Why Translated Services Don’t Work

This entry is part 4 of 24 in the series 30 Days on the Chinese Church

Many Chinese churches use simultaneous side-by-side translation in their services. I have spoken many times in various churches using this arrangement. But I think that in terms of building the English ministry, translated services should be used as little as possible. Today I will explain why. . .

The Usual Problems with Translated Services

When I arrived at CFC, we had translated services only two or three times each year. Yet even those few instances generated quite a few complaints from the youth and college students. One time there was a college student who had been attending our English worship for several months and seemed to enjoy it. Then one Sunday we had a joint Chinese-English worship service with translation. After the service she looked at me with a sense of disgust on her face, and said “I didn’t know that this was that kind of church.” We didn’t see much more of her after that.

Is the younger generation just too impatient and self-centered? Or is there something else going on? Why do they almost universally hate translated services? Let me list some of the difficulties with translated services. (Note that here I am speaking specifically of services in which the sermon is given in Chinese and translated into English.)

  • The service ends up being much longer, sometimes over 2 hours long.
  • Unless the speaker is very experienced in using a translator, he may speak an entire paragraph before pausing for the translator. As a result the English speakers get only a summary of the message.
  • The church may not have a skilled translator. I have great respect for those who are able to do simultaneous translation, but such people are not easy to find. In this case, the English speakers get only a garbled version of the original.
  • Some speakers use a lot of idioms which make the sermon very effective in the original, but are nearly impossible to translate. Humor is especially difficult to translate.
  • Most speakers do not change their preaching style to take both congregations into account. Therefore the thinking and illustrations may be too Chinese for the younger generation to understand. (When I preach in English for translation into Chinese I am careful to modify the content of my sermon so that it is appropriate for the audience.)

The Real Problem with Translated Services

These are all well known problems with translated services. But I do not believe that they get to the heart of the matter. Think for a moment about the experience of different types of people in a translated service:

  1. An OBC who is a long time church member, or a fully bilingual member of the younger generation.
  2. For bilingual people who have been in the church for a long time, translated services are often very enjoyable. They are seen as a concrete manifestation of the unity of the church. Bilingual listeners hear both the original and the translation, which reinforces the message and gives them time to reflect on the meaning. They can also chuckle at the inevitable stumbles of the translator. Occasionally they may even call out the correct word if the translator appears to be stuck. Overall, it is an enjoyable experience.

  3. A recent immigrant from Asia.
  4. Most immigrants are eager to improve their English, and what better scenario than a translated service! They (usually) first hear the sentence in their native tongue, and then hear the English translation. It’s better than the language lab! For them too the translated service is a positive experience.

  5. A teenager whose parents are immigrants.
  6. Now picture a teenager who may have grown up in the church. He or she probably spoke some Chinese at home as a toddler, and then in school switched to English. For a teenager, fitting in socially at school is the top priority. He is probably embarrassed by the English gaffes of his parents and their “strange” Chinese customs. He has “moved on” from Chinese to English as his language of choice, and for him a translated service is a step backwards. Culturally he is being pulled in a direction that he does not want to go. Eventually he may want to reconnect with his roots, but probably not while he is a teenager.

  7. An older ABC who does not speak much Chinese.
  8. An adult ABC who does not speak much Chinese has no interest in a translated service. He may tolerate one occasionally for the sake of church unity, but it is difficult to enjoy a service where the “main” language is to him a foreign tongue. He may even feel like a “second class citizen.” In churches where translated services are the norm, this person is likely to find a new church.

Please note that this entire discussion is about Chinese/English translated services. Services that translate between Mandarin and Cantonese (or another Chinese dialect) do not have these same problems.

So What Do We Do?

I think that you can see the problem that translated services present for building up the English ministry. So what do we do? I realize that in some smaller Chinese churches a translated service seems to be the only option in the short run. But I would encourage these churches to begin an English worship or a Youth worship ASAP. Find someone, maybe a college student, to give a simple message in English. Help the youth put together a worship team. They will grow a lot spiritually by taking on the challenge.

But what about church unity? Don’t we need translated services to promote unity? Church unity is probably a good topic for another day, but let me share briefly how we handle translated services at my church. We currently have a translated Sunday worship service only once per year, as a visible demonstration of the unity of the church. We also have a joint Christmas Eve service. When we do have a joint service, we try very hard to make sure that it is truly a “joint” service which treats both congregations equally. The service is planned together by the English and Chinese worship coordinators. Each year I take turns with the Chinese pastor in giving the message. We involve both the English worship team and the Chinese choir. Everything is translated (except for the prayers). Lyrics to all the songs are displayed in both English and Chinese. We try to make the service balanced in every way. Since our worship styles are somewhat different, in the joint service we try to blend aspects of each. It is a lot of work, but it is worth it if both congregations can feel at home in the joint service. Ultimately both congregations will need to adjust to some things being done differently than they are used to, but we accept that and understand the need to compromise.

Now it’s your turn. . .

  • What is your experience with translated services? What do you like or not like about them?
  • Do you agree with my explanation of why the second generation often does not like translated services? Do you have any insights to add?
  • What suggestions do you have for improving translated services, for when they are necessary?
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5 Responses to Why Translated Services Don’t Work

  • NKL says:

    1. Pretty much what you described. What I remember liking was being in the “real” worship service rather than being in “teen worship”. So, as you mentioned before, I survived years and years of translated services in my teen years. Mostly because I was hungry and had no other choice but to concentrate and ignore the Chinese.

    2. Here’s another twist: Where I’m from many of the teens are bi-lingual. Really–their parents hop them back and forth to HK or they summer school in China. And still they react as you mentioned in #3. That’s because the Chinese Bible (Union version) is like KJV–it’s not the same Chinese used in every day language. Nor is the translation of the hymns. So how long did it take for mainstream English churches to switch from KJV or American Standard to newer versions–I don’t think we have that long!

    3. Focus on worship. Use phonetics and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us into understanding. Urbana 2006 took this way and I got a taste of this at the IFES World assembly–singing in Spanish (which I don’t understand) I actually felt God inviting me to join with our brothers and sisters in the Spanish speaking parts of the world. I’m not a “slain in the Spirit” kind of guy, but I will not forget the experience. I never felt like this in any of my church’s annual bi-lingual (now tri-lingual) church joint services.

  • PK says:

    Thanks for contributing to the discussion in this series. Good point about the Chinese union version. I have met well educated but unchurched people from China who also have a difficult time reading it. There are some better modern translations, such as the New Chinese Bible. But I have never run into a Chinese church that used anything but the union version.

  • katy says:

    Excellent insights.

  • Allan says:

    I think this begs the question about how a multi-lingual church can function as one. It is often asked whether a multi-service church divided by language is actually one church, or rather two churches who share a building. Much of the worship, ministry, and fellowship, function separately from one another, and rightly so from a “people group” perspective.

    Our church (West Houston Chinese Church) still believes there is a need for the mixed congregation church (we are one). We’re always learning more (and struggling sometimes too) about how to be two (or three) congregations, but one church, but we strive for unity through service projects, the aforementioned Christian calendar events, and also with an integrated elder board and (at present) integrated council. Both the council and elder board are conducted in English. Oh, and lunch is shared by all congregations as well 🙂

    However, we do recognize that in the future the need for a mixed-language church like ours may pass, and try to prepare for this by developing leaders and empowering them to make key decisions about WHCC’s future. I personally, feel that there is more to be desired in terms of unity. I still feel a measure of distance from my native Chinese speaking brothers and sisters, but I accept that it’s where we are at and trust God will grow us and enable us according to how He desires us to accomplish his will.

    Specifically about translation, I see a potential need for it when a mixed church is just starting out, but I agree that it should be made a goal to have separate services. However, I think there is something to the idea of bearing with the needs of another in love in the area of translation. Could translated services be approached with joy and an attitude of serving the my brother or sister who is different from me, rather than “I’m not getting anything out of this”? Even so, I do firmly believe that the ground-level ministry (fellowship, education, etc.) is best done in one’s heart language.

  • PK says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. You make an important point in saying that translated services should be approached with a heart of love for one another for as long as they are necessary. But in the long run a separate English worship service will probably make outreach more effective.

    Unity is an important issue in a multi-congregational multi-lingual church. I addressed the issue of unity in another post in this series.

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