Monday, August 3, 2009

Church Interpreters 2: From Divine Inspiration to Professionalisation

From a later Biblical epoch than the meturgeman (see posting for July 29) comes the well-known example in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two or at most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence." (I Cor xiv, 27-28 in the King James translation)

(The commentators understand by two or at the most by three to mean at any one meeting; while and that by course means separately, one at a time.)

The passage should be understood in conjunction with another in the same epistle:

“For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom… To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues.” (I Cor xii, 8-10)

So in Paul’s view the ability to interpret is an important divine gift, and it’s not given to everybody who knows a foreign language. In a mention in the Old Testament, interpreters are said to be “one among a thousand” (Job xxxiii, 23). On the other hand, it’s not a gift reserved for trained people; it may be that any bilingual in the congregation is endowed with it and can speak up when necessary.

Now let’s do a fast forward. There are still many interpreters in today’s Christian churches. A search for “church interpreter” with Google retrieves over two thousand citations, and that’s just in English. But now comes a big surprise: all of those citations, so far as I’ve had time to look at them, refer to interpreting for the deaf in what are often called the deaf ministries.

Then comes a second surprise. In a field where, because of its altruistic character, one would expect to find few if any Professional Interpreters plying their trade, professionalisation has started in some places.

A recent discussion about church visual language interpreters in the United States is revealing if we read between the lines. It’s on the site and the topic was paying or not paying the interpreters. The discussants were divided on the matter, but from what they say we can deduce the following:

1. Some churches do pay their interpreters, and some of the interpreters are professionals. In other churches, though there are professionals who might claim a fee, they donate their services. Some of their peers are against such donations: “The profession of interpreting will never be recognized as a truly skilled profession if people offer their services for free.”

2. In the USA there is a well-regulated system for accrediting sign language interpreters. Many of the church interpreters are accredited. More than that, some of them attend yearly ‘rectification classes’.

3. On the other hand, some interpreters are less highly trained: “My church has one highly qualified terp and 2 others who are well qualified but have less training.” Less training does not however mean untrained.


So at least in this very developed environment, church interpreters for the deaf are generally trained Expert Interpreters and many are Professional Interpreters.

So much for the visual language interpreters. How about voice interpreters (as the visual language interpreters call us interpreters who speak)? To be continued.


  1. I am a church translator myself, and i have never had problems translating to the members of my church. please reply. thnx

  2. I am a professional conference interpreter and church interpreter (please do not confuse translation for interpreting. They are NOT interchangeable). So yes, I do both. Can I see professionalisation coming to church interpreting? If I have my way, it will!

    1. hey im also church interpreter, and conference interpreter ... very exiting doing both !

  3. To Lighthouse:
    Before you became a church interpreter you were probably a churchG0ER and well acquainted with the language and culture of your church. In that case, I don’t think you SH0ULD have any problems.

    To JD:
    Professionalisation is everywhere. I’m not involved in church interpreting myself, and so I’m neutral about it; but I know that some interpreters are happy to do it as a pro bono service.

    As for ‘translating’ and ‘interpreting’, there’s a constant problem because we have no specific word for written translation. They differ by the medium used, but both are forms of translating. A lexical gap. I’m hoping someone will come up with an acceptable suggestion one day; or alternatively a ’cover word’ that would include both written and spoken translating.

    1. I can't believe I didn't see this, vagaries of blogger.
      I am now a bit more neutral on professionalism as it can mean many things. To be honest, as a professional and a church interpreter and a church interpreting researcher, there are some things about the profession I wouldn't want to see copied. I would still be happy to interpret in church pro bono.

      As for the translation/interpreting thing, please forgive my previous brashness. Now I am writing my thesis, I can see how tricky it is. The nearest I have found is the Franz Poechhacker (who else?!) who uses Translation to refer to both and the words in lower case to split the two. Ugly? Maybe. Useful? probably.