by Dwight Gradin
This article is a response to the article “Using an Interpreter: Less than Idea, but Not All Bad,” by Roger Chapman in the January, 1998 issue of EMQ.
This article is a response to the article "Using an Interpreter: Less than Idea, but Not All Bad," by Roger Chapman in the January, 1998 issue of EMQ.
I appreciate some of what Roger Chapman has expressed. But I have difficulty with the tone and tenor of parts of the article and with some highlighted points. For example:
1. The focus was less on using an interpreter than it was on not knowing the language, which fit the article better. As is, the article comes across as a defense for not knowing the language.
2. I question whether not knowing the language indeed makes one more humble. It may make one less proud but I doubt it causes greater humility.
3. Not knowing the language is more a price one does not pay than a price one does pay in order to immediately teach the gospel.
4. Interpreted sermons can be “boring,” too. Despite difficulties in pronunciation and grammar, other factors are much more likely to be the cause of boredom than a person struggling in a new language—content, relevance, attitude, and so on.
5. What sponsoring group is content with only hearing about “grammar breakthroughs”?
Rather than these five highlighted statements, the author would have done better to highlight and expand on the bare statements made later:
1. “A lot of good has happened . . .”
2. “Russian is more difficult to master. . .”
3. “In 1991 the sending churches did not have a great pool. . .”
4. “It was appropriate and good that ministry began. . .”
5. “Already we note a declining receptivity . . .”
Few, if any, would dispute the temporary use of interpreters. And perhaps a case can be made for the extended use of interpreters in certain circumstances. For a start, I suggest the following criteria:
1. Where time is a strategic factor, as in the former Soviet Union (FSU) in 1991, when the window of opportunity could have been very short. However, in most areas of the world time is not normally that strategic.
2. Where interpreters “advanced in both languages” can be found, as in the FSU. However, there are relatively few language groups in the world where this is a live option.
3. Where the language being interpreted is a highly acclaimed or coveted language, as English is in the FSU and around the world. English enjoys very high status among the world’s languages and is a legitimate means for attracting people to the gospel. However, not all languages (and thus not all missionaries) enjoy that advantage. A Korean-, German-, or Spanish-speaking missionary’s message translated into Russian would not likely be met with the same response.
4. Where people are not averse to listening to speeches for months and years via interpretation, as is possibly true, for now anyway, in parts of the FSU (at least as far as English is concerned). However, try that in the reverse and it will probably very quickly get old.
These special features seem to exist now in the FSU but in few other places; so let’s not all jump on the interpretation bandwagon, even in the FSU. The tendency may be to conclude that if one person can effectively see a church established via interpreters, then we should all do it that way. It becomes the new ideal, the better way, the cost-effective approach.
In my experience, lecturing through an interpreter has been like unrolling a short length of thread from a spool, cutting it off, handing it to an interpreter who runs across a bridge (or steps across the language barrier) and attaches it to another spool or to the last length of thread. The result is a lot of knots (sometimes strange-looking knots) in the thread as it gets rolled up by the receivers on the other side of the bridge. An interpreter is at the same time the bridge and the one who runs back and forth across the bridge to deliver each segment of a message.
Although less than ideal, missions indeed should make greater allowance for prospective missionaries, particularly medium-term missionaries (three to five years), to choose the option of using an interpreter, particularly where interpretation is a legitimate (and even desired) option, or where interpretation is used initially as one works toward fluency (recognizing the dangers inherentin that).
Missions need to realize that language learning is not everyone’s forte. Cross-cultural ministry gifts don’t reside only in those with high language aptitude. God is not limited to the linguistically elite. In locations where the above criteria are met, why not make use of the abilities of those who are open to exercising their needed skills cross-culturally but who shudder at the thought of first getting to the level of “Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy”?
An argument seems to be that if you let one person use an interpreter, it will hinder the motivation and morale of everyone on the field toward language learning; so it’s best to require it of everyone with no exceptions. That “solution” is too simplistic and unduly narrows the front line, those qualified to be part of the vanguard. Recruit those who have a long-range focus and are ready to accept the challenge of language. Provide the necessary encouragement, training, tools, and time. Realize that there are those like the doctor in Nigeria, who implies that strong commitment to language learning when he writes, “I don’t want to be forever chained to an interpreter, whether in the hospital or in the churches.” But don’t make it an exclusive policy, because there are those who can and do use interpreters effectively.
On the other hand, make (almost) no exceptions when it comes to spirituality, cultural sensitivity, others-centeredness, deference, industriousness, and so on; but be careful about including language facility in that list. The use of interpreters is a live option. Let’s use it where appropriate. And let’s avoid extremes at either end.
Dwight Gradin is director of the learning resource center, Mission Training International, Colorado Springs, Colo.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 57-59. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.