Monday, March 24, 2008

My Love Affair with Translation

It never was love at first sight. It was more like an arranged marriage.

I never was given much of a choice. Well, not that my parents forced me to become a pulpit translator, nor did my church. I don’t remember any coercion, but nor do I recall any voluntary enthusiasm. I just know that one statement stands true over the years: “Translation chose me, not I translation.”

I “debuted” as a pulpit translator just a few months after turning 15, but my training came far before that. You know how those young girls in countries with arranged marriages are taught since childhood that they would one day marry in a so-and-so way? It was the same way with me. It’s just that it wasn’t about marriage, but about translation.

At age six or seven, my parents commented often on how their talkative daughter had the potential to become a translator. They didn’t know that my young mind absorbed those comments, as well as their discussions on how to train me sooner or later. There was an expectation lingering in the air for my ministerial future, and nowhere was it stronger than within my own family.

When I was promoted at age 13 to adult worship service from junior worship, my mom advised me seriously. “Wen, listen and learn from the sermons,” she said, “One day, you can be, you will be a translator.”

So I did. I listened, I learned, I observed, and I distracted other translators by my constant inaudible lip movements during sermons. I practiced, I drilled, I jot down notes. Translation was calling me.

The years went by quickly, and I was 15. That December, translation called up for a first date.

A birthday party was scheduled by an acquaintance living nearby, and she hoped to insert some pre-evangelism into the program. It was a family gathering for them, so that there would be both young and old in the same party. My dad would be sharing a short message, and they needed a translator. My mom had another appointment at church that night. Oh…I see.

“Wen, could you translate for your dad tonight?” my mom asked as we all crowded the master bedroom (essentially the only living quarters in the house).

“Um…sure,” I heard myself answer. I was both scared and excited. Something I had only prepared for was actually becoming real. “If there’s a need, I’ll try.”

As my dad acquainted himself with the people that night at the gathering, I sat alone on the side, not eating a bite, pouring over the Bible verses my dad had given me. As if I wasn’t nervous enough, the secular program dragged on as the people drank beer and sang karaoke. I wanted to go home.

When my dad was finally handed the microphone, I took my Bible and stood up next to him. It was late already, and he didn’t even refer to the passage I had so painstakingly studied. It was a 20-minute sharing, but it was enough for me to let out a long hidden sigh of relief at its conclusion.

“How did it go?” my mom’s eyes shined with both curiosity and excitement that night at home.

“Schedule her once or twice a quarter at church,” was my dad’s mechanical reply. That was his way of affirmation.

I caught my breath. It was for real.

A month later, I translated through my first full-length 45-minute church sermon. There were only 60 people in the afternoon service congregation, but they were enough to make me conscious, and to pressure me to a good session.

Apparently, they were also enough to start what I did not know was the beginning of a pattern for years to come. The praises started pouring in.

I never thought myself to be a stellar translator. I never understood why I was considered to be better than others. I was fifteen years old, I was doing what I thought I should be doing, and somehow, people thought I was great.

Most people were simply encouraging me to strive for Him. Others were just honest about how helpful effective translation was to them. A few were flatterers, but it was obvious from their way of talking. From my perspective, however, the results they rendered were basically the same.

I never chose translating. Yet in a way, translating chose me. Over the years, many people have wondered or consulted me, “How do you do it?! And at such an age?”

I usually answer that it is all by the grace of God, which is absolutely true. Skill-wise and training-wise, however, I myself had no idea how I honed those skills. I never strived hard for translation. I just started translating. That’s it. Then somehow, people liked it.

I wasn’t in love with translation at all back then, nor did I even like it a lot. I was apathetic to it, to be honest. Yet somehow, as I translated regularly, as I translated for more people, as I translated for other churches, as I experimented with other languages, the affirmation continued. To my childish and vain mind, that was what made me happy.

It was like wanting a certain boyfriend/girlfriend merely because of the popularity boost that accompanies him or her.

That was what I felt about translation.

As the months went by, however, some things changed. I was realizing that translation did not only give me self-satisfaction or popularity. It demanded sacrifice.

Regular translation meant taking care of my voice full-time, sometimes to the denial of many favourite foods or practices (i.e. talking endlessly). Translation duties required me to travel around with my dad, even if I missed my friends at our church. And once people’s fascination over my “translating prodigy” status began to get old, my pride began to miss the adulation.

If it had been an arranged marriage, then I had gotten over the honeymoon.

For a time span of almost a year, I wallowed in my disillusionment. What was it about translating that I did like anyway? I had lost my passion for translation. Or perhaps it had never been there?

Those months were long for me as I went on from one translation assignment to another, without finding joy in the process of it all. The people were still relatively affirming of my skills, but I wasn’t enjoying the skills at all. My translation skills…those skills that had come so effortlessly to me, were becoming burdens to my selfish teenage heart.

For a while, like a rebel against tradition, I wanted to escape that relationship. I wanted to opt out of translation, because it (or rather, the attention that accompanied it) was no longer satisfying me.

I, along with a few faithful prayer partners, prayed earnestly to God in abundance that year. I did not see the source of my problem. My subjective perspective told me that perhaps translation wasn’t a calling from God. If it were, I would find joy in it, right? It took a while for me to realize otherwise.

Looking back at my own selfishness and childishness, I could only wonder at the grace God showed to me. Instead of taking away the chance for service from an ungrateful girl, He held the hand of His daughter and showed her a far more beautiful picture.

Once I directed my vision to what God wanted me to see, I saw differently.

I saw friends who could not understand English come to our church and react with joy upon every statement that helped them understand the sermon. I saw the beauty of a ministry that could lead people to a clearer understanding of the most important part of every worship service—the preaching of the Word. As the church became more choosy over translators when we merged the two existing services, I realized that I had an edge over others translators even more experienced than I was. I never did anything to gain those skills, but those skills grew on me. They came to me. Translation came to me without my asking. In other words, it was a gift.

Hey, right. It was a gift. It was a special skill given to me as raw talent, then trained in me subconsciously by my surroundings and upbringing. Perhaps it wasn’t a biblical spiritual gift, but it was a present, a present from God.

God gave me that chance to experience the joy of explaining His teachings to those who could not understand. God gave me the skills which became my stepping board to witnessing numerous other ministries and churches at work. God gave me the talent to share His word alongside different speakers, and gain may priceless friends in the different congregations as I do.

Sure, that present came with its responsibilities. Improving my skills require discipline in reading the Chinese Bible, discipline in voice care, the skill of stage confidence, critiquing my own voice recordings, and struggles with pride as I stand in the pulpit spotlight. Every gift, every possession requires stewardship and effort to maintain. Sessions teaming with excellence are often followed by translation flops that spell public embarrassment. The above were just some prices to pay for the joy of reaching people, and the realization of God’s hand in my life and skills.

When I realized where those skills from nowhere had originated, I found my source.

When I realized what those skills could achieve, I found my goal.

I fell in love with translation, and I am still. There are days when we don’t get along; there are days when we are in perfect harmony. Yet still, I love it. I love it not because I enjoy the task. I love it not because it forms my identity. I love it not because it makes me popular, though the temptation may often be very real still. I love it most because it is a gift from the Lord, a result of grace I could never have imagined.

It is something I do not deserve. It is a present that came with many other packages of joy, and it was from the Lord.

Translation chose me, not I translation. Of course it did, because I never would have been wise enough on my own to choose it. Of course it had to choose me first, because it was something I did not deserve. Translation chose me…no wait, God chose me. He just acted through translation. It was and is His grace all along.

I love translation…because I love my Lord—my Giver, my Source, my Goal.