Culture At Large

Interpreting as a restorative act

Jonathan Downie

It has been a bad few months for interpreters. First, there was the “fake interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. More recently, at the murder trial of Olympic medalist Oscar Pistorius, one interpreter fled the courtroom when confronted by the media circus, while the replacement struggled to cope and was sidelined by a witness.

All of this is sadly familiar. In the United Kingdom, court interpreting provision has been the subject of severalgovernmentinquiries. In Japan, the work of an interpreter became the subject of media controversy after he was accused of incorrectly translating a speech the Japanese prime minister gave in Europe. In short, interpreters seem to be causing nothing but problems.

Yet those who work in or research interpreting know the other side of the story. Every day, in settings as varied as doctors’ practices and courtrooms, business meetings and churches, interpreters help people become well, seal deals, receive justice and meet with God. In fact, interpreting says a lot about the Gospel. It only takes a little imagination to see what Christianity might say about interpreters and their work.

Christianity was born in a multicultural world, with all the tricky issues this involves. If the birth of the church is dated from the second chapter of Acts, then the church began in and through an act of interpreting. True, there is debate as to how exactly people heard the Gospel in their own languages, yet what is more important than how this multilingual miracle took place is the fact that it did take place and had lasting effects.

Rather than seeking harmony in uniformity, interpreting recognizes and celebrates the miracle of diversity.

Foremost among these was that the cultural and linguistic diversity that resulted from this act would require the church to be creative in how it handled differences between different groups. In Acts 6, resolving one issue of possible cultural bias in how food was distributed led to a new wave of church growth. Yet it was not until some years later, at the Jerusalem Council, that the issue was finally resolved with the decision that the church would view the common faith of followers of Christ as more important than any cultural (or even religious) practices that divided them.

What does all this have to do with interpreting? If interpreting is about substituting one word for another, the answer is “not a lot.” If interpreting is seen, in the light of the experience of the early church, as a way of helping people from different cultures to build mutual trust, understanding and respect, then it becomes part of a much bigger process of restoration that the church can and should be involved in.    

If the church is called to work with God to heal the broken world around us, then we could do much worse than work to break down the barriers between different cultural and linguistic communities. Interpreting is only one way to do this, but it is a unique way. Rather than seeking harmony in uniformity, interpreting recognizes and celebrates the miracle of diversity. It shows that communication is possible even when it seems like there is little common ground from which to work.

The Gospel then gives real and perhaps eternal meaning to the work of interpreters. In their work, we see something of the character of God, who restores unity between people, while valuing their uniqueness. The church should therefore be one place where interpreters feel valued and supported to perform their vital roles. In return, the practice of interpreting serves as a vivid example of what it means to be peacemakers.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Church, News & Politics, World