Tips on working with an interpreter or translator

I often translate (from and to both languages) and many of these tips come from hard-won personal experience:

• If you have a message outline you can share with your translator beforehand, this will be a great help.

• Interpreters hate, hate, hate paraphrasing Scripture. Your interpreter will have a high appreciation for the written Word and will want to say the verses correctly. For that reason it is best if you give your interpreter a list of the verses you will be referencing in each message, so they can mark them in their Bibles and be ready to read the verse in Spanish once you say it in English.

• The two tips so far could be summed up with the rule: avoid surprises. Let your translator know what the message is and whether you will be telling any stories or jokes. Don’t start quoting a poem or hymn in English without discussing prior to the session if that reference makes any sense in Cuban culture and whether the translator can handle the poetic language. The more the interpreter knows in advance, the more effective he will be in communicating your message.

• Please keep in mind that long sentences are difficult to translate, since word order and sentence structure are different in Spanish.

• Avoid using idioms. We have phrases in English that have a figurative meaning far different than the literal meaning. These phrases may “trip up” your translator. So, don’t say, “Without counseling this marriage is toast” or “I’m just giving you a rule of thumb.” But if you do (and it is hard not to since these phrases are part of our daily vocabulary) be quick to provide a restatement of your thought if your interpreter looks puzzled. “Without counseling this marriage will have serious problems” or “I’m just giving you a basic principle.”

• When you use a translator, calculate that your time is cut in half. If you have a one hour conference session, prepare 30 minutes of material in English, because the translation will take the other half of the time.

• Acoustics in Cuba can be horrible, especially when you are using microphones. If you move around too much, turn your back to the translator, or walk up the aisle in front of the translator, he or she may not be able to hear you correctly. You may notice your translator straining to see your mouth at all times, since this helps them to understand what is being said. Be perceptive of when your interpreter is struggling to hear you and position yourself in such a way that he is a half-step closer to the audience than you are, so he can see your face while you are speaking.

• At the same time, you will want to make eye contact with your audience and not your interpreter. I have noticed that Cuban audiences usually look at the conference speaker continually, even when the translator is speaking. So, don’t look over at the translator unless you sense that he or she needs you to repeat or rephrase what you said. As you hear the Spanish, make eye contact with those in the room — they will be focused on you.

• Having done both many times, I would say that translating is much more tiring that speaking. Be aware of this and try not to use your translator to help you with small talk in-between your sessions. He or she will need to rest, physically and mentally. Perhaps there is some other bilingual person at your event who can help you with your private conversations so the translator can use break time to actually take a break.

I hope this helps you as you prepare for your next missions trip. And, by the way, I do know that the correct word is “interpreter” when someone converts languages verbally and “translator” for those who do so with the written word. In Cuba, though, everyone uses “translator” for both and I have gotten into that habit as well. And in Spanish traductor actually rolls off the tongue better than intérprete.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “Tips on working with an interpreter or translator

  1. Having worked as a Spanish/English interpreter and simultaneous interpreter for a mission organization all over Latin America, and later as a volunteer on many short term mission trips in Mexico and Central America and a spanish speaking inner city church in Dallas, TX, I have to say that I agree with everything that you said in your article. Thanks for the tips.

    I love to interpret and have had many wonderful experiences as a result. I have been interpreting since being invited to a mission conference in Mexico when I was 15 or 16 years old. I agree with what you said about idoms. I have been in many a service in which many were english speaking and many spanish speaking, when idoms or jokes were used it was funny to see how the people who were listening in the speakers language were laughing and the people listening to the interpreter where wondering what was so funny. Many jokes or idoms are hard to translate or use with the same intent that the speaker is using them. Sometimes an interpreter can work it out, but other times all he can do is interpret the meaning and say that it was a joke or idom, etc.

    Also I agree, that the speaker should share one or two thoughts and let the interpreter, interpret. A good interpreter and speaker will be able to work together well. They will fall into a rythmn that makes it very natural and easy. It is good if they have a chance to work together on a small meeting first before doing the big meeting. Though this is not always possible.

    I also whole heartly agree with what was shared about sound systems. Sometimes the acoustics is not very good or the speaker is not using a mic, but the interpreter is. He is stuck behind a small podium or table while the speaker wanders around the stage or church. It is sometimes very hard for the interpreter to hear all that the speaker is saying. And sometimes even when the speaker is standing right next to you in a noisey neighbourhood, outdoors, etc.

    Thanks for all those insights.

    You also need to share the do’s and don’ts for interpreters. An interpreter needs to be very flexible. Do the best he can to work with the speaker as a team. Some interpreters try to outshine the speaker or draw attention to themselves. My personal feeling is that the interpreter does not need to immitate all the gestures of the speaker, he can a little bit, and can also in the voice making it easier to follow the service, but the interpreter must be careful not to over do this.

    I was in an open air service in Maracaibo Venezuela. The speaker was speaking in English, I was interpreting into Spanish, and a pastor was interpreting the Spanish into an indian dialect. I am pretty sure that the pastor was preahing his own service, because he was talking for a lot longer than the speaker or my brief interpretations. He would go on and on. It was an interesting experience.

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it very much.

  2. What an interesting article and comment! I have worked as a translator and interpreter for many years now, and this can be both, a fun thing to do, but also very stressing. I love doing interpretation, and have done it since I was 16 or 17 years old. In my own experience, it is essential to have the message that I will translate outlined, especially the bible verses that will be use. Paraphrasing bible verses can be very difficult if we are not familiar with them. I have also had some funny experiences trying to work out jokes that are said during the sermon. The most difficult thing is that as an interpreter, we don’t have much time frame to figure out the actual meaning of it. I always like to stay close to the preacher, not only to hear the words better, I need to look at his or her lips also, because as we know, there are different English accents and some are more difficult to understand than others. I always try to also perceive the emotions of the preacher as he speaks, and use a tone of voice that matches what he is probably feeling. Most importantly, I always pray alone with the preacher, both of us need God’s guidance to deliver a proper and transforming message. Very good article and comment. Thanks for sharing such valuable tips.

  3. Yes. I enjoyed the article and comments. Jokes and idoms are and sometimes the message can be affected by the culture. Some jokes just dont make sense or are not funny in some cultures. I agree with the comment. It is good to be very familiar with the bible verses in the language that you will be interpreting into. On one ocassion, the speaker went to Romans 12:1-2. I was very familiar with the verse. I thought, that as he read each sentence from his bible, I would do the same in spanish. To my horror. The verse is in a different order in spanish. I am not sure if this is all translations. It says the same but with the thoughts in different order. It is good to also keep this in mind. Good article and comments.

    • Thanks for your comments, Roberto. I would love to have you translate for one of our Cuba teams, as the Lord leads and provides. It would be great to work with you!

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