Translators find right words


First MWC Assembly at which English not a platform language

by Doreen Martens for MWC

The dimly lit booth tucked into a balcony at the Centro Familiar de Adoracion doesn’t hold much: a table and chairs, a pair of microphones, a bottle of water, a few sticky notes stuck to the window, a bilingual Bible—and Carmen Epp, listening intently through headphones to the sermon being delivered in Spanish down below.

Few are aware she’s there, but hundreds of English-speakers are depending on her ability to listen, interpret and talk at the same time to make this a meaningful evening. Epp was one of about 125 interpreters who volunteered to translate between Spanish and French, German, English, Portuguese, Nivacle, Guarani and Enlhet on stage, in the booths and at workshops and meetings during the Mennonite World Conference Assembly 15.

“It’s a high calling, but also a very humble ministry,” Rebecca Yoder Neufeld says of the vocally and mentally demanding job. “Especially in a booth: The better you do, the less you’re noticed. If you’re doing the job really well you fade into the background.”

Yet without it, “all the careful preparation done for this assembly would pretty much come to nothing.” she says.

Yoder Neufeld, a Canadian born in France who’s familiar with all four MWC official languages, coordinated the interpreters for Asuncion and the last assembly in Bulawayo, as well as smaller gatherings in between.

Asuncion was the first MWC assembly in memory at which English was not an official platform language, which meant that many North Americans and English-speaking Africans and Asians were learning for the first time what it’s like to depend on headsets.

Equipment was obtained through a company in neighboring Argentina and close to 2,400 headsets were dispensed before each session by young volunteers.

But for Yoder Neufeld the job began one and a half years earlier, determining needs and recruiting and screening interpreters with assistance from Paul Amstutz and Carmen Epp of Paraguay. As indigenous languages coordinator, Jakob Lepp trained volunteers who had never interpreted simultaneously before.

Then came the big task of scheduling equipment and volunteers to cover not only the two daily mass meetings but also dozens of daily workshops, three concurrent pre-assembly meetings and other gatherings where interpretation, sometimes in several languages, would be required.

“It involves a lot of careful thinking and matching about who fits what kind of venues best, because of their experience, practice, the kind of vocabulary they’re familiar with,” Yoder Neufeld says. Some feel quite comfortable translating sentence-by-sentence; others find doing so on stage in front of 6,000 people too nerve-wracking.

“I haven’t done it often enough not to get nervous, but it’s exciting,” Epp says of interpreting English to Spanish, sentence-by-sentence, on stage.

Coordinating her army of talkers kept Yoder Neufeld on the run all week and brought some tense moments when interpreters took ill or otherwise missed their assigned times.

One might wonder: Why not just hire professionals? On a previous occasion when that was necessary, Yoder Neufeld says, the pros didn’t do so well because they didn’t know “church language.” Two German professional interpreters, however, were welcomed as volunteers.

Wherever possible, written texts were collected in advance so volunteers could prepare. Speakers were counseled on how to make their addresses translate easily, for example by avoiding expressions that are too culture-specific. Interpreters, in turn, were cautioned to keep their voices neutral, avoid the temptation to soften speech that seems politically incorrect and as effectively as possible convey the speaker’s tone and message.

All went through an orientation first. “Part of the point of that, in addition to practical suggestions, the ethics of interpreting and things like that, is trying to help people think about the meaning behind this task,” says Yoder Neufeld.

Hanging in the interpreters’ office was a colorful banner she commissioned for the Bulawayo assembly. It reflects the Pentecost story and Revelation, which picture a multitude of tribes and nations and languages praising God.

“Language isn’t erased there, in that final picture of how God wants things to be,” Yoder Neufeld says. “[That’s] what we’re aiming toward. These gatherings are a little glimpse.”


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