Interpreting in Religious Settings

Note: This post was originally published on the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association’s newsletter “e-NITA” and is being republished in my blog. You may find the original in this link:

Given my accounting and finance background as well as my focus on legal translation and interpreting, you might think it crazy for me to go on an interpreting assignment for a religious congregation that lasts almost three weeks! Well, believe it or not, I have been doing it for the last five years, and every time it is both challenging and enriching.

I first came into contact with religious congregations back in late 2006, when I was approached by a InterpretingReligiousSettings1Pittsburgh-based congregation. The job they wanted me to do was a simple two-page translation into Spanish. Then, my work fell in the hands of the Generalate, who, “impressed by my excellent translation skills” (not my emphasis) invited me to be the lead Spanish interpreter at their General Chapter meeting. I agreed to provide my services, and in July 2007 I flew to the Congregation’s Mother House in Pittsburgh to start one of the most enriching jobs I have ever assigned to as a professional translator and interpreter. I went back in July 2011 to renew my energies and work in a very relaxed, but extremely busy environment.

The gig: There was literally no work schedule. I had to get up very early in the morning to interpret the homily at the daily Mass, the Chapter sessions began promptly at 9:00 a.m. and ended between 6:00 or 7:00 in the evening. The minutes had to be translated daily. Perhaps the work load proved more challenging than the interpreting job itself.

InterpretingReligiousSettingsInterpreting in religious settings may prove to be difficult even for the most seasoned interpreters, especially when it comes to their background and upbringing. Should an interpreter want to venture into this field, he must consider that it requires extensive understanding of liturgical terminology, as well as knowledge of general culture, basic terms of the different religions (or at least the more predominant ones; namely, Christianity, Islam and Judaism), and the names of Protestant churches and other religions or cults. A good starting point for obtaining more information about the implications of interpreting in a religious setting may be the Standard Practice Paper issued by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. (RID), which may be applied to interpreters of spoken language, and includes the following recommendations:

  • Interpreters should only accept assignments in a religious setting where they can faithfully and impartially convey the message.
  • In addition, as in every conference, seminar or workshop, interpreters must have access to and become familiar with any specialized vocabulary related to the specific setting, texts pertaining to that setting, materials used by the speakers, and any other information relevant to the particular setting.
  • Interpreters should have enough time to prepare for the function, and for long events there must always be a team of two or more interpreters.
  • The placement of the interpreter is crucial for his rendition. If the event is a conference, seminar or workshop, there should be a booth and a conference set-up where participants can listen to the interpreter through a headset and have access to a microphone or any other type of communication device. If the interpreting function is to be performed inside a church or place of worship, the interpreter should be placed as close as possible to the person receiving the interpreting services.

The question of believing or not believing in a specific creed does not come into play when the interpreter projects a professional demeanor and is familiar with the etiquette and customs relevant to the religious setting. We as interpreters have the duty to learn about many topics, whether we render our services in a legal, engineering, scientific, business or even religious setting, and for our own knowledge of culture, arts, and literature we should know the basics of the cultural background of the clients we provide services to. All this knowledge and general culture may prove beneficial for our careers as interpreters, making ourselves more marketable and, why not, more interesting.

Additional resources

Magida, A. (ed.) (1999). How to be a perfect stranger: A guide to etiquette in other people’s religious ceremonies.

Standard Practice Paper by Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf

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