Translators Needed

You know how sometimes memories emerge that were buried for years, but now and then they pop up on the screen of your mind? This story reemerges now and then, with no particular trigger, but it illustrates what seems to be part of my life work.

I was in my teens, eating Sunday lunch at a church family’s place, and they were also hosting a visiting couple who had never been at a Mennonite church before. So the dinner time was full of discussion and questions. I was listening and observing. The conversation went to how we value community and help each other in difficulties.

“So for example,” our host explained, “When someone’s house needs major repairs like putting on a new roof, we’ll have a frolic.”

Something washed over the guest’s face, and I knew that when he heard “frolic” he did not hear what my host meant.

Two things happened in that moment:

  1. I stayed quiet (another subject for another day)
  2. I knew that someone got a grossly misleading impression, and it never got resolved.

Worse things could happen.


Sometimes what you say is not what I hear, so I don’t know more than I did.

If we don’t care about communication and understanding each other, we may as well all stay home and talk to ourselves and take selfies all day.

But if we were designed to do life beside and among and around people, and if we have something that’s beautiful to say, I care that that message gets transmitted well, and translated when necessary.

When I finished five years in Poland and came to the US, I reveled in talking English to my heart’s content. I mean, I could walk into a store and ask ANYthing! I could even make small talk with other customers. So novel! But every now and then, in those first months, I heard a mumbled announcement or a colorful idiom and I would catch myself whirling around to make sure my neighbor understood it. Translating to my friends in Poland had been such a way of life for me that it took awhile to realize that everyone here knew more idioms and one-liners than I did and I could take off my translator hat now. Other times, everyone around me was laughing at some remark, and I didn’t know what was funny. I think now that it was all part of reverse culture shock or culture fatigue or something else unpleasant like that.

Language and communication and understanding has so many intricacies and nuances and layers that it takes special effort to do well with it. Humor and laughter require another dimension to understanding. When different languages and cultures come together, the dynamics become exponentially complex. Among English speakers like at that Sunday dinner, wires get crossed. Sometimes even people who’ve known each other all their lives still need a translator.

There are many places where we need translators between people and groups. Actually, wherever there are people, we need translators. I think of it especially in some church services. Maybe it’s because it’s generally a formal place, where there is tradition and unspoken expectations, and a new-comer feels especially foreign.

This is not a critique about how to do church. That’s a subject for wiser, stronger people than me. This is a call to think about being translators for visitors, new friends, foreigners new to your culture and your spoken or unspoken languages.

I was glad for a translator when I visited a church where the minister asked for testimonies from the audience, but the lady beside me leaned over to tell me that he is talking to the men, because the women don’t speak.

I wished for a translator when visitors at church weren’t oriented to what was happening now, nor what would be happening next. Especially when the speaker asked us to kneel and everyone swirled around in their benches. Just between you and me and don’t tell anyone, I think kneeling back into the place we were just sitting is very uncivil and undignified and I love the gracefulness of kneeling forward to pray. However, if that’s not your culture’s tradition, you can help the visitor beside you by translating the invitation to kneel.

If I could do that Sunday dinner over now, I wouldn’t hesitate to clarify for our guest what our host was saying. It could be done without making anyone feel foolish. The point is clarity and explanation and education, and at the end, everyone understands each other better. Which would actually help a lot of issues everywhere, come to think of it.

Anyone can be a translator. At least, anyone who values what they have, and wants to share it beyond their borders. And anyone who understands that English doesn’t always sound like English.

9 thoughts on “Translators Needed

  1. So much yes! As the wife of a first generation immigrant for whom English is a second language, I’ve seen the disconnect repeatedly when people talk to my husband or when he talks to others. What I struggle with sometimes is to speak up for my husband’s sake when I know he wants me to–because I’m sure that it sometimes looks to onlookers like I’m an over-managing wife.

  2. Excellent article, Anita! Translators needed! As a Special Ed teacher in an English-speaking country, I spend a lot of my time translating English into plain and plainer English. When I read some hifalutin’ writings from would-be academics, I feel like challenging them to say what they have to say in plain English. It would save them a lot of typing. I won’t say what else I think it might do!
    I’d love to have seen the look on that face at the idea of the ‘frolic’.
    My Mum was a ‘translator’ of sorts. She was the one who noticed that the man who eventually became her husband didn’t seem to take part in conversations, though she knew he knew more about the subject than some of the participants. She realised he hadn’t heard properly as he was becoming increasingly deaf and he didn’t want to make a fool of himself in public. So, she began to draw him into the conversation, repeating a question or clarifying a point to give him a foothold … and the rest is part of my history!!

  3. Yes, yes, Anita. Interpretation is fascinating stuff! And yes, it includes much more than the literal meaning of words. I am fascinated also by the need for interpretation between cultures. From his job as a medical interpreter, my husband can tell a lot of stories about the misunderstandings between cultures, some funny, some tragic. I am privileged to live in a city that is home to people of many different languages and cultures. When I grow up I want to be an ESL teacher like you and go to a church where people kneel facing the front of the sanctuary!

  4. Cultural translating is a fascinating idea. I often wished for someone to translate the words (albeit still English like my own) and actions of Mennonites so that I could understand. The trouble is that a translator is required to know both languages, and there are not many people who know two or more cultures. Those within the culture do not have the distance to be able to actually see their own environment, and they also may not have understanding that others might approach things differently. We could think further about this: what skills does a cultural translator need and how are they developed? How might the use of a cultural translator aid the furtherance of the Gospel in a setting where tradition is strong? (If Anabaptism is a good way of walking in the life of Christ, why do churches only grow from natural family means?)…

  5. Another one for the book.

    Years ago my sister traveled in Central America with a cousin and another young man. All three of them spoke English, Spanish, and Pennsylvania Dutch. My sister remarked afterward that that setting provided a wealth of possibilities for humor.. LRM

  6. Love this. I feel like I could’ve written it. My husband’s first language is Pennsylvania Dutch. They have words I didn’t realize I needed so badly, and I borrow them as needed. We spent seven years living in Romania and that opened up a whole ‘nother world. I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to learn a second language and become a better “translator.” 😉

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