Lost in Translation?

I had never preached with a translator before. But during my time in Portugal last month, I had the  experience of preaching four times through a translator. What did I learn from this new experience?

The best translator is a fellow preacher

When choosing a translator, it would be tempting to simply opt for the best linguist one could find. That would be a mistake. Certainly, adeptness with languages is important, but my time in the Iberian peninsula showed me the immense value of having a translator whose ‘day job’ is preaching. Rogerio Ramos didn’t simply translate my words; he preached my sermon!

Sermon preview is vital

A few days before preaching together I gave Rogerio my sermon notes. Rogerio was able to query any words he was unsure of; he was also able to advise me where my ideas wouldn’t “come across” in a Portuguese context. This meant I could make adjustments to my sermon if necessary. It also meant that Rogerio was better prepared for the forthcoming translation.

Use short but complete sentences

This was new to me. I discovered that there are two pitfalls to be avoided in constructing sentences for translation. One danger is lengthy sentences. The problem with this is obvious. When sentences are overly-long, the translator has difficulty remembering all that you have said. But there can also be a difficulty when one’s sentences are short but incomplete. When I preach only half a sentence then pause, I may not be helping the translator. Preaching a complete idea makes it easier for your partner to translate the sentence. The best practice is to preach in complete sentences but keep them short.

Keep the pace up

Translation can become slow and ponderous. It is vital that both preacher and translator keep the pace up. I was ready to come in immediately after Rogerio had completed his translation. Together we managed to establish a certain “rhythm” to our collaborative preaching. Surprisingly, the overall length of the sermon was not much longer than I would normally preach.

Depend more on God than oratory

You realise how truly powerless your own oratory is when you cannot speak a local language. You are entirely dependent on the translator. You are even more dependent on God.  Preaching with translation raised significant and helpful questions for me. Do I overrate the importance of eloquence in preaching? Do I have confidence in the bare Word of God? Do I believe that the Scriptures are sufficient to make a saving and sanctifying impact across linguistic and cultural borders?

4 thoughts on “Lost in Translation?

  1. Would you also consider that the interpreter should be like-minded and if he is a preacher, that his own communication style should be similar to your own? (I know the more criteria, the narrower the field)

  2. Alan, a very good point. If someone were a soft-spoken bible teacher, it would be quite incongruous if his translator were a table thumping firebrand! It could also be a problem if the preacher and interpreter were at odds theologically. Would the translator translate if he disagreed with what was being said?!

  3. I once worked with a very wise translator who told me that the worst thing to do to a translator is to ‘surprise’ him with scripture quotations which are not in the previewed script – without giving the precise reference and time for him to turn to it in a Bible in the language in which he is speaking. Expecting someone to do in seconds what teams of Bible-translators take great care and effort over, weighing every nuance and syllable, is unreasonable, and also very unwise.

  4. Hi Colin,

    Interesting article, thanks for posting. The church we are going to in Malta in the summer for placement actually have a translation provision. In that, depending on the preacher (either Maltese or English) someone goes out back & translates, via headphones, for those that require it in the congregation. Means preacher & translator can flow. Good idea!


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