Translation Troubles: What You Need to Know

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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?

Leave a comment

Next Article: Translation Troubles: Working with the Translator | Series: Translation Troubles

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2 thoughts on “Translation Troubles: What You Need to Know

  1. Had this experience on my cross cultural trip this summer. It was in Khmer. But one thing i found very helpful was to keep my words short but meaningful. It was hard at first but i think one thing that happened was that we just keep the focus on God. The audience may not really understand some of my stories and words because of the culture difference but one thing that they did get is how God works in each of our lives.

    I think it also helps if the translator is someone who knows God and has experience on the sermon that you are going to preach. In my case, it helped me tremendously when the one translating for me was a cambodian pastor who studied here in the Philippines. He cannot speak that much tagalog but once i gave him the passage and my outline, we talked about it and shared our similar experiences about the sermon topic.

    Great post! Keep it up!

    • Hey Parkin!

      I’m sure that must have been quite an experience at Khmer (I’m not even sure where that is!). Preaching a translated sermon is always interesting. I’m certain that won’t be your last time to preach in that scenario.

      Thanks for those tips you mentioned. I’ll include some of them in the next article on the subject!

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