the interpreter cannot make sense of where you are going. If it is too long, they will have to summarize much of what you are saying.

If you have faithfully prepared it honors God, the interpreter, and the congregation to actually allow time and space for interpretation.

Give materials ahead of time

When possible provide your interpreter with a copy of your sermon in advance. You can still make final edits late Saturday night but at least the interpreter has the core theme and most major points in advance. Ensure that any scripture references have also been provided. Biblical translation is a serious linguistic and theological undertaking and it is unfair to expect interpreters to translate scripture on the fly!

Pro tip: many online Bible resources such as biblegateway.com have multiple language translations that you can even include in your sermon manuscript.

If you are short on time, don’t bother reading long scripture passages in English, ask your interpreter to read them in the host language only.

Allow time for relationship building

Remember, without the interpreter your sermon cannot be communicated. They are the means by which the majority of the congregation will hear the sermon. Treat them with honor. Interpreting is an incredibly complex and taxing cognitive process. The more time you can spend with your interpreter prior to the preaching event the better. This allows them to get used to your accent (yes, we all have one!), your rate of speech, your mannerisms, and even your heart for God and ministry.

Choose to trust

Often preachers lament that they don’t know what their interpreter is saying or that they seem to say something much shorter or much longer than they did. Languages are not all the same. Transliteration between languages is not always possible or appropriate to convey meaning. Therefore, somethings take a lot longer, or shorter, to say!

Remember, most interpreters are trusted members of their church community. Sometimes, they are even pastors or leaders of that church. Assuming they are deliberating misconstruing what you are saying is disrespectful. Even if you perceive that something is not quite accurate, we trust that the Holy Spirit is still innately involved in the preaching process!

Actions will speak louder than words

As preachers of the Word, we spend hours in diligent and careful crafting of our words for Sunday’s homily. However, when we preach with an interpreter, language that is poetic, metaphoric, comedic, and speech full of wordplay often falls flat. Instead, consider how you can use a story, illustration, bodily movement, or prop to demonstrate the same point. It engages the congregation who don’t know what you are talking about until the interpretation occurs. Remember, the people may not understand what you are saying, but they are listening with their eyes to everything you are doing (or not doing!).

Expect and encourage your interpreter to mimic your body language and movements. An animated preacher and interpreter help facilitate communication. The interpreter is listening not just to your words but is also watching your non-verbal communication to make sense of what you are saying. Good use of body language also keeps the congregation engaged as they are watching to see that the movement you did is repeated by the interpreter.

A shared ministry

Romans 10:14 says “And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” Preaching with an interpreter can be humbling as we are reminded that the task of proclamation is not ours alone. It is a co-preaching event with the interpreter and the Holy Spirit as we illumine God’s word together.

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