Dealing with the Tower of Babel

One of the things that makes India unique is that there are 23 constitutionally recognized official languages. Each state (almost) has its own language and each language has its own writing system (script). In addition, there are many tribal languages.

The BELC works in the northern part of Tamil Nadu (a Tamil-speaking state) and the southern part of Andhra Pradesh (Telugu-speaking). They also work in Karnataka (Kannada-speaking, although most of the pastors speak Tamil), Odisha (Odia-speaking), and in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Hindi, Tamil and others). The CLCI mostly works in the northern part of Andhra Pradesh (Telugu).

While Hindi is spoken by 41% of the population, it is mostly spoken in the north. Southern India, where we work, refuses to have Hindi forced upon it, and so not many here speak it.

English has become the lingua franca (common language) of India (and a second official language for the government). Nevertheless, not all (and maybe not most) of the pastors and people with whom we work understand English. For this reason when I preach at a congregation or teach pastors at a district meeting, I preach and teach with a translator. I say a sentence in English and then the translator repeats it in Tamil or Telugu (sometimes both).

I am working on learning Telugu, the language spoken by a majority of the pastors and members. My meager efforts to say a few words in Telugu are appreciated, but teaching in English does also have its advantages. Some of the pastors and church members (especially the younger ones) can understand (at least some) English. They enjoy the opportunity to hear a native English speaker and are delighted when they can and do understand what I say. Preaching in English also often attracts people from the neighborhood/village who are curious what the foreigner has to say – people who would not normally come to the church.

Speaking through a translator has a number of challenges, however. The structure of Indian languages is very different from English (e.g. the main verb comes at the end of the sentence). For this reason one must speak a whole sentence before pausing so that the translator can put the whole thought into a structure that is essentially “flipped” from what it is in English. It can be tempting to pause in the middle of a complex sentence, thinking it would be easier to translate a smaller phrase, but this usually makes the translation more difficult,

You also do not want to say too much at once without stopping, as the translator has to remember everything you have said and then repeat it in one or more languages.

Stopping after each sentence can break up the flow of thought, but it also give you a chance to think about what you will say next so it isn’t all bad.

Another challenge is to use simple, easily translatable words and sentences. This is especially challenging when discussing more complex theological ideas. Complex sentences are more difficult to understand and translate, and erudite words are often unknown to the translators for whom English is not their first language (natives English speakers may even have trouble with some words, like “erudite”).

Working through a translator also slows things down.  At a recent Leadership Conference we were translated into Telugu, Tamil and Odia; instead of going through 4 lessons (which may have been optimist to begin with), we only were able to complete two.

Needing a translator also makes it more difficult to have an “interactive” presentation. Rhetorical questions often come across as real ones and real questions are often overlooked. It can also be taxing for the translator to “reverse gears” and translate responses from Tamil or Telugu into English.

Several of the district chairmen and leaders serve as translators and have amazing language abilities. D. Paul, for example, often translates into both Telugu and Tamil, one right after the other, and with amazing speed. Deepak works not only in Tamil but also in Odia and Hindi. In addition to translating oral presentations, D. Paul and Jyothi (in the CLC) and others translate written materials that we give to the pastors for reference.

Thank our gracious God for these men and pray that He would continue to give them the strength and ability to translate so that we may preach and teach God’s word faithfully.