Saturday, December 03, 2011

English-Vernacular interpretation in Churches

Most people have been asking a question as to why in Malawi preachers like to preach in English/Vernacular interpretation. I know some of us also have the same question. We might be going to that church, listening to such preachings and enjoying them at times when the Holy Spirit touches our soul, but we are too perplexed by them.
English-to-Vernacular preaching is very common in pentecostal, charismatic, baptist or evangelical churches. Most of us have ever been asked by someone outside our faith “Why does your pastor preach in English with a vernacular interpreter?” But we have never answered them correctly because we are not sure too! However, with all the relevance we have towards men of God and the fear of pouring the wrath of God upon our life, most of us have never taken an initiative to ask our pastors why this happens like this. 
I would like to address this question here today. I am speaking as one of the men of God who stands in front of people sharing the Word. At times I do the English/Vernacular interpretation, either as the protagonist or as the interpreter himself. I hope this will help someone out there to understand why we do English-to-Vernacular interpretation in our churches.
Before I dive into the topic, let me say that this question came from a friend in one of the forums I am affiliated to. I responded to it, then I felt that I should blog the response I gave so that it helps others too. I had to request the friend for permission to blog my response for the benefit of the multitude, lest he feels offended :-) and he gave me a go-ahead!
I would like also to make it clear that I am using the term vernacular in place of any other indigenous language that can be used for interpretation. I know in most Malawian churches it is Chichewa, but I have also found others interpreting in Chilhomwe, Chiyao and other indigenous languages. In addition, the views here also apply to other communities in the diaspora, especially in Africa, where most of the languages of business happen to be of European origin. In the same view also, the term English should be taken as generic for any non-indigenous “business-oriented” language. 
Sometimes, interpretation becomes complex. I recall once in my Church there came a preacher from Congo who only understood French. He came with one friend who could understand French and English. We had to do a two-state interpretation: French to English to Chichewa. It was that experience that propelled me to study French.

Pastor Aubrey Mwasinga (right) through a Chichewa Interpreter

But why English-Vernacular Interpretation in the Church?

Generally, the choice of using a language when preaching has equally the same reasons and implications as to why we try to use English on social networks like Facebook, Skype or in an email when we know that we are addressing our fellow Malawians. 

In most of the pentecostal churches (just with other churches as well), there is a great chance of finding Non-Malawian Citizens worshipping together with Malawians. Unfortunately, because of long church services, most pentecostal churches are not fond of having double streams: English and Chichewa.

Some preachers find English-vernacular interpretation providing with them some authoritative power to preach. They feel "possessed" by the Spirit. This might be funny to someone who does not understand the spiritual implications of it, but take it from me - they really do feel the power of God in that sense. Know that God uses us the way we often feel him. He is polymorphic: He responds to the way we come to him at different intervals.

We should understand that being an interpreter in a Church is also a special spiritual gift. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 says "Now, dear brothers and sisters, regarding your question about the special abilities the Spirit gives us. I don't want you to misunderstand this... A special gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire Church... Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and Only Holy Spirit who distributes these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have." (NLT).

Interpretation is a form of evangelism tool. This point is very much related to the previous one. Being a spiritual gift itself, interpretation can be a blessing to the church. Many of us know English but not everyone of us can do the interpretation well. You will discover that when some people interpret, the entire church bursts into laughter: not that the interpreter is erring, but the way the interpreter makes a choice of vernacular terms to spice up the preaching makes their interpretation unique. And members do not slumber in the church as the preacher is preaching. It is a special gift. Now pastors love to leverage that skill in the church to edify the congregation.

Some preachers feel that they can articulate the points better in English. Maybe because their vernacular vocabulary (especially Chichewa) is not as good as that of English (in one way or the other). This point closely related to that of interpretation being a spiritual gift. Such preachers find that their choice of words in vernacular is not as authentic as they would love it to be. Instead, they love to make use of the gift of interpretation that exists in the church.

Some preachers find English-Vernacular interpretation giving them better vocabulary combination. Such preachers love to play with words to make their sermons unforgettable. They like using:
  •  rhymes e.g. "Life without Christ is Crisis", 
  • backronyms e.g. "Brothers, be FOCUSED in your faith. That is being Faithfully On Christ's Unfailing Side Every Day" 

  • puns e.g. "Seven 'prayerless' days make one weak."
One thing we should not forget is that each language has some sentence patterns and pithy expressions that sound better when said in those languages than when said in the other languages. So the combination of vernacular and English exploit the pithy expressions in these two languages.

Some verses are well understood if translated directly from a particular English version. The reason is English is indisputably the only Language with so many Bible translations. As an example, I will give you a verse that used to perplex me when I was young. I never understood them clearly till I read the English version. More importantly, I got several perspectives of the same verse from different English versions. 1Timothy 3:6 in Chichewa reads:
  • "Asakhale wophunza; kuti podzitukumula umgwere mlandu wa mderekezi" (From Buku Lopatulika version. I am not sure how it is translated in Buku Loyera version - maybe someone can provide). 
English has several translations that can be applied differently, depending on the revelation that the Lord is trying to relay to his people: 
  • "Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil." (KJV),
  • "An elder must not be a new Christian, because he might be proud of being chosen so soon, and the Devil will use that pride to make him fall." (NLT),
  • "He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgement as the devil." (NIV)
  • "He must not be a recent convert, so that he won't become arrogant and fall into the devil's condemnation." (ISV)
  • "not a novice, lest being puffed up he fall into the condemnation of the devil." (ASV)
You can notice that the different versions give additional information, some of which is hereby underlined, that when translated directly provide a better understanding than just using the vernacular version only. So pastors do use varying English translations to provide a wider understanding of the same verse with a particular emphasis to what the Lord has revealed to them as a specific need for the congregation.

These are just some of the reasons that preachers have behind English-Vernacular preachings. I hope you are blessed by this and at least you  know a few reasons. Next time someone asks you, you will be able to explain to them. Stay blessed!!!


  1. This is a very important issue to tackle and I must say it has been clearly explained. I would however like to add and/or comment that sometimes we ought to be very careful especially in cases where we have a very small community with a wide majority that does not speak and/or understand English and everyone speaks and understands the vernacular language in use. In such cases we ought to understand that English speaking in Malawi is somewhat a symbol of status and doing might be driven by pride in which case we need to take great care.

  2. Yes indeed, Joseph. Sometimes use of language in such small communities may drive away the multitude as they feel under-esteemed by the preacher. In my case, I propose paying attention to the Spirit of Discernment.

    Paul was able to speak various languages. There was a time he was arrested in public in Jerusalem. Jews wanted to kill him. Having negotiated with the commander, Paul stood up on the podium and spoke in their language, Hebrew/Aramaic. The bible records, "When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet" (Acts 22:2 - NIV)

  3. This has been well tackled Edmond. The highlighted reasons are mostly over-shadowed by our intrinsic feeling that most of the pastors just want to boast or to attract the elite (local working class and expatriates).
    Otherwise, Joseph has already indicated the lighter side of showing empathy and consideration in our sermons.
    Great article and thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Living Wise (Moses).