Interpreters keep dialogue moving at GC

Frido Kinkolenge, one of the interpreters at General Conference 2012.

TAMPA, Fla.—Early at General Conference 2012, delegates got a tutorial in how to use their voting keypads. It included a test run, with the instruction to vote for Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

And that posed a problem for Chali Kalaba, whose job was to help delegates avoid getting lost in translation.

“I wish Americans used fewer cultural references,” said Mr. Kalaba, a native of Zambia now living in Missouri. “I don’t know how to translate ‘Mickey Mouse’ to someone from Africa. They get hung up on the translation and don’t learn how to use their voting machines.”

Translators or “interpreters”—the preferred term for those working orally, as opposed to translating a text—are an increasingly conspicuous and important part of General Conference.

For this gathering, there’s a team of 148 such persons. That doesn’t include technicians needed to maintain the booths where they work and the headsets they use.

“Language services” has been a hefty line item in recent General Conference budgets, amounting to $1.2 million this time.

The Rev. Alan Morrison, business manager of General Conference, said the expense has grown as the church has grown outside the United States, particularly in Africa. Delegates from non-U.S., central conferences now account for about 40 percent of the total.

And that has language consequences. Mr. Morrison noted, for example, that non-English speakers are now found on all 13 legislative committees.

“Swahili went from needing to be in 10 or 11 of the rooms, to now needing to be in all 13,” he said.

This General Conference is conducted in nine languages: English, French, German, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili and American Sign Language.

Swahili and French are the most spoken non-English languages at this General Conference. Roughly 100 delegates have Swahili as their first language, though many speak French as well.

Delegate Antony Beugre of Côte d’Ivoire listens to French translation of an April 23 briefing for international delegates to the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. UMNS PHOTO BY MIKE DUBOSE

Don Reasoner, a self-described “missionary kid” who speaks English, Portuguese and Spanish, is the General Board of Global Ministries official responsible for assembling and overseeing the team of interpreters.

He hires some professionals, but also draws on missionaries, graduate students and others willing to work for expenses and the experience. Several at this General Conference are alumni of Africa University, the UMC school in Zimbabwe.

Whatever their background, it’s helpful if interpreters know the lingo.

“We try to find folks who are familiar with Christian language, to start with, but also Methodist language,” Mr. Reasoner said. “You talk about a charge conference here, and it has nothing to do with batteries or electricity.”

Anita Ferreira, an interpreter working her second General Conference, confirms that the special vocabulary is a challenge.

“I am a Methodist, and I don’t know all the terminology,” she said. “I try to study before time.”

Ms. Ferreira translates to and from Portuguese, but it’s not the version she grew up with in Brazil.

“The people here are from Mozambique and Angola,” said Ms. Ferreira, who lives now in Orlando. “They speak more of a continental Portuguese. It would be like the difference between English from England and English from the United States.”

At General Conference, delegates’ first days are spent in committee. And translators are apportioned per room, usually in teams, to allow for a tradeoff every 30 minutes.

“The intensity of it is very high,” Mr. Reasoner said.

When the full committee meets, translators are in their booths, with their headsets. But committees tend to break into subcommittees, huddling in a corner of the room.

“We have to go to them,” said Frido Kinkolenge, a GBGM lay missionary in Liberia who speaks English, French and Swahili.

In the second week of General Conference, plenary sessions replace committee work. And that means the number of number of interpreters needed goes way down.

Mr. Reasoner relies on the most experienced interpreters for those sessions. But even they can be challenged by the speed of speakers.

“People speak at different rates,” Mr. Reasoner said. “Some of them, we wish they would actually take a breath every once in a while.”

Indeed, on Wednesday, Bishop Mike Watson of the North Georgia Conference was handed a note while presiding at a plenary session. “We are to speak more slowly so that the interpreters can keep up,” he said, noting the irony that he, a slow-talking Southerner, would be making that request.

Bishop Patrick Streiff, who oversees the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area, is a speaker of multiple languages. He took a moment while presiding to acknowledge and thank the interpreters, spurring delegates to a round of applause.

Emmanuel Naweji, one of the General Conference interpreters, described the work itself as offering rich spiritual compensation.

“We experience Pentecost!” he said.

The Rev. Mike Baughman, an elder in the North Texas Conference, contributed to this story.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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