Unreached Network


Tips for working with an interpreter

On the Day of Pentecost, the disciples were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different languages. Everyone who was gathered in the city of Jerusalem, from every nation on earth, were startled because each one heard the disciples speaking in their own language. (You can find the full story in Acts 2)

God’s desire is for all people, from every nation to hear and understand the good news about Jesus, so it is important when we spend time together with our brothers and sisters from different nations, that we work hard to make it as easy as possible to share and learn from each other. 

As a network, we have always emphasised the importance of learning the language of the culture that God is calling us to, but sometimes this is just not possible and you may end up in a situation where you are working with an interpreter instead.  Working with an interpreter is something that requires skill, preparation and sensitivity, so we have called on the wonderful hive mind of the Unreached Network in order to create this resource for you. 

Tips for working with an interpreter



Let’s start at the beginning. You are preparing a talk that you will be delivering with an interpreter. What do you need to bear in mind?

Length. If you are using a consecutive interpreter, (you speak, the interpreter listens then reproduces what you have just said for the audience) your material will take 3 times longer than without. Twice as long because everything you say will be repeated in another language, plus some extra time for pauses, misunderstandings and breaks in the flow. Consider whether you could use simultaneous rather than consecutive interpretation (e.g. people listening to the interpretation with headsets). Factors that may affect this choice are the proportion of listeners needing interpretation, the capabilities of the interpreter (simultaneous is generally considered harder), the need for interpretation into multiple languages, and the equipment available. If only a few people need the interpretation, you could have them seated at the back or side with an interpreter whispering, using no equipment at all. 

Language. As you are preparing your talk, think about the language that you are using. Keep it as simple as possible. Try to convey the idea in one sentence then elaborate in the next. Commands and questions are simple and easy to interpret. Avoid acronyms and abstract concepts, use concrete ideas or (culturally appropriate) pictures instead. Remember that political figures, theologians, and celebrities that you know are all specific to your culture. Don’t use colloquialisms or idioms, they are usually hard to translate and take a lot of time. Here is an example of an idiom that does not translate: “We once had someone talk about God helping us to remove ‘the skeletons in the closet’ which when literally translated doesn’t make any sense! Instead of using idioms, try to translate cultural sayings for the interpreter, you could say ‘God brings light to the dark places where we feel shame and hide things’.”

Taboos. You need to know that your interpreter will faithfully interpret without cultural bias. And for that to happen, you need to be aware of what local cultural taboos are so as not to put your interpreter into a difficult position. Ensure that your interpreter is in agreement with the messages that you are communicating and that they have no religious or cultural objections to what you are talking about that may cause them to change what you are saying.

Jokes. These usually do not translate into different cultural settings which can be embarrassing for everyone and spoil your flow. It’s best not to use them. If you do want to include jokes, check them with your interpreter beforehand. 

Stories. Think about how you are presenting stories about yourself, are you setting yourself up as the foreign superhero, or is Jesus the hero of your stories and illustrations? Remember that, like jokes, stories might not always translate into a different culture, particularly if humour is involved. 

Media. If you are using PowerPoint, consider what language your slides should be in. Make sure that any images in your slides are culturally appropriate. 

Bible verses. Depending on the context, do you need to read the bible verses in English first or can they just be read by the interpreter from their bible? If you will be reading the bible in English, think about which version you will use. The International Reader’s Version is helpful. Be careful of your assumptions around biblical understanding. You are used to a certain demographic but it’s rarely the same in different countries. Your listeners may have more or less biblical literacy than you are used to. Bear in mind that staying close to the scripture will give your interpreter confidence in what they are saying and the language they are using. Sometimes your points might correspond to the specific wording of the passages you reference, in which case, you will need to check the wording in the interpreter’s bible ahead of time, this can help with flow but also to highlight where your points might come from your bible translation and need to be tweaked. For example,  Ephesians 2:10 says “we are God’s workmanship..” but this might be “masterpiece” or “handiwork” in a different translation; these all lend slightly different emphasis which it is helpful to be aware of beforehand. 

Get ready together 

Summarise. So you’ve prepared your talk, halved its length and you’re all set to go. If possible, try to get a copy of your talk sent to your interpreter beforehand so that they have an idea of where you are going. Even if you have not written your talk word for word, a summary of your main points, illustrations and bible references will be helpful for the interpreter to receive ahead of time. Explaining key points beforehand also brings up special phrases or words that the interpreter might not know and gives them time to translate these ahead of time.

Check proficiency. It is good to check that the interpreter you will be working with can speak the local dialect of the people you are speaking to, or at least a dialect that is commonly used and locally understood. 

Establish a relationship. Before you stand up to speak together, take time to talk with your interpreter. Don’t just use this time to look at your talk together, be interested in your interpreter as a person, get to know them a little if it is appropriate, they are a Christian brother or sister – not just a tool. Give them the main headlines of your talk, what you are really hoping that people will take away from it.

Check culture. This is a good time to check any cultural references or metaphors that you are not sure about, the interpreter may be able to help you to choose more culturally appropriate references and pictures. Make sure that the interpreter knows the local words for any key points or concepts and that the words are culturally acceptable, particularly if you are speaking about sensitive issues.

Rehearse. Check if the interpreter has any questions for you before you begin and let the interpreter know that they can interrupt you at any time if you are going too fast or for any other reason relating to understanding. It is a good idea to rehearse with the interpreter to make sure you are speaking at an appropriate speed and to find out if your interpreter prefers to interpret shorter phrases word for word or to listen to longer portions and then interpret your overall meaning. If you have a prophetic piece, check this with the interpreter also.

Pray together. Pray with your interpreter before you stand up to speak together. 


Here are some things to remember as you are speaking:

Say ‘Hi’. Learn at least one or two words in the language you are speaking, just saying hello or thank you makes a big difference.

Pace. Speak clearly, but not too slowly as this is just frustrating. Try to keep a flow but don’t make your sections too long before you pause for the interpreter. Don’t pause in the middle of a sentence as the grammar is likely to be different in the target language. Be ready to repeat yourself if needed, perhaps in a slightly different way. If you are working with a consecutive interpreter, enjoy the gaps – this gives a relaxed speaker a wonderful opportunity to think about what they will say next and can lead to a better message. If you are working with simultaneous interpreters, you do not need to pause but don’t go too fast either. 

Direction. Don’t speak away from the interpreter the entire time as they may want to look at you as you speak, but also, don’t direct everything you say straight at the interpreter, this would not be engaging for everyone else in the room. Make sure you look at the interpreter when they are speaking so that you can see when they have finished.

Delivery. There still needs to be some nuance in your delivery. Make time to pause, slow down, use a different tone of voice etc. Preaching can still be full of emotion and passion when you are working with an interpreter.  You don’t need to raise your voice as people are listening to the interpreter but you can be smiling and animated. A good interpreter will also be animated, and their delivery may be influenced by yours. 

Honour. Remember to take time to honour the interpreter. Say thank you to them and ask those who are listening  to express their appreciation when you have finished. This helps to model the values of honour, team, and gratitude. 

Feedback. When you have finished it is a good idea to get feedback from the recipients, if possible, especially from those who understand both languages. Look out for signs of bad interpreting: blank looks from the audience, the interpreter saying little when you have said a lot or vice versa. The interpreter lacking in confidence will undermine your message even if they are interpreting correctly. If the interpreter doesn’t take notes when interpreting consecutively, doesn’t speak English well or isn’t interested in being briefed, it might be a good idea to look for a different interpreter next time. Having said that, a Spirit filled interpreter is more important than a technically brilliant one! If things go well, try to keep working with the same interpreter so that you can build relationship and become increasingly effective at working together. 


Remember that the Holy Spirit is bigger than language and communicates in ways beyond us.

While in the UK we place a high emphasis on what is said, many other cultures receive meaning from words, gestures, mannerisms and your warm spirit; godliness and truth come from your heart, character and manner as well as your words.

Take heart that our embodied message is powerful and beautiful, even if the verbal translation ends up being jerky sometimes!

Many thanks to our contributors, both speakers and translators from the Unreached Network and beyond, and to Lisa Mason for compiling this for us. Have something to add? Email us at info@unreached.network