Translators bridge international gaps at Methodist conference

It’s been a busy few days for the United Methodist Church — days that wouldn’t be possible without the help of some dogged and dedicated translators. 

The Protestant Christian denomination just wrapped its United Methodist General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, which took place between April 23-May 3. And like any organization with an international footprint, logistics proved the central challenge. The General Conference brings in more than 1,000 Methodist Church representatives, a group encompassing many tongues, traditions, priorities, and opinions. 

“They speak 10 languages, have various dietary needs, require multiple hotel rooms and must be able to come together to pray, worship and make decisions that affect millions of United Methodists,” wrote Heather Hahn, assistant news editor for UMNews, last year during a 2023 conference planning session. “Hundreds of these visitors also need visas just to attend.”

And for the 2024 United Methodist General Conference, clear and precise communication was more important than ever with a host of hot-button issues on the table. The headline decision concerned bans on gay clergy and same-sex marriage established in 1984, which United Methodist delegates voted to end on Wednesday. Also on the table were the procedures for conservative US churches dissatisfied with United Methodist doctrine to disaffiliate with control over their property — typically held in trust for the entire denomination. Delegates voted to end disaffiliation, which was implemented in 2019, and introduced a procedure for reaffiliation.  

Keeping these detailed and sometimes emotional, impassioned debates on the rails were the convention’s translators and interpreters — 180 of them during its first week. The small linguistic army mobilized to support 760 United Methodist delegates, translating written and spoken material across a host of languages.

“There are 14 legislative committees and up to five languages per committee,” Donald Reasoner, coordination of translations at United Methodist Church General Conference, told UM News. “We cater for the spoken languages — English, French, Portuguese, Kiswahili, Korean, German, Russian, Tagalog, Spanish and American Sign Language.” 

A particularly dedicated linguistic team, the translators and interpreters oftentimes burned the midnight oil — literally practicing their craft until 12 a.m. or later. 

“If we receive the material late, we also work late, so the delegates have their complete material in the morning,” Rev. Naftal O.M. Naftal, a Missouri pastor who translates into Portuguese, told UM News. 

Like Naftal, many of the translators and interpreters were multilingual amateurs who viewed linguistic services as another form of ministry. After all, the central mission of Christianity is to preach the gospel to all nations. And language-related metaphors and stories infuse the essence of the religion, from Jesus being described as “the Word” to the Holy Spirit overcoming language barriers at Pentecost. With all that in mind, many Methodists with linguistic skills were all too happy to offer up their talents for the fundamental need to understand and be understood. 

“I consider translation as a ministry because our God is a God of many languages,” conference participant John Wesley Shungu Umatuku told UM News. “This diversity in The UMC is somehow similar to the experience felt on the day of Pentecost. I am grateful to the church for organizing such an opportunity to allow us to serve God according to the gifts that we have. Everyone has a place to serve.”

Cameron Rasmusson
Cameron Rasmusson is a writer and journalist. His first job out of the University of Montana School of Journalism took him to Sandpoint, Idaho as a staff writer for the Bonner County Daily Bee. Since 2010, he's honed his skills as a writer and reporter, joining the MultiLingual staff in 2021.


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