Preaching with an Interpreter

It’s a tough call being a Preacher. I deeply respect the men and women who faithfully teach or proclaim the Word of God to hungry hearts regularly. Preachers however can find themselves preaching in many different situations that can be quite challenging.

In this article, I would like to discuss the subject of preaching with an interpreter.

If you minister in or get invited to minister in a multi-linguistic culture, chances are that you will preach at times with an interpreter. That’s not easy for a preacher who likes to flow freely in his sermon. The added problem is that one’s sermon time gets cut down by 50%! It’s an even more difficult task if there are 2 interpreters!!

Interpreting a sermon is a challenging task and there aren’t many who can do it skillfully. If the interpreter is not getting it right, is struggling with his words, or is too slow, you will struggle with your sermon. At its worst, the congregation may end up with 2 sermons; one from you and a different one from the interpreter!

Sadly, due to the constraints mentioned above, preachers can sometimes take out their frustration on the poor interpreter by showing irritation, going too fast, thus leaving the interpreter lagging behind and by making unfair comments (maybe jokingly) about the interpreter. This I believe should not happen at the expense of the interpreter. I remember an instance where an internationally known preacher was speaking so fast and was so insistent on getting all his thoughts, his quotes, his stories, his jokes and his entire sermon through, that the young interpreter was left speechless and a bystander half the time. Sadly, the congregation found this amusing too! Even sadder was the fact that as a result, maybe half the congregation was deprived of receiving the sermon in the language they understood!

When preaching with an interpreter, I would like to suggest some practical guidelines that may help.

1) Have a short chat with the interpreter if possible before the service. This will help him to understand the theme and flow of the sermon, and the scriptures being used. (Even better if you can give him a print out of the sermon).

2) Pray with your interpreter before the service.

3) Assure him that it’s ok if he makes a few mistakes, but to move on in the flow of the sermon, without getting stuck at the place of error.

4) Encourage him to focus more on getting the SENSE (meaning) of what you are saying rather than getting the exact words. Many hiccups take place because the interpreter is struggling to find the exact words when what is needed more is to get the meaning of what the preacher is saying.

5) Reduce the length of your sermon since your time will be cut by half. This will prevent hurrying through, which can be exasperating for the interpreter.

6) Reduce the speed of your delivery slightly, especially if you are speaking with a foreign accent.

7) Keep your sentences short.

8) Use simple vocabulary and avoid using phrases that are foreign to the people you are ministering to. (Referring to being in a ‘rat race’ may be fine in the preacher’s culture, but in another country it may be interpreted literally as ‘ a race being run by rats’!!)

9) Discuss the possibility of having a replacement option if the interpreter is just not getting it right and if things are going bad in the first 5-7 minutes. (This will have to be handled sensitively by the inviting church or organization).The interpreter would also know by then that he’s not up to the task and would I believe, be glad for the change. If there’s no replacement available, there is nothing you can do. Just preach on!!

10) If the interpreter has to be replaced, thank him graciously for his efforts at trying. This will help him to not feel humiliated before the congregation.

11) If the interpreter does a good job right through, thank him after the service. I know a Preacher who actually gives a gift to anyone who interprets for him!

It’s not easy preaching with an interpreter, but let’s be gracious to the ones who stand by our side in such instances to help the congregation understand what we are saying; albeit in a different language!!

PS – After preparing this post, I had to preach a few days ago with an interpreter (A lady). As far as I could gauge, she did her part well. I followed some of the suggestions given in this article and it helped in the smooth flow of the sermon. This resulted in a very good response from the congregation during the altar time.

If you have any other practical ideas on this subject, I would love to hear from you. Please feel free to add your thoughts in the ‘Comments’ section.

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