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Language Translating and Interpreting Is a Ministry

That Helps the Church

In the News

As far as we know, there was no particular event that led to the publishing of an article on the United Methodist News site about Donald Reasoner. He was neither retiring nor being promoted. The article, by Eveline Chikwanah, a communicator in the Zimbabwe East Conference of the United Methodist Church, mentioned no particular milestone in Reasoner’s life. And he is not a celebrity or a scoundrel, so he’s not newsworthy on either count.

Rather, the article features Reasoner to highlight his ministry as a layperson — a ministry not commonly thought about but one vitally necessary in a world where we don’t all speak the same language.

That ministry, which has gone on for more than three decades, is translating other people’s words so that others who don’t know the speaker’s language can understand what is being said. 

“My grandparents served 40 years as missionaries in Brazil, and my parents also served almost 40 years,” Reasoner, who was born in California, said. “I grew up speaking Portuguese; in Mexico and Central America, it was Spanish, so I speak three languages including English.”

Reasoner’s early experience translating came when English-speaking visitors came to Brazil. His parents asked him to take them on a tour of the city and places of interest, and he interpreted for the guests who didn’t speak Portuguese.

Whenever Reasoner had vacation time from school,” he recalled, he would travel with his father and thus developed, “great appreciation for the work of mission and evangelism and the importance of communicating in the language that people can understand and use.”

As an adult, he was asked to coordinate interpretation for multinational church gatherings of Presbyterians and Methodists. He spent almost 10 years in Nicaragua, where he translated for visiting delegations of church groups.

Now 64, Reasoner’s primary role has been to provide and coordinate translation for United Methodists, who commissioned him as a missionary. In his work, he employed additional translators to cater to as many as 10 different languages in one gathering.  For the last UM General Conference in 2016, he oversaw close to 200 interpreters because there were about 1,000 delegates and several thousand guests and observers. 

“I see what I do as a ministry, not just as a job or a profession,” Reasoner said. “I feel a vocation to work with the church, but I don’t feel a calling to become an ordained clergy in the church. I think I can work as a layperson to help with the church, and what I see as part of my ministry is to help facilitate the communication.”

He later moved to New York where he worked as a Global Ministries regional officer — he was the area secretary for the southern part of Latin America, dealing with church relations and the 60 missionaries in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, Peru and Uruguay.

Eventually, the agency had more than 200 units of FM equipment and 200 units of the infrared system for larger meetings. Reasoner became responsible for coordinating all the equipment as well as for recruiting interpreters.

“We are a global church,” Reasoner said, “and not everyone speaks English. I see my work as a ministry to help build a bridge to enable the two sides [to] talk to each other and let the Holy Spirit work for the synergy between them.

“My mission,” Reasoner said, “is to facilitate the communication process, not do it for them.  I have to be very careful … not to interject my ideas or my opinions. I may not agree with what participants are saying, but I have to be true to what [they are] saying and let them work it out among themselves.”

In addition to translating words from one language to another; Reasoner must delve into the nuances which each word might convey in a given context. 

Maintaining professionalism and confidentiality is essential for his work. “During executive sessions,” he said, “everyone else leaves the room, but I get to stay. I need to make sure information that has been shared is accurate.”

Over the years, Reasoner has built a pool of 600 to 700 interpreters across the world, ensuring that local interpreters are hired to cut transport costs and promote their work.

While Reasoner’s work has been largely at multinational church gatherings, translating and interpretation is also important in local church services where not all parishioners and staff speak in the same tongue. Translators can also serve the church when, for example, a non-English speaking church needs someone to temporarily fill the pulpit, but no pastor is available to preach in the language of that congregation. Then, an English-speaking pastor can be invited to preach through an interpreter. 

In those cases too, accurate translation, free from the interpreter’s opinion but which is conscious of the context of the words in the speaker’s language, is a vital ministry.

More on this story can be found at these links:

A Ministry of Interpretation. UM News
Interpreting and the Church. In All Things

Applying the News Story 

The need for correct interpretation of words and their intent is vitally important in church communication that is intended to occur across language barriers. Thus, we need language specialists who can not only translate words, but can also interpret their meaning. A translator can go from a word in one language to a word in another, but an interpreter also knows the cultures of the two language groups and can recognize when a literal translation does not express the intended meaning in the destination language.

TWW team member Frank Ramirez, who is bilingual (English and Spanish), offers these examples of mistranslations he’s heard, when the translator didn’t know the language well enough to render the sense of what was intended. He heard a man say, Estoy nervioso y excitado para mi entrevista mañana. What he meant to say was “I am nervous and excited for my interview tomorrow.” What he actually said was “I am nervous and aroused for my interview tomorrow.” (The correct word for excited is emocionado.)

Also in Spanish, éxito is the word for “success,” but some translators have used that word thinking it means “exit,” which is actually salidaRetirar means “to remove,” but some translators apparently think it means “retire,” which is pensionar. Just think of the confusion that could cause!

Some mistranslations can have more serious consequences, as was illustrated in a scene in the 2005 thriller-flick, The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. Kidman’s character, Silvia Broome, is an interpreter at the United Nations, and she overhears a death threat against an African head of state named Zuwanie, spoken in a rare dialect only Broome and few others can understand. When she reports the threat, however, Tobin Keller, the agent assigned to protect Zuwanie, is skeptical of her claim. The following dialog ensues:

Broome: Do you think I’m making it up? Why would I report a threat I didn’t hear? …
Keller: Maybe you don’t want Zuwanie at the UN.
Broome: Ididn’t make it up.
Keller: How do you feel about him?
Broome: I don’t care for him.
Keller: Wouldn’t mind if he were dead?
Broome: I wouldn’t mind if he were gone.
Keller: Same thing.
Broome: No it isn’t. If I interpreted “gone” as “dead” I’d be out of a job. If dead and gone were the same thing, there’d be no UN. 

Interpretation that is careful and mindful of nuance and word choice differences from one language to another is a vital activity at places like the United Nations, but it’s also a vital ministry in the church.

The Big Questions

1. Why do you think God did not make us all speak the same language?

2. Unless you can read ancient Hebrew and biblical Greek, any Bible you read is a translation. To what degree is translation of scripture also a matter of interpretation? When have you found one translation more useful than another in helping you understand God’s Word?

3.What makes work like Reasoner’s a legitimate form of ministry? What factors suggest that the need for that ministry is likely to increase in the future? How might advances in technology affect that need?

4. What does it imply about his work that Reasoner’s denomination decided to commission him as a missionary even though he does not preach himself?

5. What is suggested by Reasoner’s frequent use of the word “facilitate” to describe his ministry?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

Genesis 11:5-7
The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (For context, read Genesis 11:1-9.)

This  account from Genesis tells of a primordial time when everyone spoke the same language, and they decided to build a city with a tall tower. They started with a plan: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (v. 4). But, according to the text, God saw what they were doing and disapproved, and so he came and confused their language so they would not understand one another. That, of course, made cooperating to build the tower and finish the city impossible, and so they scattered across the earth. Because of the confusion of language, the city they had started was called Babel.

But what exactly had these builders done so wrong that caused the Lord to interfere with their plans? We sometimes assume their sin was that the tall tower was a human attempt to storm the heavens and displace God. But if that were the case, the tale would be little more than a primitive allegory about an insecure God who is so threatened by human achievement that he needs to wreak havoc on the best-laid human plans. What’s more, the story is not just an attempt to explain the vast multiplicity of human languages. Nor is it a lament about some lost primeval unity. 

No, the sin of the Babel builders was likely that congregating everyone in a single place was a direct violation of God’s command, given after the great flood, that the people should multiply and fill the earth. (Remember the builders said they wanted to avoid being scattered.) One interpretation of that is that the refusal to spread meant they were seeking uniformity. When the people are all the same, speaking the same language and having the same attitudes and biases, individuals are reduced to insignificance. “If no one is anyone in particular, then who cares what happens to them?” So maybe the old story of Babel is about a human attempt to root out individuality, which goes against God’s wishes, since, he, after all, made us in his image. “To try and eradicate human uniqueness is to declare war on God’s image and thus to declare war on God,” says one biblical commentator.

If that is a correct view of the story, then God’s action in confusing their language was no punishment at all, but a move designed to put people back on the path he intended for their good — to scatter them across the earth and become the unique individuals God wants. So God confounded their language, and “scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (v. 8).

Questions: In what ways might the multiplicity of languages on Earth contribute to the common good? In what ways might they hinder movement toward the common good?

Nehemiah 8:7-8
Also the Levites Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. (For context, read Nehemiah 7:73b–8:12.)

Nehemiah 7:73b-8:12 records a time after the exile, when the temple and the walls of Jerusalem have been rebuilt. Shortly after the completion of the walls, the people requested that the scribe Ezra gather the people in a square of the city and read scripture (very likely some parts of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible) to them.

While the people were Jews and their ancestors had likely been taught the scriptures, most common people in that day couldn’t read, and there were few copies of the scripture scrolls in any case. They had to rely on scribes to teach them the scriptures. But the first return from exile had occurred 92 years before the Jerusalem walls were rebuilt, and there had been no scribes among those first returnees. The generation that built the walls had likely heard about the scriptures from older relatives but now wanted to hear them for themselves, and the arrival of Ezra, who was both a priest and a scribe, made that possible.

Ezra was quick to comply with their request. And so, at a public gathering, Ezra read the scroll aloud, and he had help from 13 Levites (see their names in the verses above) who “helped the people to understand the law [of Moses].” While it’s not clear exactly how these Levites functioned during the public reading, there are three logical possibilities: 

  • Because there was no technology for amplification, the Levites stood among the crowd and repeated what Ezra had read so everyone in the crowd could hear. 
  • They explained the meaning of what Ezra read.
  • They translated and interpreted what Ezra read. The scriptures would have been written in Hebrew, but by the post-exilic period, the common language among the Jews was Aramaic, so the Levites may have been rendering the Hebrew into Aramaic.

Whatever the case, these Levites performed a service similar to what interpreters like Reasoner do today: They worked in the service of God to help people receive and understand what was being said by a speaker.

The people received this reading of the scripture scroll seriously. When Ezra blessed the Lord, the people responded with a twofold “Amen,” which indicated their acceptance of what was being read. As they listened, they were struck by how far their daily practices were from the holiness the text called for, and they began weeping. At that point, Ezra told them to rejoice instead, because “the joy of the LORD is your strength!” (8:10). God was giving them the teachings that make for a wholesome and holy life, which is a source of joy. When the people understood this, a “great rejoicing” (8:12) took place. The scriptures now became the basis of their existence as a community, and their faith and practice was to be dominated by it.

Questions: Who has helped you understand the scriptures and how they apply to you? In what ways have you helped others to understand them?

Acts 2:5-8
Now there were devout Jews from every people under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (For context, read Acts 2:1-41.)

This reading is about the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus, who then went out and began to speak to the crowds. People from all over the known world had come to Jerusalem for the annual Pentecost observance, and the list of the their nationalities sounds like a roll call at a plenary session of the United Nations: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. …” And there were no multilingual translators at the ready … none except the Holy Spirit that is. The wonder of it all rumbled through the crowd: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

So the first public miracle that Pentecost day was the gift of instant translation. According to the narrative, however, translation alone was not sufficient, for the text tells us, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?'” Thus the miracle of translating the words from the Galilean tongue into the multiplicity of languages spoken by the hearers enabled the crowd to comprehend the words of the disciples, but not to discern what those words meant.

It was Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, who explained the meaning (see vv. 14-36.)

And after that, 3,000 of those present were baptized, and the church was born.

Questions: In what ways does the Day of Pentecost illustrate the difference between translation and interpretation? To what extent was Pentecost the undoing of what happened at the tower of Babel? In what ways was God present in both events?

1 Corinthians 12:4, 7-8, 10
Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, …To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, … to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (For context, read 1 Corinthians 12:4-10.)

1 Corinthians 14:9, 13
So with yourselves: If in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. … Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. (For context, read 1 Corinthians 14:6-19.)

First Corinthians 12 is one of the places where Paul discusses the gifts of the Spirit — skills and abilities individuals in the church are given and called to use for the good of the church. In the chapter 12 passage above, one gift of the Spirit Paul identifies is “the interpretation of tongues.” First Corinthians 14 contains some commentary on the gifts, including an explanation of why the church needs people with the interpretation gift. 

In fairness to Paul’s discussion, we should point out that he is not talking about general interpretation of the sort Reasoner does, but rather a specialized interpretation to complement another gift, sometimes called “tongues” or “glossolalia” — a kind of spiritual utterance in no known language but which the speaker understands as praising God. Paul says that the tongues gift by itself does no good for the rest of the congregation because they cannot understand what is uttered. However, if someone present has the gift of interpretation, then that person can communicate the speaker’s message in plain language.

Question: What abilities do you have that you can offer to the church?

For Further Discussion

1. Respond to this: Both translation and interpretation are still necessary to the spread of Christianity, even if we are with people who speak our language. Translation is the work of putting the faith into plain language for people to understand. Lots of books, websites, Christian education classes and sermons do that. They explain what the Christian story is, what we believe, how to read the Bible, what is expected in the way of behavior and so forth. And often, the Holy Spirit is involved in that work.
              But there is still the need for interpreters. That’s because there are always people who can say, “Look, I understand what Christianity teaches, but so what? What does it mean for me? Why should I buy into it?” Interpreters are people who are convinced about the great value of Christ in their own lives, and who can therefore answer the “What does this mean?” question from personal experience.
              That doesn’t demand that we are especially eloquent or have a convincing speech ready. It doesn’t mean we have a degree in Christian apologetics or narrative evangelism. But it does mean we are willing, when asked, to speak about our own experience of Christ. One of the most powerful interpretation methods is simply to state your own experience and tell why your contact with Christ has made a difference in your life. For example: 

  • “I can no longer be comfortable with my prejudices.”
  • “I have peace that stays with me, even when everything is going wrong.”
  • “I am less judgmental and more able to forgive.”
  • “I never knew a time when I was not a Christian, but I wouldn’t want to be without Christ.”
  • “I’m not angry all the time now.”
  • “My natural inclination is to think only of myself. But because of Christ, I can no longer ignore the needs of others.”
  • “The guilt I lived with has been taken away.”
  • “It has put a song in my heart.”
  • “I cannot sin in peace.”
  • “Christ has given my life a purpose.”

              None of this interpreting guarantees the conversion of those who hear it, but in the long run, statements about what commitment to Christ means to you personally has a greater impact than the best written Sunday school lesson or the most articulate sermon that explains the faith. That’s because nobody can deny your personal experience. Realistically, all they can do is say that they have never had a similar one, and when they do, you can encourage them to give Christ a try and see for themselves.

2. Speaking of interpreting the faith, one need not be a scholar to do it. In the 19th century, British biologist and educator Thomas Huxley was widely known for his brilliance and his scientific writings, but also for his agnosticism. Sometime toward the end of his life, he attended a house party at a country estate. When Sunday came, most of the other guests prepared to go to church, but not Huxley. Perhaps only because he wanted some company, he approached another guest, a man known for his solid and simple Christian faith. Huxley proposed that instead of going to church, the man stay home with him and explain why he was Christian and what his faith meant on a personal level. The man protested, “But you could demolish my arguments in an instant. I’m not clever enough to argue with you.” When Huxley assured the man that he had no intention of arguing, however, the man agreed. He stayed and told Huxley in simple terms what his faith provided him. When the man had finished, Huxley said, “I would give my right hand if only I could believe that.”
              If you had been the person Huxley asked to explain what your faith means to you, what would you have said?

3. When have you wished you could communicate with someone who didn’t speak your language? TWW team member Stan Purdum tells of such a situation: Not long after we were married, we drove to Mexico City in an old Volkswagen van. Neither of us speak Spanish, but along the primary route down and in Mexico City itself, we had no trouble communicating because many people there spoke English. After spending a few days in that city, we decided to make our exit from Mexico by driving up a highway along the west coast of the country, a route that provided us many attractive views of the Pacific Ocean and, as we got farther north, the Gulf of California, the body of water between the Mexican mainland and the Baja peninsula.
              As we got away from the more populated areas, we found fewer people who spoke English. We were carrying most of our food in the vehicle, so we didn’t have to negotiate restaurants, and we were able to purchase gas for the van without much difficulty, because both we and the attendant knew what we were after. We had learned to understand the money exchange, and had memorized a few Spanish phrases that enabled us to ask where the bathrooms were, to say “Thank you,” and to say that we didn’t speak the language. So we ambled along without too much problem.
              But then one day, spotting a beautiful mostly deserted beach, we decided to stop and swim. After we were there a while, we noticed a man and a boy some distance out in the water, and they seemed to be trying to push a raft of some sort toward the beach. They appeared to be having some difficulty, so I waded out, grabbed hold of the raft, and helped them maneuver it to shore.
              They appeared very appreciative and the man began speaking rapidly in Spanish, pointing to the rocks placed on the raft. Adhering to the rocks were oyster-like shells, and as the man continued to speak, he pried open a shell and pulled out the material inside. I guessed that this was abalone, and the man handed one to me, indicating with his hands that I should eat it raw, something I wasn’t accustomed to. At the same moment, my wife said to me, “Don’t let them give me one of those!”
              But I gathered that this was their way of saying thank you, and I didn’t want to appear rude, so I ate it. Then the man launched into a new monologue, which of course we couldn’t understand, but he was using his hand to point toward a hut not far away and was making motions that finally led me to believe he was inviting us to join his family for dinner.
              I would have loved to accept the invitation and to have the experience that such a visit would bring. But because we couldn’t communicate effectively, I felt the whole thing would be awkward and exhausting. So using my own hand motions, I indicated that we had to be moving on, and after a profuse exchange of “Gracias,” we drove off.
              But I wished for some sort of device such as the one that exists on Star Trek. It’s a little machine called the Universal Translator. In the series, it takes the language of any interplanetary species and converts it accurately so that the individuals involved can communicate freely. But alas, we didn’t have that, and we missed what we assumed would have been a good experience.

Responding to the News

This is a good time to think about the abilities that God has given you, and how you can employ them for the church. 


O God who hears and understands us regardless of what language — or no language at all (Romans 8:26) — we use to address you, thank you that you make it possible for us also to hear and understand you. Help us to listen, learn and love as your Son taught us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


In class, we will talk about some of these passages and look for some insight into the big questions, as well as talk about other questions you may have about this topic. Please join us.