White Unto Harvest

Preaching Through An Interpreter

An interpreter is an aid commonly used by many brethren working to teach the gospel in foreign countries. Unless one has a working knowledge of the language of the country wherein he is laboring he will need a native with a good command of English to interpret (oral) or translate (written) for him in his efforts to reach the lost. The interpreter becomes a right arm in many cases as many logistics such as phone calls, printing ads and putting them in newspaper, etc., are impossible without one. The more able the interpreter, the more effective is the preachers' work. (I have seen well-prepared lessons or lectures hindered or even ruined by ineffective interpreters.) From all this we hope that those with no experience in these areas can understand to some extent how big a part interpreters play in foreign work.

Preaching through an interpreter demands some patience. First, any lesson one teaches will be generally twice as long time-wise because every sentence must be spoken twice, first in English and then in the language of the hearers. Further, one can only say so much at a time if all his words are going to be remembered and changed into the native tongue of his audience. Long sentences must be broken up. One must wait for the interpreter to finish before he can continue on with his thought. Sometimes he must clarify a word, phrase, etc., as, no matter how experienced his co-worker might be, there are always idioms or trendy expressions which are strange to even the most trained of foreign ears. In Lithuania, we have often sat down with our interpreter beforehand and explained some words or concepts. When proofing written translations (which are the most technical and, therefore, difficult work a bilingual person can do) it is common to find many mistakes even though the work may have been done by an able translator.

Experience teaches that, though the interpreter is a necessity in the situations described herein, there are some limitations inherent in working with one. We would like to notice a few of them herein with the intent of making some helpful applications.

  1. Your message must be there. The old adage, "Don't just get up and say something, get up because you have something to say," applies here. You might say something with feeling -- either anger or sorrow -- but you will notice that the interpreter, in most cases, is not speaking in this manner. They simply say what you say minus the feeling. Hence, if what you say is depending more on emotion than it is on actual content do not be surprised at a lack of results (1 Cor. 14:8). Our next point is related to this one.


  2. Humor is difficult through an interpreter. Jokes can be told, but time limitations alone make it questionable as to how wise it is to tell them. Also, one would have to have some assurance that his audience would "get" the joke, with the attendant problem of the interpreter laughing first and then trying to pass on the humor to others. Some jokes or wise cracks do not translate because they depend on idioms or exact knowledge of a situation foreign to the audience. The above information presents no challenge to one who simply preaches the Bible, as the Bible is not a joke book (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and preaching it does not depend on the sense of humor of the audience (cp. Acts 2:21ff; 3:11ff; 7:2ff; 13:16ff; 17:22ff). Preachers who depend on jokes to hold (entertain?) their audiences will find it difficult to work through interpreters. Those who have crafted their sermons so as to keep the audience "in stitches" all the time may find their sermons hard to preach in other countries. Humor is not always bad and can be helpful in some circumstances just to lighten things up. However, a preacher is primarily a "man of God" (1 Tim. 6:11) and not a man of the stage. What the lost in foreign countries and America need is to be "cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37), not to have their funny bone tickled. A "man of God" will have enough to think about in getting his message across through an interpreter without worrying about trying to be amusing.


  3. Emphasis is necessary. The nature of the gospel message is simple, but it is technical. For example, faith, repentance and baptism are necessary for salvation, but faith must precede baptism, a truth especially important when preaching in a Catholic land. Faith is necessary for salvation, but the Bible teaches an obedient faith (Heb. 11:7-8) not just mental assent. In the process of preaching through an interpreter one cannot forget the situation of the hearers. They are hearing something in a foreign language, then hearing it in their own language, and this over and over during the course of a lesson. The thoughts are coming to them in bits and pieces, and they have to hold these together until the whole idea has been presented. Depending on the subject matter, keeping a train of thought going can even be challenging when one is speaking uninterruptedly to an audience of English speakers. Those listening through an interpreter must literally hang on every word of the interpreter to get the speaker's message if there is no emphasis. Bearing down, repeating, giving examples, etc., will help foreign audience grasp the message you are wishing to convey (Ezra 8:8). This is also helpful in preaching here in America.


While several lessons might be drawn from what we write herein, the main one concerns some things that will, hopefully, help one effectively teach or preach through an interpreter. Preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). Prepare yourself and be familiar with your subject matter. It is generally good to avoid attempts at humor. Do your best to make sure what you are saying is being understood. When done correctly, working with an interpreter can be an effective means of preaching the gospel.

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For comments to the author, or to contribute news, reports, and information regarding preaching efforts in foreign lands, please contact Steve at styvas@mindspring.com

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