White Unto Harvest

In The Language of Everyman

Note: The following two articles were initially to be included in the December 1999, and January 2000 editions of Watchman. As the magazine was not published those two months, the articles are combined for this the February 2000 issue.

Producing Written Translations

Paul wrote in Romans 10:14, "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?" Hearing this many missionaries might ask, "How shall they understand what the preacher is saying without proper translation?" From the time a worker enters into a work where a language barrier exists he will have to overcome it in order to be effective. This is especially true when producing written translations.

If the Lord lets time go on, the tracts, correspondence courses, books, etc., that brethren today are producing will still be useful in teaching the word long after all of us have passed from the scene. Hence, it behooves us to spend some time considering things relevant to the process of producing such translations.

Two Common Challenges

1. The difficulty of translating. Translating, which deals with written communication, is much more demanding than interpreting, which deals with oral communication. Perhaps, in familiarizing yourself with an imported product you have purchased, you have had the experience of trying to understand instructions in English (poorly) written by a non-English speaker. The writer no doubt understood their product and had an acceptable knowledge of English. However, some ideas are difficult to carry over into another language, especially when one does not have the benefit of using his hands, voice inflection, etc. This experience is common among those who know and have dealt in a foreign language in written form. As one who speaks a foreign language, this writer has found accuracy in interpreting to be much easier to attain than in translating. Hence, if you produce an article, tract, etc., in a language other than your mother tongue, you would do well to make sure your work is adequately proofed by a native speaker before you use it to teach. Most brethren with whom this writer is familiar do not produce the translation themselves. Rather, they find an English-speaking native of the country wherein they are working to produce it for them. This brings us to another aspect of this work.

Even the best translators will make mistakes in translation. (Think of the discussions among brethren regarding translations of various words or verses of scripture in English versions of the Bible.) There are various reasons for mistakes in translation. We note a few here. Mistakes can come from the background of the translator. For example, Lithuania is a Catholic nation. Hence, it should surprise no one that terms common to Catholicism but foreign to the New Testament have turned up in rough drafts to translate words we use to teach the truth. In English we are careful in our preaching and writing to explain our terms. We can see another chance for mistranslation here: The translator often does not have the benefit of such explanations. Further, a translator will sometimes find that our terms do not translate well style-wise. Brother Tom Bunting, who labored in Norway for many years, once told me how a translator with whom he worked did not think the terms he used sounded good in Norwegian and he simply had to insist on the use of the terms he wanted. We have had the same kind of experiences in Lithuania. Another cause of mistranslation is that some translators will do word-for-word translations. When this is done the chances for error are practically limitless since many words have several definitions and only one can be used. (I once saw "undermine" in a tract translated "dig under and explode." This is a meaning of the word, but it was not the meaning the writer of the tract intended.) Some of us have seen a preacher render Mark 16:16, "He that hath an opinion and is sprinkled shall be pickled," in a discussion to chide a sectarian for making the Bible say something it does not say.

This is not very different from some translations I have seen! When we add to all of this the multitude of subtle differences in possible word choices by good translators, e.g., awaiting the Lord versus expecting the Lord, we have a clear enough picture of the challenges one faces in such work. It is difficult for even the best English-speaking foreigner to produce an accurate translation.

2. Making a translation fit the country where it will be used. Many of the things we translate are, rightly, tested and tried works with which we have become familiar in our native English. It is this writer's conviction that this is the best course to follow. However, one should be aware of the challenges such translations present. For example, sometimes examples, illustrations, or terms the author uses are, understandably, ones common to America. However, these are often foreign to those in other countries. Such things should be noted and changed so as to make the tract more understandable to its prospective readers. In Lithuania we call this "Lithuanianizing" a piece of literature. We once changed a reference to a popular American food item in a tract to a popular Russian food item in a Russian translation. A further hurdle comes from the fact that English is a very rich language in terms of vocabulary. We have sometimes had to invent words in Lithuania and define them for the reader in order to produce the equivalent meaning of the original English word. Something else we have encountered in Lithuania may be worth mentioning for others laboring in former Communist countries: The former authorities suppressed the use of Lithuanian. As a result of this, many Lithuanians do not speak their own language correctly. (This should surprise no one who has heard the various forms of American English!) Grammar is the casualty cases.

Proof Reading Meets These Challenges

Proof reading is a step in the translation process that cannot be neglected if an accurate translation is to result. We would have no idea of some of the above mentioned facts about translating nor of multitudes of errors in translation if it were not for proof reading. Without it the possibilities for mistranslation are incalculable.

Proof reading is a time consuming, tedious process which changes a rough draft (first translation) into something with a message consistent to that of the English original. It involves having an interpreter read the rough draft back to you in their best English while you read along in the English original. In this way, each mistranslation, deviation in thought, difficulty with colloquialism, etc., can be detected and corrected. We have sometimes found that a false argument based on English translations of the Bible can not be made from the Lithuanian Bible. This negates the necessity of translating the argument along with its answer. Also, Lithuanians know that the phrase "in the name" means "by the authority of," which makes explanation of the term redundant. In order to give as fair a rendering of the rough draft as possible, someone other than the translator who produced it should be used to proof it.


The possibilities of reaching the lost and teaching the saved increase with every piece of literature we translate into another language. It is hoped that we have made a helpful contribution to the production of such tracts with this article.

Working with an Interpreter

Last article we looked at translating, which deals with written material. This article we look at interpreting, which deals with oral communication.

Unless a person becomes fluent in the language of the country wherein he is working, interpreters will be necessary. While fluency is the desirable course the facts are that relatively few workers attain it. Hence, interpreters are a fact of life for many workers in foreign fields. How does one work effectively with an interpreter? How can I be sure of the interpreter's accuracy? Hopefully, this article will help us in answering such questions and aid us in our work of teaching the Gospel.

The Nature of Interpretation

You may have played the following game: Someone in a room full of people whispers a short message in the ear of the person next to them, who in turn repeats it in the ear of the person next to them. The process continues until the last person to hear repeats what they have been told. It usually turns out to be far different from the original message. While an extreme example, this shows how things can get lost in the transmission of thought from one person to another even when both are speaking the same language. Hopefully, we can imagine the danger of some of our ideas getting lost when going to another person and then being repeated in another language.

Interpretation, if done accurately, will convey the message of the one whose words are being interpreted. For example, if you are dealing with a pharmacist and need a particular medication for an allergy you do not want the interpreter passing on that you "need something for an allergy." Likewise, the proper "prescription" from the Bible must be given to those we teach if they are to receive forgiveness of sins and lead acceptable lives. Those we are teaching must not be given an "uncertain sound" (1 Corinthians 14:8).

Some Challenges

There are any number of obstacles that must be allowed for in working with an interpreter. We mention a few here. Try to realize that, at best, something is always lost in interpretation. During a recent effort in Lithuania I had to correct an interpreter who said, "Faith and repentance," where I had said, "Faith, repentance, and baptism." If we look at the interpreting process as one's being given a list of items to remember and repeat we can easily understand such a mistake. Hopefully, this helps us see that a preacher cannot say too much at a time. If he does so without pause something is bound to get lost in the interpretation of it. Such can lead to another challenge to getting our message across, that of an interpreter giving only the gist of what we say. This may be acceptable when dealing with many things we might face in daily life, but not in the teaching of the Gospel. Another problem that can arise after an interpreter has become familiar with our message is that of their getting ahead of us. In a study, this can lead to the one we are teaching asking questions which confuse or mislead us because we do not realize to what they are responding. Also, in such a situation, the interpreter becomes the teacher instead of the preacher. A definite hindrance I have encountered with some interpreters is a reluctance to say negative things because "it will hurt the feelings" of the hearer. Needed reproof, correction, or rebuke is impossible in such cases. Worse than all of this is the fact that some interpreters have shown themselves to be dishonest and have actually worked against the efforts of some preachers, prejudicing the hearers or mistranslating what is said.

Helps in Working with an Interpreter

Here are some things that we hope will make teaching through an interpreter more effective. It is always a good idea to have a word book handy for finding the equivalent foreign word for an English word we may use or visa-versa. A New Testament in a given language is often handy for this if we are able to remember a verse that uses the word we want to interpret. Also, one should try to measure how much he can say at a time. One way to do this is to watch the interpreter's face. I often break up important or difficult sentences. Also, we should concentrate on keeping our communication as free of idioms as possible. Such lines as, "I know it by heart" and "It bit the dust," may be clear in English but they will produce questioning looks from most interpreters. I remember a very competent interpreter being stumped by the sentence, "He got fired." A further aid is taking time to learn some of the language in which you are wanting to teach. This allows one to understand somewhat of the interpretation of his words. As noted above, I was able to catch a mistake an interpreter made because of my limited knowledge of Lithuanian. Another brother told me of a study that led to a man's conversion which probably turned because he and a coworker understood a phrase in the Czech language. Further, argumentation should be simple and one must take time to make the points he makes, bearing down to make sure they are understood (1 Cor. 14:9). We often use overhead charts in Lithuania to accompany our lectures and sermons. These, like their English counterparts, contain our main points and scripture references to aid the listeners in following our message. We usually make copies of our charts to hand out to our listeners.

Checking an Interpreter's work

At this point one might ask, How do you know the quality of the work your interpreter is doing? There are several ways to check an interpreter's work. One way is to note how long it takes the interpreter to say what you have said. If their interpretation is taking much less time than the original message something might be wrong. This may be difficult if you are breaking your message up into small sections. However, when one you are teaching speaks you can measure the length of their communication against that of the interpretation of it. Also, what kind of questions come back from those listening? Are they the kind that naturally relate to the original message? Another check is noting an interpreter's proficiency in translating from their native language into English. Having another interpreter sit and listen to an interpreter you are using will also give you a good idea of the quality of the latter's interpretation.


Working with an interpreter is not a daunting task. It can even make preaching easier because one has more time to think in between sentences. If we will recognize some of the possible problems such work presents it will help us to avoid them and be more effective in teaching the Gospel via this means. Hopefully, this article will aid brethren in achieving these ends.

This month's report summaries are not included. The two articles above included reports that if published at this time would be very much out of date. Please read Steve's column at the beginning of March for foreign work updates.

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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