The Pros and Cons of Preaching with an Interpreter

by Victor Kuligin

Missionaries often find themselves in situations which necessitate an interpreter, regardless of their time on the field.

When I first suggested to a friend the idea of writing this article, his immediate reaction was, “Shouldn’t missionaries learn the local language well enough not to need an interpreter?” A valid point; however, missionaries often find themselves in situations which necessitate an interpreter, regardless of their time on the field. Let me share at least four possible occasions where this may become necessary, all situations which I have personally experienced.

Occasion 1: Many languages. I have served for thirteen years in Namibia. There is a hodgepodge of languages spoken here, and a missionary cannot possibly be expected to be trained in all of them. Normally, you pick one or possibly two languages to learn during your missions career in a given country. Speaking opportunities can often take you to regions of the country dominated by a language you have not learned, no matter how long you have been in the country.

Occasion 2: Large refugee population. In Namibia, we have a large refugee population of Angolans. Just recently, I was asked to speak at a church where Portuguese, a language not considered to be an indigenous Namibian language and one which a missionary would not normally learn, is used.

Occasion 3: Traveling. I have occasionally been asked to travel to other African countries to teach, and have been given opportunities to preach in churches where I do not know the tribal language.

Occasion 4: Impromptu opportunities. Within our first month of serving in Namibia, we visited a local church that was decidedly charismatic. During a rather lively part of the service, the elders gathered at the front of the church and began to speak to each other. Then they all simultaneously turned and looked at me, after which one of them came dancing down the aisle in my direction. The brief conversation went something like this:

Elder to me: “Pastor, you will preach.”

Me, shouting above the music: “What?”

Elder: “You will preach.”

And then the elder danced away. He assumed that since I was white, I must be a pastor. Within five minutes, I was called up front to deliver the sermon!

In short, there are enough situations where even a veteran missionary may need to utilize the services of an interpreter. Add to this the growing phenomenon of short-term missionaries, or visiting speakers who come for a short time yet are called upon to preach, and the possibility of needing an interpreter becomes all too real. For these reasons, I would like to briefly highlight seven things to consider when preaching with an interpreter.

1. Time management. Some readers may mistakenly think that because I am a westerner, I make time management a key issue; however, many westerners do not worry about such things. The Africans I have been accustomed to certainly lose attention as easily as Western churchgoers do. With a sermon that is interpreted, you can generally count on your sermon being twice as long. However, this really should be viewed as a minimum, since there is often lost time between the speaker and the interpreter. So a typical 30-minute sermon will actually take more than one hour.

In our early years in Namibia, which was just after independence, it was not uncommon to have sermons spoken in four languages. The pastor would preach in one language, then speak in another and then have two interpreters by his side. A twenty-minute sermon could take well over an hour and a half. If you are typically a long-winded preacher, try to pare down your message when using an interpreter. One important way to save time involves scripture reading. Skip the speaker’s language and just have the interpreter read the passage in the language of the congregation. If you utilize other passages in your sermon apart from the main text, write these out for the interpreter in his or her language, or have him or her look them up beforehand. This also saves the time of flipping to the passage, reading it first in the speaker’s language and then having it read by the interpreter.

2. Language ability of the interpreter. How well does the interpreter know both languages? I am amazed at Africans and their ability to know several languages well; however, in some instances, the interpreter has not known English as well as I would have liked. The obvious question to be asked is, “How complicated can the speaker be in his or her language before the interpreter begins to lose the meaning?” It is best to keep your language simple and not run the risk of miscommunication.

Slang and idioms common to the speaker can be “cleaned up” by an astute interpreter. Conversely, if the speaker is unaware of his or her colloquialisms and has an interpreter who does not readily recognize them, great confusion can ensue. In one such instance, while I was preaching about legalism, I mentioned that in America some people believe it is a sin for women to wear “pants.” Unfortunately, I was preaching in an African country where that word referred to undergarments. For those who knew English, there was a look of shock on their faces. Fortunately, the interpreter caught my error and in his interpretation, even included hand gestures to clearly reveal long “trousers.”

3. Non-verbal communication. In preaching, a drop in the speaker’s voice, or a movement of the hand or body, is a powerful way to communicate a key point. These are frequently lost in interpretation, though, because once the key point is actually communicated to the listeners by the interpreter, the body language and voice inflection of the original speaker is all but forgotten. However, some interpreters are quite good at mimicking the speaker’s gestures. In one message, I banged my hand on the pulpit to make a point, and the interpreter did exactly the same thing during his delivery. With each hand gesture, he mimicked me perfectly. I am certain that had I performed a double somersault, he would have done one as well!

4. Improvising on the part of the interpreter. Rarely does a speaker get to vet his interpreter for the message. I have preached with an interpreter who was interpreting in a language that I knew, but not well enough to deliver the message in that language myself. Yet, I caught the interpreter making a subtle change to my message—either by accident or purposefully—which had a dramatic effect on my point. In other instances, I have watched people in the congregation begin to shake their heads when the interpreter spoke, clearly disagreeing with his version of what I had just said. These are clues that your interpreter may not be doing an adequate job. It may be a language problem as mentioned above, so the speaker may have to simplify his message mid-stream to help the interpreter stick to the intended meaning.

5. Delivery. The above difficulty may also be alleviated by speaking in short sentences. In the presence of an interpreter, using short sentences can actually be more powerful than had you not had an interpreter. For example, consider the following statement: “Jesus died for our sins. He paid the penalty that we deserved to pay. He shed his blood for us. He took God’s wrath upon himself.” I have often seen speakers deliver whole paragraphs without allowing the interpreter to step in until the very end. This is certainly asking a lot of an interpreter, and it runs the risk of the interpreter skipping some of it for lack of memory. However, when the interpreter is used properly, a powerful communication is possible.

Jesus died for our sins. Jesus died for our sins.
He paid the penalty. He paid the penalty.
That we deserved to pay. That we deserved to pay.
He shed his blood. He shed his blood.
for us. for us.
He took God’s wrath upon himself. He took God’s wrath upon himself.

Nothing crucial is left behind. In fact, with the “stereo” effect created with the interpreter, greater emphasis may be produced. There is even a dramatic, attention-grabbing element created with such a delivery.

6. Pay attention. This may at first appear to be so basic as to not require mention, but you would be surprised at how easy it is to let your mind wander while the interpreter talks. Do not look like you are daydreaming while the interpreter is speaking. I have found myself looking out the window while the interpreter talks; this is a definite no-no. Continue to maintain eye contact with the audience, even if you are not the one speaking at the moment.

7. Rhythm. A good story or anecdote relies on pace and timing, and these are often lost through interpretation. Be aware of this and keep your illustrations free from technical language or potentially confusing idioms. The force of an illustration can be entirely muted once the interpreter stumbles over a word, or has to pause to ask the speaker for more clarity. Short illustrations are normally better than long ones for these same reasons.

There are several benefits in using an interpreter, both for the speaker as well as for the listeners. The obvious benefit for the congregation is that the people hear the message in their heart language. For those who have a rudimentary understanding of the speaker’s language, it can also be a language learning opportunity. In fact, this is often how missionaries learn a little more of an indigenous language. Immediately after hearing an interpretation for a language they do understand, they can piece together how it fits with the original language.

For the speaker, he or she can keep up with his or her sermon notes more easily, and eye contact is not nearly as challenging. Also, the interaction between the speaker and the interpreter can provide some “comic relief” in the message and make for a more enjoyable listening experience. I have found that people will not sit well for an hour-long message from an individual speaker, but they tend to sit better for the same amount of time when it involves a speaker and an interpreter. The proper use of an interpreter can yield immediate fruit in your sermons, but the improper use can spell disaster. I hope the above pointers will aid missionaries when given the opportunity to preach to a congregation which requires an interpreter.


Rev. Victor Kuligin is a missionary with Africa Inland Mission. He is academic dean and lectures in systematic theology and Church history at Namibia Evangelical Theological Seminary in Windhoek, Namibia. His wife Rachel and he have five children. They have served in Namibia since 1994.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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