Que pasa? Translation at General Conference

For Don Reasoner, the task of providing translation services for non-English speaking delegates to the United Methodist General Conference is more than just a matter of logistics.

Proper communication with church members outside the United States, in his opinion, is essential to the spiritual growth of the denomination. "There's much that they can share and we can learn from," he explained. "It helps enrich our experience together as a church."

When General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, meets April 27-May 7 in Pittsburgh, a cadre of translators will be on hand to help delegates with everything from hotel check-in to registering a vote on the conference floor. Of the 998 delegates who will be attending, about 178 will be from "central conferences" - regional units of the church in Africa, Asia and Europe.

Reasoner, a staff member of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, said he is able to hire four professional translators for each of the meeting's five official languages, besides English, and is looking for volunteers to fill in the gaps, particularly during the first week's legislative committee sessions.

The five other languages are Spanish, Portuguese, French, German and Swahili. Portuguese covers Brazil, Angola and Mozambique, and Swahili primarily applies to delegates from the Congo, he explained. Korean and Russian translation will be offered on a more informal basis.

Printed translation is more limited. The conference's Advance Daily Christian Advocate - a compilation of the legislation going to the assembly - will be offered in English, French and Portuguese only. During the two-week meeting, the Daily Christian Advocate publication will be in English only.

"It's not just a matter of linguistic abilities, it's the church language," Reasoner said about the search for translators who have knowledge of United Methodist lingo and church structure.

Translation will be used in different ways. While consecutive translation will do for luggage mishaps at the airport, simultaneous translation is essential for conference plenary sessions, where translation equipment will be in use. "That requires a different level of skills," Reasoner added.

The professional translators will staff those plenary sessions and monitor the 11 legislative committees to provide quality control. In addition, volunteers will be needed to sit in on the committees and committee subgroups, sometimes conducting one-on-one translation. "We're trying to find out from the various delegations which committees the (non-English speaking) delegates will be in," Reasoner said.

An appeal for translators has been issued through missionary networks and other organizations. Because of costs, "we're looking for volunteers who are in the United States or very close by," he noted. Travel and hotel expenses will be covered for the selected volunteer translators, who will receive the same per diem for meals as other church staff.

Reasoner hopes to have 20 volunteers per legislative committee, in addition to spreading the professionals around. The host committee in Pittsburgh also is coordinating some services for international delegates and "will try to deal with all reasonable requests."

But translators probably won't be available often for guests and observers. "The priority has been given to the delegates to ensure the delegates have full participation and their votes will be counted," he explained.

The translation equipment for General Conference, based on an infrared system, is provided for and owned by the Board of Global Ministries. Reasoner does not expect to use all the 220 units, but "we can get additional (equipment) if we see there's a need for it."

He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.  News media can contact her at (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].

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