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Church Interpreting

Words of God on the Hands


Updated April 25, 2009

A forum member had a question regarding interpreting in the church and communicating the messages of faith effectively. Other members had helpful comments - and the same advice could probably apply to interpreting in the synagogue:

    "I am having trouble interpreting for a Deaf friend in church. I do pretty well with the Biblical part of the pastor's message but the trouble starts when he starts in with stories from his everyday life or things that have happened with his family. I seem to have trouble making the transition and making it clear to my friend how the biblical message and the pastor's story relate to each other. I am not a licensed interpreter. The Sign I use has been learned from basic sign language classes and what I have learned from my friend in everyday use. I am the best she has at church! Any input would be greatly appreciated."
"I fully understand what you mean. This is a Big Problem when Interpreting in a Religion Setting. Most of the time these Stories the Hearing People don't understand. I started Interpreting in this kind of Setting. You do the best you can. If you as a Hearing People don't understand all you can do is try your best. Also if you don't understand simply tell your friend that the story doesn't make since to you either. ;) this should help. Also sometime you can add or subtract from the Story to make since. If that's what it takes for your friend to understand do it. In a Religion Setting there are little or almost no rules for Interpreting."
"In response to your difficulty in interpreting in Church.
According to materials I have read as a Deaf Studies major at Ohio University Chillicothe www.ohiou.edu many deaf have problems with abstract thought, not because of any limitations in their mind, but from their years of communicating and thinking in a concrete way out of necessity and basically out of necessity. In many deaf who have been that way all their lives, you may also find a knowledge base that is impoverished from lack of picking things up as you and I do...by hearing. A friend who heads up an interpreting group at a Church told me they had to hold classes for the deaf to teach them the basic stories of the bible. They didn't know them. good luck!"
"I know that you are trying to do something nice for your friend by interpreting for her BUT if you don't feel qualified to give the entire sermon, then don't. It's better that she finds someone who is certified. Because when you draw a blank, your friend can miss an important message or you might signing something incorrectly. I hope you will think about this before you interpret for your friend again. I'm sure there is certified interpreters in your area who would be willing to help out."
"The chances that a certified interpreter is available are often slim. Secondly, few of them can afford to "give" of their time. They're expensive. However, I do agree that a certified interpreter would be better, of course. Use your best judgement. Interpreting a counseling situation between Deaf members and clergy is a BAD, BAD, BAD idea. Interpreting church services is not quite as bad, but if you believe in what you're doing, then you know that they are depending on you for information about their faith. Be very conscious of that.

Ok, with that said, let's get into the logistics of what's happening here. Religious interpreters tend to be the least experienced and least trained. However, I believe this kind of interpreting is some of the hardest to do and really requires a lot of training and experience if it's going to be done right.

First of all, it involves a LOT of archaic language that many people in the church don't even understand themselves. There are also a lot of "catch phrases" used in the church that are very difficult to interpret. The layers of meaning are difficult to distinguish, much less interpret.

Secondly, there's often a lot of change in discourse style going on in a sermon. The way the authors of the Bible wrote and organized their thoughts and made connections between things is much different than how modern Americans do this. So, your preacher is quoting from the Bible, and then s/he's preaching, which has it's own organization style and way of making connections between things. And then you've got these side stories. Personal narratives are usually organized much differently than sermons. So, you've got *at least* three different discourse styles going on all at once. YIKES! Yeah, no wonder you're having trouble putting it all together.

To top it all off, the discourse styles used by hearing English speakers in the US are often very different from the discourse styles used by Deaf ASL signers in the US. The former like to use a lot of facts and examples and quotes and then end with the point, the big here's-what-I've-been-getting-at. They like to use lots of figurative language and implied meanings. The latter tend to give a personal example or story, tell what

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