Thursday, September 10, 2009

Teaching Through a Translator

You need a translator to get your message across if you aren't fluent in a language. In this article you'll learn strategies and tactics that will help you be more effective. I'm basing this on my own experiences and on what I've learned from others as we seek to glorify God as we teach and preach across language and cultural gaps.

Before You Teach

Find out as much as you can about the people you'll be teaching. Prayerfully consider how to shape your message to their needs.

Be clear about how much time you have. Because everything you say will be translated, or at least paraphrased, plan for half the content in the same amount of time. This works to your advantage because (a) it helps you stay focused and (b) helps your audience stay attentive. It's more difficult to listen to the rhythm of two people speaking.

Use simple words. You need to think through your vocabulary and select words and phrases that are easier to translate and understand.

Avoid culturally different illustrations that your translator or audience will not understand. Neighborhood block parties, shopping malls, and football game tailgating aren't worldwide phenomenon. Not every country has free speech and political elections with candidates. TV ads and commercial jingles vary by country or region of the world. If you are telling a story, it will be more important to explain about the people in the story and less important to explain the place.

Avoid colloquialisms. Colloquialisms are words, phrases, or expressions characteristic of ordinary or familiar conversation rather than formal speech or writing, as "She's out" for "She is not at home." Every region of the world and every people group has them, and they make little or no sense to others in the world. They're extremely difficult to translate well.

Example of what NOT to do: Once when I was teaching in Venezuela I described how Jesus astounded his disciples when he called them friends. "Jesus knocked their socks off," I said. My puzzled translator looked at me, and I repeated, "Jesus knocked their socks off" a little louder. I suspected a problem when she took a lot of words to translate this and there were more puzzled looks in the crowd. Later I learned that my translator has explained it this way: "I don't see this in the Bible passage, but apparently the disciples were wearing socks and Jesus didn't like it so he knocked the socks off their feet."

Practice teaching with pauses. When we teach without a translator, we are used to our own rhythm of speech. We have our distinct personal styles for building up to a key point, asking questions, pausing dramatically, looking around for body language feedback. All these are significantly different when you teach through a translator! So you can practice this a little bit on your own. Say a sentence or two, then pause and count to 10. Say another couple of sentences, and count to ten. You'll find it feels odd and strained at first, but stick with it. This practice will help you feel much better about the rhythms when you actually are teaching. You'll also spot some places in your lesson where there are natural breaks that work better for translators than others.

Review the basic plan of your teaching with your translator. Show them which Bible passage or verses you will be using, so they can mark them in their Bible, or produce a translation in advance. Your translator will be much more comfortable helping you if he or she has some idea of where you are going. (One translator I know explained that it's much more difficult to translate from your first language to your second language than vice versa. This means much grace, more review time up front is necessary!)

Check key questions with your translator first. Questions are powerful and effective foundations for great Bible teaching. But your translator needs to understand the questions and their purpose in order to translate well. Are you asking rhetorical questions? Make sure your translator understands that you don't expect the group to respond. If you are looking for a response, make sure your translator understands that you'll wait for an appropriate time.

Pray with your translator. They need your prayers. The people needs your prayers. The power to transform lives is in the Word and in the Holy Spirit. I like to pray that my translator and I will be small obstacles to God doing His work in people's hearts and minds.

While You Are Teaching

Pray! Quick silent prayers for your hearers and your translator are important and effective. We're relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives.

Look at your audience when you are speaking. Listen to people in the audience when they are speaking. I've occasionally seen teachers fixate on their translator, even unconsciously, rather on the person who is speaking.

Look mostly at your translator when he or she is speaking, and remain still. This will help the audience stay directed at the translator as well. If you're looking around too much, they'll be watching you. If you're fidgeting or rustling your note papers, you'll become a distraction.

Use the power of body language. Facial expressions work well across cultures and languages. Don't strive for fake smiles and laughs, for example, but don't suppress them either. Amplify key points with hand gestures. (Watch out for finger signs, though; some things that are fine in the US, for example, are extremely rude in other countries.)

Keep in mind that your audience may understand some of what you say. It's not uncommon for people to understand more of a foreign language than they can speak. Americans are often surprised - sometimes very embarrassed - to learn that people in many countries can understand them fairly well, even if they aren't fluent in English. So as you teach or preach, some of your audience may be picking up part of the meaning even before the translation.

After You Teach

Be available to your audience to answer questions or for follow-up dialogue. This is always appropriate, no matter what language or culture barriers exist. Be sure your translator knows that you will need help during this time.

Express your appreciation to your translator. Translation is hard work, and good work for the service of the Lord. Be warm and kind in your appreciation. I like to do this at the end of the lesson, too, for public recognition.

If you keep these things in mind, practice, and pray, you'll be much more effective as a Bible teacher working across language and cultural gaps. If you have suggestions, please let me know!

No comments: