LOUISVILLE – If translating Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) documents into languages other than English is a priority, how should the denomination pay for it?
A ministerial team of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board has been sorting through the responses from the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) to more than 90 referrals that the 2016 General Assembly sent to the agency for action.
On Sept. 22, the board approved responses to those referrals, and much of that is business-as-usual for the denomination.
But one issue has gained attention with the Way Forward Commission: How adequate are the resources the PC(USA) provides for translating documents into languages other than English – primarily Spanish and Korean?
The Way Forward Commission, meeting Sept. 18 in Louisville, voted to initiate a conversation across all six PC(USA) agencies revolving around issues of communication – including the matter of translation services.
“There is currently no staff” to do all that translation, commission vice moderator Eliana Maxim, a mid council executive from Seattle, said during that meeting. While the General Assembly has determined that translation should be done for “essential documents,” the assembly hasn’t defined what that means.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of translation services,” Maxim said. “That’s access to power,” and a barrier to people who want to serve in leadership and advocacy.
The need for funding for translators rose Sept. 22 at the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting as well. That came in response to the PMA’s proposed response to a General Assembly referral regarding the Churchwide Conversation on Race, Ethnicity, Racism and Ethnocentricity Report. In that referral, the assembly urged:
“Translation of written, oral, and live communications including, but not limited to, Presbyterian News Service articles, Presbyterians Today, newsletter, and resources in order to connect and encourage engagement at all levels of the denomination. Broaden translations from English, Korean, and Spanish to include other languages (included, but not limited to, Cantonese, Mandarin, Arabic, French, Portuguese and Twi) used by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”
But the assembly also added a comment “requesting that the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board explore how translations can be produced utilizing volunteers from around the church.”
The PMA’s proposed response to that referral states this, in part:
“Since 2013, the Presbyterian Mission Agency has had two translators on staff (one Spanish-language, one Korean-language) whose jobs are to manually translate ‘essential documents,’ principally for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly. Congregational Ministries Publishing (part of the Presbyterian Mission Agency) also has Spanish- and Korean-language translators on their staff who work exclusively on curriculum.
“From time to time, requests come in to the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Communications for translations of specific documents or resources into languages other than Spanish or Korean. In some cases, native or fluent speakers who do other ministry work on staff, or volunteers, handle the translation work (such as translating Presbyterians Today’s Advent and Lenten devotionals into Taiwanese, Chinese and other east Asian languages, or translating grant application request forms and agreements into French). In other cases, we have helped individual offices and ministries to contract with professional translators for specific assignments.
“We recognize and concur that there is no substitute for human translation to capture the nuances of language, especially given the important and unique terminology specific to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the cultural subtleties of the many constituencies that we serve. In 2014, the Presbyterian Mission Agency responded to Referral Item 16-07, Recommendation 5, from the 2012 General Assembly. At that time, we answered that we lacked sufficient financial resources to translate all communications into numerous languages. The cost implications of that referral amounted to approximately $1.3 million per year for translations into just four languages: Spanish, Korean, French and Portuguese. This was predicated on hiring, in addition to the one Korean and one Spanish translators already on staff, 15 additional full-time translation staff: 3 Spanish, 3 Korean, 4 French, 4 Portuguese, a project manager and one freelancer.
“These financial constraints have not changed.”
The response also states that PMA’s Office of Communications has discussed the need for translators with the Spanish and Korean Presbyterian caucuses and the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns about the idea of using a network of volunteers for translation.
“The consensus from these groups is that it would not be advisable to use volunteers to do translations,” the response states. “They reason that even though volunteers would be well-meaning and probably enthusiastic, it is more important to have culturally-sensitive translations that accurately convey the underlying meaning of the source text. In addition, they feel that language inclusiveness is important and therefore the church should make good, professional translation a priority.”
Hiring professional translation services is expensive.
“The Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Office of Communications is committed to actively exploring and testing, as financially feasible within existing budgets, alternate means of bringing quality translations to the church, but we submit moving to a volunteer model is not a good solution,” the response states. “There is still a need for translation services in the church.”
The Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns (ACREC) submitted an “advice and counsel” memorandum (I.207 Advice and Council on I201 from ACREC), encouraging PMA and other agencies to hire professional translators, “preferably Presbyterian or from sister denominations, who understand the different cultural and linguistic contexts of the many ‘’Global South’’ constituencies” in the PC(USA), and who preferably have theological training.
The General Assembly Committee on Representation, in another “advice and counsel” memo (H.208 Advice and Counsel on Item H.001 ACREC), raised a number of issues for the board to consider regarding translation.
- The question of who determines what documents are considered essential for translation is an issue of power.
- “A network of volunteers maintains labor on behalf of the denomination without compensation for services. When these skills are expected to be provided for free, in a culture that puts meaning in markets, the translators’ labor and work products are not valued.”
- When a PC(USA) employee is expected to provide translation services, “it should be reflected in the position description and compensated accordingly.”
- The denomination needs a comprehensive study of what languages exist in the PC(USA), their prevalence and importance to their communities.