Lost in Translation

The branch of our church we attend here in Amman has a mixed congregation of Jordanians, adopted Jordanians (people from other countries who have made this their permanent home), and people from other countries working or studying here for anywhere from one summer to four or five years.

This creates a problem, of course, as to what language to conduct the church services in. For now, we’ve settled on a consecutive interpretation system using English and Arabic, where the speaker, standing at the pulpit, says a few sentences in one of the two languages. They pause, and then the interpreter, also standing at the pulpit, conveys that information to the congregation in the other language. So although there are other languages spoken natively among the meeting attendees, everyone at least understands enough English or Arabic to get by.

Of course, such a system is not without its flaws. Some of the more common (and humorous) ones are what I’ll talk about here. Also, keep in mind that I’m kind of a nerd about these things since, first of all, I have a degree in Linguistics, and second of all, I worked at a translation company for three years.

What I see most often are native English speakers who, even if they are studying Arabic, are woefully unaware of how to tailor their prepared remarks for an interpreter to convey to an international audience. For example, in one Sabbath meeting, a member of the congregation was talking about a game he and his family used to play when he was young called “King of the Hill.”

Now, if you’re American, this is not a big linguistic hurdle – you know he’s referring to a game where you race each other to the top of a hill and whoever gets there first is “king” (or any one of a dozen variations of that basic theme).

But imagine being a Jordanian who speaks English but doesn’t have the language experience that, say, spending a childhood in America would give him. To my husband and my horror, we listened as the poor interpreter struggled and then finally translated the name of the game as “The King of Hell.” First of all, the speaker’s original point of telling the story was lost because the Arabic members had no idea what this game was. And secondly, they were probably a bit confused as to what the game had to do with Hell and whatever it was, why this guy was talking about it in a church meeting as if it was a lot of fun.

The interpreters we use are just regular members of the congregation who have learned English in various ways. Sometimes, they’ve learned it a bit too well and can’t remember the Arabic equivalents for certain words. At times like these, individuals sitting in the congregation call out the translation to help out the interpreter.

Other times, the interpreters skip translating a word or phrase and just repeat it, unthinkingly, in English with a slight Arabic accent. Yesterday, the speaker was referencing a specific chapter and verse in the Bible. But instead of translating that information into Arabic, he just said “chapter nine, verse seven,” in English, with kind of an Arabic sound.

The native English speakers in the congregation who speak in Arabic are not exempt from making mistakes. We’ve heard things like “this is one of the biggest accidents in Church history,” when what they really meant was that it was one of the biggest events. Another time, a church leader was trying to talk about a phenomenon he was seeing in Jordan, but instead was talking about demonstrations he had seen. The Arab members got all riled up, wondering what these demonstrations were about.

You might be surprised to find out how hard it can be to give a talk in church when your every word is being translated into Arabic as you stand there. Whatever remarks you may have prepared, they go out the window once you’re standing in front of the congregation, trying to figure out how the poor interpreter is going to handle what you’ll say.

And it’s easy to get flustered – yesterday, the woman speaking seemed to forget what was going on and instead of pausing every few sentences to allow the interpreter to speak, she paused every couple of words. As you can imagine, that kind of thing is very hard to interpret. To his credit, the interpreter did the best he could as she went along, and as she finished each sentence completely, he went back and repeated the main idea correctly and in its entirety.

And finally, the strangest thing I see is when a native Arabic speaker, who does not speak English well, gets in front of the congregation and speaks in English. This leaves the interpreter to, first of all, figure out what the person was trying to say in their broken English, and then find a way to put it back in that speaker’s own native language.

Regardless, we still manage to have successful church meetings, even if sometimes it’s hard to get beyond all the linguistic difficulties and focus on the message.

It's a small, small world

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