Preaching Through a Translator

November 16, 2010


Peter Odanga translates my message at Kwale Prison in Kenya.

Several weeks ago I preached using side-by-side translation during our visit to Montreal. I did the same thing when we traveled to Dalian, China in October. Almost every time I mention that I’m preaching that way, someone asks me what it’s like.

The answer is, it depends.

Most people assume that preaching with an translator is harder than preaching on your own. They think that having to stop your train of thought every few seconds makes it harder to preach. I’ve found that the reverse is true. Ideally when you have a translator by your side, the two of you will be so much in synch that while he (or she) is translating, you have time to think of the next thing you want to say. 


Peter Wang translates as we kneel before the cross.

You have be careful when translating slang or idioms, such as “Adam passed the buck twice,” referring to Adam blaming Eve and then God, when he said, “The woman you gave me” (Genesis 3:12). “Passing the buck” is an American idiom that doesn’t directly translate into other languages. I thought about that in Montreal when a young woman named Christine translated for me twice. Because we hadn’t worked together before, she took my sermon manuscript and went over it line by line to see how to translate it from English into French, noting along the way that “Quebec French” is a little different from the language as it is spoken in France.


Christine translates my message in Montreal.

The second time she translated for me, we had a major technical glitch that forced me to stop and restart my message. Instead of doing simultaneous translation in another room, she ended up standing on stage next to me. I was told that as I got animated in my message, she did too. That’s a sign the translation is going well. If I’m excited and the other person sounds like they are reading the phone book, the words may be getting across but something of the message is lost in the process.

One of the favorite moments from our trip to Africa last April came when Peter Odanga translated for me at the Kwale Prison. He was so good that he imitated my gestures almost perfectly. You can tell from the picture that he was translating not only the words but also the emotion of my message.

When the speaker and the translator get in rhythm, you eventually become like one person giving the same message in two different languages. That doesn’t always happen, but when it does, the Holy Spirit transcends the language barrier so that we all can hear the Word of the Lord. 

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