And I… came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2
Many years ago, while training new church interpreters, I stated that the first step of interpreting is for the interpreter to understand the message. Assuming all was well, I asked, “You understand your pastor, right?” Before I could continue, they all slowly shook their heads no. That embarrassing lesson shows the challenge that many church interpreters face. Most church interpreters are laymen and have not been to Bible college. Many have not taken formal interpreter training classes. Sometimes the pastor’s message goes right over their heads. Naturally, church interpreters should continually improve their sign language and interpreting skills. They also have the responsibility to grow spiritually and must be able to rightly divide the word of truth for themselves (2 Timothy 2:15).
Do Not Forget The Deaf – In a recent SWM conference, two pastors expressed a desire to help their Deaf members better understand their sermons. They asked many questions and had open minds to improving their preaching and methods. Pastors have the difficult task of preaching on many “levels” at once. They must communicate with scientists and engineers, but also with people for whom English is a second language, as is the case with many Deaf people. Preaching to a mixed group requires much forethought. Unfortunately, most pastors have never received training on how to minister to Deaf people, even though the Deaf may live nearby. (SWM can help.)
Interpreting – An interpreter does not sign every word, but gives the meaning of the message (dictionary.com). Interpreters can only interpret as they understand. Transliterating is ineffective for most Deaf.
Clear and Simple – Aristotle wisely said, “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” Deaf people value directness, but hearing people tend to beat around the bush. Interpreted sermons that move in an “A-B-C” logical pattern can be more easily understood. (Deaf pastors using American Sign Language may not follow this pattern, as no sign language interpreter is needed.) Being complicated does not equal being interesting (for Deaf or Hearing). A deep and theologically challenging sermon can still be presented clearly so everyone understands. Simple, clear preaching seems to be a lost art.
Preaching Theme – Interpreters need not know every point or illustration of a message in advance, but it is helpful for them to know the direction or main point of the message. Most sermons have a purpose statement or preaching theme, which will be involved in the closing invitation. When known in advance, interpreters can interpret with the main point in mind, helping the pastor’s message be clear to the Deaf congregation. Preparing the interpreter for especially hard or confusing illustrations, terminology, or points is also helpful.
Communication Responsibility – Only the speaker truly knows his message. Therefore, the speaker is responsible to make his message clear. The children’s game, “Gossip,” is a great example. A secret message is whispered from person to person and it slowly gets changed. A speaker’s carefully chosen words and a clear presentation will help interpreters sign the message correctly. Deaf people expect to see the speaker’s message, not an interpreter’s “fixed” version.
More Training – Pastors can help their interpreters by encouraging and helping them to go to classes, attend workshops, and participate in the Deaf Community. Knowing some sign language does not qualify a person to become an interpreter, just as having a Bible does not qualify a person to become a pastor.
The need is still to make God’s Word clear for Deaf people – and all people. Use Aristotle’s method to tell them. Let’s help our interpreters help us communicate!