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Missions 101

Tips on Using a Translator When Teaching

Nov. 9, 2015By: Darren CarlsonAuthor Bio

These tips are found in our short-term ministries handbook and is read by all of our teachers.

Step 1: Pray for your translator.

Reason 1: Although your translator’s primary job is to be a means of communication between you and other people, remember that the translator is a person too, who is hearing all your words and can be positively or negatively impacted by them. If your translator is not a believer, pray that he or she will come to know Christ. If he is a believer, then do not hesitate to minister specifically to that person while you are with him.

Reason 2: Your translator is even more directly connected with the people you are speaking to than you are. Sometimes a word-for-word translation of your sentences would make no sense to the people you are communicating with. Pray that your translator will have wisdom to explain things if necessary and have the mental energy to keep going even when he or she gets tired.

Step 2: Be understanding about the complexities of English and general non-native language use.

Since America is still, to a large extent, a monolingual society, our instinct is to be impatient with those not proficient in English. If we recognize that bent, then we can try to adjust for it.

Tip 1: How well a person can speak English is not a measure of his or her intelligence.

Explanation: Obviously, in a country where people have spoken English from birth, we are tempted to think that people who are slow of speech are also slow of thought, rightly or wrongly. But in a foreign country we must remember, against our instincts, that even if a person has very broken English, he or she might still be incredibly smart. 

Application: Don’t become condescending when a person doesn’t understand you. Often, even though they might not understand all your words, they will sense your change in tone and aversion to conversation and feel insulted by you. Just be patient, try different words, try annunciating more clearly, and never write them off as unintelligent.

Tip 2: In other parts of world, good English is not always the same as American English.

Explanation: There are many places, mostly ones with an English heritage but where English is still a second language, that have developed their own English colloquialisms. That is, phrases that are English that aren’t “proper English,” but still make sense to them and are widely used. 

Application: You might be annoyed by their improper usage or just tempted to correct them. But it is better to see their terms as their own dialect of English, not as improper English, and adjust your own speech accordingly.

Tip 3: Just because a person is a translator doesn’t mean he or she is completely fluent in English.

Explanation: Depending on where you are going and what you are doing, you may get a translator who has studied English for 10 years and speaks like he graduated from Oxford, or you may get a person who has much less training but is still quite capable to handle most conversation.

Application: Be patient with whoever is translating for you and be grateful that you have a translator rather than having to learn a whole new language. You are just going to have to get to know your translator to discover the limits (if any) of his or her understanding.

Tip 4: Avoid idioms.

Explanation: Idioms are phrases we use that make sense as a standard phrase but don’t necessarily make sense just as a sum of the words in the phrase. This means that idioms won’t make sense to someone who knows English words and grammar but never lived in an English-speaking place.

Tip 5: Avoid humor and sarcasm 

Explanation: Humor and sarcasm are very culturally situated, and even if translated properly, the fact that something was intended to be funny or meant in jest will not cross over.

Tip 6: It never hurts to go over a lesson ahead of time, whether it just be looking at the outline together or even going through words or phrases that might be especially difficult to translate.

Step 3: Get familiar with the skill level of your translator.

Ultimately, to really communicate fluidly through a translator, the only path is to be familiar with his or her skill with English and preferred method of translation. Some like short phrases and some can handle long sentences. Some need simpler words and some can handle professional terminology. You will learn the basics of how well your translator can do in just a few sentences, but the longer you work with him or her, the easier and more comfortable you will be.

Tip 1: Here are some things to observe about your translator as you are trying to figure out how comfortable they are with translating:

How long of a pause is there between you finishing your sentence and the translator starting translating?

How long does the translator speak in relation to how long you spoke?

The amount of time isn’t the most significant thing, the most significant thing is whether the translator looked confused as he was trying to come up with words or whether he was confident and just giving an expanded description.

How frequently does your translator as you to repeat yourself?

Step 4: Adjust your speech according to the skill of your translator.

Due to the fact that each individual’s ability with English is a little bit different, and even each American speaks a little differently, there can be no hard and fast rules about exactly how to adjust your speech with a translator. Use the principles above and use the observation techniques mentioned, and you will quickly be speaking through a translator with accuracy and fluency.

Darren Carlson is the Founder and President of Training Leaders International.  As President, Darren oversees the general direction of the ministry and serves as an advocate for pastors with little access to formal training and thoughtful cross-cultural theological engagement. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter

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