Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Church Interpreting in Nigeria

In a post on August 9, 2009, I told how I first become acquainted with church interpreting at a service on the campus of the University of Buea in Cameroon, West Africa. Since then, I’ve learned many things about how it’s done in other parts of the world, some of them from you readers (see References). Now an article just published in the latest edition of Babel, the research journal of the International Federation of Translators, brings me back to West Africa, and almost next door to Cameroon in South-West Nigeria.

To sum it up:
This work investigates and evaluates the… effectiveness of religious interpretation in Yoruba speaking areas of Nigeria. The study focused on only religious gatherings that make use simultaneously of English and Yoruba languages to communicate the message of God to the worshippers. The objective of the study is to… evaluate the quality of the output through a questionnaire distributed to members of the spiritual congregations. The level of professional competence in the interpreter will also be investigated.
The term professional in the quotation is inappropriate and betrays a prior bias as to norms, because, as the author states,
40 respondents [to the questionnaire] said that most interpreters… are selected from within the congregations where they worship. 43 out of 50 reveal that they are not paid for the job, perhaps because they are potential future preachers and regard the service as a training ground.
And further on,
Interpreters in spiritual gatherings in the Yoruba speaking lands of Nigeria are not trained interpreters. They know nothing about the rules guiding the profession. They are simply bilingual with a deep knowledge of the subject matter.
In other words, these are not Professional Interpreters. They are Native Interpreters who may or may not have reached the competence of Expert Interpreters by work experience. We are told nothing more about their backgrounds, not even their ages, level of education and years of experience.

As at my Cameroon initiation,
The interpretation [is] consecutive interpretation, where the interpreter is present in a room or in a church, close to the pastor ministering the word of God. For easy communication and to avoid confusion, the speaker often stops…, passing the floor to the interpreter for the reproduction… of what the pastor has just said.
In other words, short consecutive mode. We aren’t told whether they employ the interpreter mimicry that I observed in Cameroon, where the interpreter imitates the manner of speaking and even the gestures of the preacher. However, there’s a hint as to manner in one of the questions in the questionnaire: “Is the interpreter free to correct the preacher?”

The research instrument is reproduced in full. It’s an interesting client satisfaction and opinion questionnaire but it doesn’t interrogate the interpreters. Nevertheless, there are some interesting conclusions:
39 respondents [out of 50]… are satisfied with the quality of the interpretation from English to Yoruba… Respondents with a tertiary education carried the highest number of 37 to support that the output of the interpreter was satisfactory. On the other hand, only 24 of the respondents are satisfied with the interpretation from Yoruba to English… the interpretation is better from English to Yoruba for the simple fact that Yoruba is the interpreter’s mother tongue.
There is an additional difficulty because Yoruba is a tonal language and the tones carry nuances that are hard to render in English.

A journal assessor took me to task last year for proposing that divine inspiration is an element that should be recognised in studies of religious translation. So I was interested to read that respondents enjoined both pastors and interpreters to "seek for God's guidance" as well as to "master the subject matter and the languages."

The article begins:
Christianity and Islam… were adopted in Yoruba-speaking areas of Nigeria with the accompanying languages, English and Arabic. Today the two religions are well spread and cannot be disassociated from Yoruba culture.
Yet there is nothing further about Arabic or Islam. Muslims everywhere learn to say their prayers in Arabic, just as all Catholics used to pray in Latin; but there are other parts of religious services that may be in a local language, for instance the sermon, and there's a Yoruba translation of the Qur’an.

Despite how widespread church interpreting is in Africa, this is the first research article I’ve read that’s specifically about it, and the veteran editor of Babel, RenĂ© Haeseryn, is to be thanked for publishing it even if it has shortcomings. It leaves me hungry for more.

Image: Calvary Roseville United Methodist Church, Ado Ekiti, Nigeria.

Adawuni Salawi (University of Ado-Ekiti). Evaluation of interpretation during congregational services and public religious retreats in south-west Nigeria. Babel, 56:2.129-138, 2010.

Qur’an. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. Translation in Yoruba. Medina: King Fahd Complex for Printing the Holy Qur’an, 2007.

Previous posts on church interpreting: July 29, August 3, August 9, August 11, August 27, October 28, 2009; April 10, 2010


  1. Hi Brian,
    I recently finished a draft of the first (to my knowledge) lit review of church interpreting. I can send you the bibliography (which includes that paper), if you want.

    1. Sorry, I meant Jonathan, may I have a copy of your lit review?

  2. Thank you for this posting. I would love to find out more because I help interpret at church in Japan (Japanese is my second language). I am also looking into conducting research into this field because of a lack of information. Brian, you mentioned you have a lit review. How can I get a copy?

  3. Thanks for this post and analysis, its of great help to me, i am mounting a project on the need for professional and excellent interpretation and translation in the church setting, tired of amateurism. Its good to read you were in UB "a place to be"

    1. Dear Sofi,

      Please read my comment below, you might find it helpful. You might also want to join the Church Interpreting and Biblical Performance criticism Research group here:!forum/cibpr

  4. Dear Sofi,
    Before you embark on that project, you might want to look up the work of Sari Hokkanen, Jill Karlik, and Cecile Vigouroux who have all done research in the area. All three have pointed to reasons why church members are often preferred as interpreters over professionals. It might give you pause for thought.


  5. Wow! This study is indeed a bold step. I salute you for this. I'm thrilled by its originality.

    Please I'm already mentioning the work in an empirical study that I'm currently carrying out on The Making or Marring of Meaning during Consecutive Interpreting. Could you please send me HOW TO CITE THE WORK.

    1. Dear Udokamma Rachael,

      This post can be cited as follows:

      Brian Harris (as Translatology). Church Interpreting in Nigeria. "Unprofessional Interpreting", Blogpost blog, Retrieved 2 March 2018.

      I wish you success with your study.

  6. God bless you for posting this,found helpful.