Two months ago, I began attending a Swahili-speaking church. I am growing in my understanding of the language but am not yet fluent enough to understand without aid, so a couple friends help me out. For context, the church is also a charismatic evangelical African church, unlike my previous evangelical white American churches. This means we actively believe in both the power of the Holy Spirit and the importance of God’s written word, and we like to dance.
Both translation and the extra energy found at a charismatic church can lead to a lot of laughter and smiles. This Sunday was no different. A cheerful friend translated for me, and we had to hold back laughter at multiple points throughout the three and a half hour long service.
Can you relate to any of these moments?
When your translator translates English into English.
At the start of the service, my friend kept forgetting to translate. I would catch her eye, and she would apologize and catch me up on what had just been spoken. At one point, the choirmaster was giving a testimony to praise God since he had recently turned 40. We both were listening to his Swahili when one of the mamas in the choir turned to us and said in English, “When he’s done, let’s all sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ One, two, three, ‘Happy Birthday.’” Those of us in choir agreed. My friend proceeded to translate the choirmaster’s Swahili testimony and then translated the mama’s already-English words to English.
“That was English,” I said. “She told us in English.”
“Oh,” she replied.
When your translator translates the Biblical Joshua to “Josh.” Repeatedly.
I grew up in the Church and have never heard the Biblical character’s name or his book translated this way. Apparently my friend had not either, for she caught mistake each time yet could not help repeating it. The pastor would say something like, “Na Musu alisema ku Yoshua,” and she would translate, “And Moses said to Josh.”
Technically, it’s accurate—it’s a nickname—but it cracked us up. I had to hold back both tears and laughter at several points throughout the sermon. Good ol’ Josh.
When a two year old steps into his mom’s livestream of the sermon.
Our church posts its services on YouTube each week, praise and worship and all (see here), but one of the pastors’ wives also livestreams it on Facebook, at least when her husband is preaching. She sat in the wooden pew in front of me this week.
Her young son stepped in front of her camera as if to say, “Hello Facebook world, I’m here and I’m cute and I know it.” (Sorry I don’t have a link for this one.) We knew it too, but that’s not why the viewers were online. I motioned him aside, but he shook his head at me in refusal.
After a few moments, the mama next to the pastor’s wife pulled him away. Ultimately, we and the viewers were there for God, not for the child, however cute he may be.
When the pastor is so animated that his mic falls off.
The Swahili-speaking pastors’ charisma always humors me compared to the French translator’s calm demeanor. All the preachers I have interacted with this summer are gentle in person but jump around and shout when up front. It’s their preaching style. It’s a charismatic church. But even when the preacher grabs his arm to demonstrate an action, the translator is best described as “chill.” He copies their motions but is more reserved.
This week, the pastor was so energetic that his clip-on microphone fell off in the middle of the message. He didn’t miss a beat, didn’t seem to notice, but continued preaching as the choirmaster jumped up to clip it back on for him.
When the pastors repeat the Scripture they ask others to read.
Often, in the beginning or middle of the service, the pastors will ask somebody to read a passage of Scripture in Swahili—or another language like Kirundi or Kinyarwanda, if needing clarification. When the person reads it in Swahili, the pastors will shout out the passage after them, line by line.
“And Jesus said—”
“AND JESUS SAID!”
“As I am holy.”
“AS I AM HOLY!”
(This is not a specific example, but I chose it because my church has a strong focus on holiness.)
I do not understand why this repetition is necessary since the person already read it, but it makes me smile.
I am grateful for my church and the countless ways my friends there have helped me and loved me. I am glad God is a God of humor, too; it makes life enjoyable.
Do you have any similar experiences to these five, either from translation error or from having an animated pastor? Comment below if so!