Interpreters assist General Conference delegates

A 140-member team of interpreters and technicians is making it possible for nearly 300 international delegates to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference to participate in worship, committee discussions and floor debates.

Interpreters for the April 23–May 2 legislative meeting are available for nine languages: American Sign Language, 3; French, 30; German, 6; Korean, 6; Mandarin Chinese, 4; Portuguese, 27; Russian, 10; Spanish, 10; and Swahili, 26.

They work in two-person teams, allowing each a slight break after 30 consecutive minutes of translations. The breaks are only partial during committee work, as the "off" person must keep track of petition numbers and other resources. Language-equipment technicians and transporters are also multilingual, although they do not serve as interpreters.

This year marks the greatest increase in the need for interpreters since the service was first officially offered in 1984. Forty percent of international delegates have requested interpreters, translations of written materials and general lingual help navigating a foreign city, said Nilda Ferrari, director of multilingual-resource services for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and coordinator of language services at General Conference.

"We had a huge orientation the Monday before General Conference began. That's the only time I had everyone together," Ferrari said of the language team she and the Global Ministries staff assembled from around the world.

Prior to the meeting, the interpreters received Global Ministries-produced glossaries on the church's specialized vocabulary and acronyms, published in German, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian. The Spanish glossary, first published in 1987, is in its fifth edition, and the first Russian glossary was released in March.

"Right now these books are like Webster's Dictionary-all the church agencies use them," Ferrari said. "My goal next year is to have books for Swahili and Mandarin Chinese."

Gradual evolution

Barbara Steinbrenner, an American Sign Language interpreter, signsa worship service. A UMNS photo by Maile Bradfield.

Interpretive services at General Conference have come a long way since retired Global Ministries missionary and staff member Joyce Hill first gathered Spanish-speaking delegates around a table and whispered proceedings to them at the 1976 meeting. Other staff members did likewise, whispering floor debates to delegates in Portuguese, French and Spanish.

"I had to convince the marshal that we were not interrupting the process; we were trying to facilitate it," Hill said.

Even in 1984, when General Conference acknowledged the need and began providing some official interpreters, the body still faced an enormous learning curve. Interpreters had difficulty getting credentials to go on the floor with their assigned delegates, and non-English-speaking delegates often were disenfranchised when, prior to the advent of electronic voting equipment, hand votes were counted before they had time to hear, consider and vote at the right time. Also, at times, speakers and presiding bishops simply forgot that language interpretation was being done.

"Once I sent a note to the presiding bishop saying, `We're spitting cotton in the translation booths! Slow it down!'" Hill recalled.

Sound translations and time to consider are really a matter of justice, said Kabama Kiboko of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who recalls feeling "lost" as a Swahili-speaking delegate in 1984. She left that meeting determined to master English and advocate for the provision of Swahili interpreters. She's been serving in that capacity since the 1996 General Conference.

'You're translating the culture'

This year, many committee chairs opened their deliberations by urging international delegates and interpreters to let them know if things were going too fast.

"You're not just translating the language, you're translating the culture," Kiboko said. "What's funny and makes people laugh in English does not make my people laugh. How do you translate 'okie dokie'?"

Interpreters at this year's meeting have had their own debate on how to translate the term "holy conferencing" when the words for "holy" and "conference" in their respective languages don't accurately express the term's English-language meaning. They've settled on the term "respectful conversation," which makes it clear that church people need to be respectful when speaking to one another.

That's the work of an interpreter. It involves not just literally translating terms but also conveying context, meaning and the spirit in which the speakers are communicating, which can be emotionally draining on the interpreters.

"When a speaker's choice of words is not right, when people disagree disagreeably, as an interpreter you hurt. You cry because you have to say it," Kiboko said.

Indeed, maintaining the kind of neutrality required for that kind of communication is one of the hardest aspects of being an interpreter, said the Rev. Kanunu Emmanuel Busambwa, senior pastor of Central Park United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Ala., via the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is the second consecutive General Conference the graduate of Africa University in Zimbabwe and Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta has served as interpreter for French-speaking delegates.

"To be faithful and neutral, especially when you have a theological background, is the hardest thing about being an interpreter," Busambwa said. "You have to get yourself out of the way and understand the context."

Former Global Ministries staff Irina Miagkova, who serves as a Russian interpreter from Westchester County, N.Y., experiences that problem in reverse. "Very often delegates ask for my opinion or try to explain their opinion to me," Miagkova said. "I tell them: `I appreciate it, but you'd better tell that to the other delegates.'"

Rewarding work

Sound translation can also require the confidence of a stage performer, said Kenya Evelyn Whaley, a Brazilian singer who lives in Nashville, Tenn., and serves as a Portuguese translator for General Conference.

The speaker's speed and regional accent can be challenging, Whaley said. But translation must go on, even if the interpreter stumbles on a word. Otherwise, whole passages of the presentation will be lost. At the end of the day, she added, the work is rewarding.

"Today in committee, I worked with an Angolan church leader," she said. "I truly feel blessed to be his voice. The decisions being made at General Conference will determine how the church will be seen for the next four years. This is much more than a job."

*Moore is an executive secretary of communication for the Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, e-mail:

Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470.

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