English-speaking delegates had the opportunity to experience what hundreds of non-English-speaking colleagues go through regularly when Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Central Conference presided over the afternoon plenary session in French on May 17 in French. Though not his native language, he chose to do so because French is one of the languages translated during General Conference.
That plenary session served as just one example of how the intricate system of translation helps make the business and worship services of The United Methodist Church’s General Conference available to be understood by all in attendance. And seven members of the Great Plains Conference played a role in providing those translation services, including Willy Banza, Abiba Shomari and Sergio Tristan.
The Rev. Kalaba Chali, Great Plains Mercy and Justice coordinator, was one of the organizers for translation services during General Conference. Chali speaks English, French and dialects of languages spoken in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Zambia, his native country. He also can read Portuguese.
For him, translation is a call to service for Christ.
“It allows people from different contexts and cultures and countries to participate and be part of the connection,” he said.
A veteran of two previous General Conferences, Chali worked with interpreters new to the task during the 2016 meetings in the often-technical Judicial Administration Committee. That group typically deals with petitions associated with legalistic topics within the Book of Discipline. It regularly has members who have secular careers as judges, prosecutors, lawyers and magistrates, Chali said.
But even seemingly less-complicated discussions can be challenging when translation is involved. Corey Godbey, Great Plains coordinator of Hispanic Ministry, provided translation the first week of General Conference in legislative committees. While he is comfortable translating English into Spanish and vice versa, he said the language of General Conference requires some extra study.
“You have to learn a whole new vocabulary associated with legislation,” Godbey said. For example, phrases such as “call the question” and “point of order” rarely come up outside of such settings.
The challenges are all worth it, he said, because of the people who benefit from the translation.
“For sure, most of my intent for being here is to see the global voices be heard and have an opportunity for full participation,” Godbey said. “Especially for me, the personal objective is to see Spanish-speaking delegates get the opportunity to be heard.”
He cited an example of two women in a meeting he was translating – one from Chile and one from Uruguay. One of the women chimed in on a discussion about nutrition programs for children when school is not in session.
“It was an amazing moment because this delegate from Chile shared her comments, which took a petition written in a United States context and brought a global context to it,” Godbey said. “She was able to share that this issue was important in her country as well. You could see the whole room was really engaged with what she was saying.”
Godbey explained that the international team of interpreters is comprised of professional interpreters and others involved in ministry across the United Methodist connection.
The Rev. Dr. Anne Gatobu, reserve delegate and pastor at Ashland United Methodist Church in Nebraska, first translated during the 2000 General Conference, when she was recruited to help people who speak Swahili. While most non-professional translators assist in the legislative committees, Gatobu also translates at times during the worship and plenary sessions.
“The challenge in the plenary session is you have to be a very fast thinker,” she said. “Say, for example, the bishop is preaching and he or she is preaching as they do, without consideration for translation.” The speed at which words must be translated is just one part of the equation. The other is matching tone. Gatobu explained that in the worship and plenary sessions, translators also are expected to interpret the feelings of the speaker.
“Sometimes you have someone speaking who is very, very angry and are using very mean words,” she said. “You have to decide what to do. Sometimes I just try to make sure I get their words right and not be angry.”
The legislative sessions include far fewer people, so interpreters have the opportunity to build relationships with translation partners and with the people whom they are serving. The plenary session doesn’t provide that luxury.
“In the plenary, you really don’t know whom you are translating for because it is so large,” she said. For example, Swahili has at least two dialects. One is spoken in parts of East Africa. Another spoken in Congo has more of a French influence because of the colonialism that dominated that part of Africa through the 20th century.
Anne Gatobu’s husband, the Rev. Harun Gatobu, is pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska, and a fellow translator. The 2016 General Conference was the third at which he has helped translate Swahili. He enjoys providing the service for delegates from Africa who don’t know English very well.
He said sometimes the translation requires extra effort.
“Sometimes, some of the English words, you have to use many words to describe one word,” Harun Gatobu said. “So, it could be one English word, and you have to use five words to translate it. By the time you finish, the speaker already has gone on to something else.”
Anne Gatobu said all of the work that goes into translating General Conference is worth it.
“I think it is the satisfaction of knowing that I am making a difference,” she said. “It is the satisfaction of knowing that I am helping delegates who may know some English but would benefit by having what is being said translated into their language.
“This may be a gift God has given me to share.”