Several weeks ago, our Mandarin-speaking and English-speaking congregations joined together for a church-wide prayer event. It’s always great to see the whole church gather together in worship and prayer. I was asked to share a short devotional that evening. The only catch was this: everything I said would have to be translated into Mandarin. It wasn’t my first time to be translated on stage but it did constitute as one of the rare occasions when it does happen. With the handful of experiences I have, I’d like to do a series on what I’ve learned so far about translated sermons.
As we begin, here are some things that you need to know right off the bat:
(1) It’s not the ideal mode of communication.
A preacher who can speak the language that the congregation is most comfortable with is the ideal preaching scenario. In preaching, we aim to deliver God’s message to people in the clearest way possible. One of the ways that happens is by speaking in a language that the congregation is adept at. And so, if possible, I’d recommend avoiding translated sermons.
Of course, there are occasions when it can’t be avoided (like a joint service between two language groups). In times like those, simply make the most of the situation.
(2) It’s prone to confusion.
Due to the back-and-forth nature of translating a sermon, the message becomes increasingly prone to confusion. There are three people involved in translation—the preacher, the translator, and the audience—and any one of them can be confused at any time.
Firstly, preachers are susceptible to confusion especially if they aren’t familiar with this type of scenario. As a preacher, I’ve had a number of occasions where I lost my train of thought while waiting for the translator to finish. And getting back on the train is not as easy as repeating your last statement. In a translated sermon, repeating phrases tend to look a bit silly since it cannot be done in quick succession.
Secondly, translators have their work cut out for them. They’ll need to listen carefully to what the preacher says, remember the statement in its fullest, and then translate it as best as they can. That is no easy task and it puts a lot of pressure on the translator. Any number of things could go wrong—a misheard word, a statement that’s too long to recall, etc. Also, there are colloquial terms, cultural references, and jargons that may not be easily translated into another language or culture.
Lastly, the audience may experience confusion if the translation isn’t going very well or if they’re having a hard time adjusting to the back-and-forth setup.
(3) It takes two to tango.
A translated sermon is a team effort. Both the preacher and the translator will be working hard to deliver the sermon successfully. If a preacher delivers a poor sermon, there’s not much that a translator can do about it. Sermon preparation falls on the shoulders of the preacher. On the other hand, if a preacher delivers a stellar sermon but the translation is poor, the sermon will probably end up confusing and forgotten. It takes two to deliver a translated sermon well.
In the next article, I’ll show you how to establish a good working relationship with the translator.
Join the discussion: Have you ever had your sermon translated and what was that like?