Humor and stories for interpreters: Religious interpreting

David Bar-Tzur

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(The image above is from Attention our prayer.)

Illuminated letter A frail 80-year old hard of hearing mother is celebrating her birthday and her three sons each give her a present. Harry gives her a new house. Harvey gives her a new car and driver. And Bernie gives her a huge parrot that can recite the entire Torah [the first Five Books of Moses].

A week later she calls her three sons together and says: 'Harry, thanks for the nice house, but I only live in one room. Harvey thanks for the nice car, but I can't stand the driver. Bernie, thanks for giving your mother something she could really enjoy. That chicken was delicious!!!

Illuminated letter Horrifying/Funny moments in interpreting

I have one from my earlier days (1988!) while interpreting for a large religious event. The deaf were in a separate overflow building -- along with a lot of other folks -- where the event was broadcast onto a LARGE movie-theatre-sized screen. The interpreters were backstage, where we were turned into a "bubble" in the corner of the screen, which is a lot better than sitting in the dark with some lamp on us.


There were several talks, and my person said something to the effect of "The path to discipleship is shaped through obedience." I guess I was in auto-pilot at that point because when I went home and saw my work on videotape, particularly with the volume turned down, I was horrified. Bear in mind the original sentence. Here's my translation:


Back translation: "The way to go is to obey statues/idols." The very thing you should hear in a church conference.

It's funny... now. :-)

- Dan Parvaz

Illuminated letter Some of these church service faux pas remind me one time of watching an interpreter who isn't familiar with some church's jargon. The preacher apparently said that he'd gotten a D. Min. in Dallas Theological Seminary.

The interpreter told us all that the preacher got "a demon in Dallas Theological Seminary."

In a SEMINARY, mind you!

- Chip Green

Illuminated letter One of my very first interpreting experiences, when I was just getting my feet wet, was in church as a college student. The preacher was announcing the exciting news that 7 people had been BAPTISED during the morning service. I signed, with an extremely happy face, that 7 people had DIED in the morning service (arghhhhh)!!! One sweet little Deaf man took me aside during the after-church fellowship and told me of my error. We both laughed! I knew the sign for BAPTISE, but my hands just signed something else without my brain knowing it. Guess I was just nervous and my brain wasn't in gear. And like the others have said, in retrospect it is funny!

My only excuse is I was a new interpreter and not a member of the faith. Ignorance is 9/10ths of the law, right?

- Cathy Metcalf

Illuminated letter I was interpreting a Catholic service and the term Passion Sunday came up. Well you can probably guess what I signed for Passion. I knew it was not right I had no idea what it meant. The deaf parishioners gave me no feedback; not even a smirk. My partner did not even say anything to me after church.

I mentioned what happened to ASL teacher/mentor and she got a good laugh out of it to say the least.

mea culpa mea culpa

- John Aintablian

Illuminated letter Israel - A dispute in Sign Language

Once there was a wicked priest who hated Jews. One day he summoned the chief rabbi and said to him, "I want to have a dispute with a Jew in the language of the signs. I give you thirty days to prepare yourself, and if nobody appears to take part in the dispute, I shall order that all the Jews be killed."

What was the rabbi to do? He brought the bad tidings to his people and ordered them to fast and to pray in the synagogue. A week went by, two weeks, three weeks passed, but there was no one with the courage to accept the priest's challenge and the great responsibility. It was already the fourth week, and still there was no one to represent the Jews in the dispute.

Then along came a poultry dealer who had been away, bringing chickens from the nearby villages into the town. He had not heard what was goingon there, but he noticed on his arrival that the market was closed, and at home he found his wife and children fasting, praying, and weeping.

"What is the matter?" asked the poultry dealer. His wife replied, "The wicked priest has ordered a Jew to hold a discussion with him in the language of signs. If there is no one who is able to do so, all of us will be killed."

"Is that all the matter?" wondered the poultry dealer in surprise. "Go to the rabbi, and tell him that I am ready to participate."

"What are you talking about? How can you understand the priest? Greater and wiser men than you have not been willing to take upon themselves this task!" cried his wife.

"Why should you worry? In any case we shall all be killed." And off they went together to the rabbi.

"Rabbi," said the man, "I am ready to meet the priest!"

The rabbi blessed him. "May God help you and bring you success."

So the priest was told that a Jew, sent by the rabbi, would hold a discussion with him in sign language.

"You have to understand my signs and to answer them in the same way," explained the priest to the Jew before a great assembly. Then he pointed his finger to him. In reply the Jew pointed two fingers. Then the priest took a piece of white cheese from his pocket. In reply the Jew took out an egg. Then the priest took the seeds of some grain and scattered them on the floor. In reply, the Jew set a hen free from the coop and let it eat up the seeds.

"Well done," exclaimed the priest in amazement. "You answered my questions correctly." And he gave the poultry dealer many gifts and ordered his servant to bathe him and to give him many fine garments to wear.

"Now I know that the Jews are wise men, if the most humble among them was able to understand me," admitted the priest.

The town was in great excitement, and the people waited in suspense for the results of the dispute. When they saw the poultry dealer leaving the priest's house in fine garments and with a happy expression on his face, they understood that everything was in order, blessed be the Almighty.

"How did it go? What did the priest ask you?" all the people wanted to know. The rabbi called the poultry dealer to his home and asked him to relate what had happened.

And this is what the poultry dealer related: "The priest pointed one finger to my eyes, meaning to take out my eye. I pointed with two fingers to imply, I would take out both his eyes. Then he took out a piece of cheese to show that I was hungry while he had cheese. So I took out an egg to show that I was not in need of his alms. Then he spilled some wheat grain on the floor. So I fed my hen, knowing it was hungry and thinking what a pity to waste the grain."

At the same time the priest's friends questioned him: "What did you ask the Jew? What did he reply?"

The priest related: "At first I pointed one finger, meaning that there is only one king. He pointed two fingers, meaning that there are two kings, the King in Heaven and the king on earth. Then I took out a piece of cheese, meaning, Is this cheese from a white or black goat? In answer he took out an egg, meaning, Is this egg from a white or a brown hen? Finally I scattered some grain on the floor, meaning that the Jews are spread all over the world. Whereupon he freed his hen which ate up all the grain, meaning that the Messiah will come and gather all the Jews from the four corners of the world."

- Jane Yolen

cartoon: Deaf congregants are roaring while the hearing congregants look serious.  One choir member says to the other, 'I Think the interpreter is ad-libbing again.'

Illuminated letter I lived in a small town and was often called to interpret for the few deaf people who attended my church and wished to be involved in the many extra-curricular activities the church set up. Many of these being Christian music concerts.  I was seen by another interpreter and contacted to assist/team with her and a third interpreter for a large church gathering/concert/sermon in another city. I accepted.  When I arrived at the appointed place and the appointed time, I was amazed at the turnout of deaf/Deaf people for a mostly musical situation. Twelve pews were full of deaf/Deaf in a church that easily held 3000 people, if not more. When we were not interpreting, we were to sit in a designated place (the 13th pew) and wait, watch, and throw signs if neccessary. This was a different setup than I was accustomed to, but, when in Rome...  Anyway, it was decided that one interpreter would do the announcements, offeringing and alter call. The second, would do the music. The third, would interpret the sermon.  The sermon was my lot.  

Two of us walked way back to the 13th pew and sat down to wait our turn. Everyone stood and began singing. The music was beautiful. There was a sea of hands in front of me, lifted in praise and worship, signing the songs as the congregation was singing them. It was a sight that was both overwhelming and inspiring. The other interpreter and myself joined in, signing the songs right along with the 12 pews full of deaf/Deaf people in front of us. We were not interpreting at the time so what was the harm in it? Mistake number one.  I had a ring on my dominant signing hand (something I never do). Mistake number two. An elderly deaf woman, standing in front of me, decided to sit down about the same time the word "God" was being sung. As I lifted my hand in the beautiful sweeping motion of the sign, my ring caught in her hair. Horrified, I jerked my hand (involuntarily) and her wig, yes wig, came flying off her head. It flew with wings of its' own and came to lite on the turning blades of the cieling fan several feet above us, where, of course, it became tangled in some screw and stuck.  The elderly deaf woman, her own hair twisted in hunreds of curls and bobby pinned in place, turned on me with a vengful expression that could never be called simple anger and was about to really tell me off when she saw my face.  I was so embarrassed, so red, so hot, you could have fried an egg on my face. Her expression softened and she sweetly signed, "If God can forgive me, then I can forgive you."  All I could do was sign, "I'm sorry!!!" again and again. When the song ended, it was my turn to interpret the sermon.  Shaking, I walked to my chair and sat down.  I think I interpreted the whole sermon with my eyes closed.  The preacher only touched on the abuse of his parishoner by the interpreter. Vaguely.  He did ask a deacon to get a ladder to retrieve the wig at the end of the service, to save it from its' torment of going round and round and round. I have never returned to that church, but I do now strictly follow appropriate interpreter dress, including above all else, the fact that I don't wear jewelry when I work.  

It's funny now, but at the time it was a horror. It's amazing what we can survive when we have to.  Hope this brings a smile. If you decide to use this on your web page, please use initials only. God bless,

- P. B.

Illuminated letter Hymn's are always a challenge for the religious interpreter. Here is a little humor to bring a smile to your face the next time you have this challenge.

The Dentist's Hymn:....................Crown Him with Many Crowns  

The Weatherman's Hymn.............There Shall Be Showers of Blessings  

The Contractor's Hymn:...............The Church's One Foundation  

The Tailor's Hymn:......................Holy, Holy, Holy  

The Golfer's Hymn:......................There's a Green Hill Far Away  

The Politician's Hymn:.................Standing on the Promises  

The Optometrist's Hymn:..............Open My Eyes That I Might See  

The IRS Agent's Hymn:................I Surrender All  

The Gossip's Hymn:.. ..................Pass It On  

The Electrician's Hymn:................Send The Light  

The Shopper's Hymn:...................Sweet By and By  

The Realtor's Hymn:.....................I've Got a Mansion, Just Over the Hilltop  

The Massage Therapists Hymn......He Touched Me  

The Doctor's Hymn:......................The Great Physician  

AND for those who speed on the highway - a few hymns:

-----45mph....................God Will Take Care of You

-----55mph....................Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

-----65mph....................Nearer My God To Thee

-----75mph....................Nearer Still Nearer

-----85mph....................This World Is Not My Home

-----95mph.....................Lord, I'm Coming Home

-----Over 100mph...........Precious Memories

Knut A.G. Hauge, "Deaf church". From Mille [Millenium].

Illuminated letter What then shall we say brother? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two -- or at most three -- should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.

- I COR 14:26-28 (NIV), selected by David Bar-Tzur

Illuminated letter This couple had a deaf son, were both very committed church members, and wanted to help me out (maybe it was me being 6 months pregnant and HUGE that caused them to want to help -- but I was very grateful). We got the hymn numbers from the music director a week in advance, they each chose one hymn to practice all week, called me several times on the phone to give oral directions on how to sign different words, and were finally ready on Sunday morning to sign in front of their son and few other deaf we had attending.

The wife was supposed to sign DEPRESSED, but it came out NAKED; the husband was supposed to sign FIGHT, but it looked a lot more like NECKING. I told both of them afterwards when they requested feedback. As you can imagine, they were both very worried that the deaf would think they only thought about S-E-X.

Illuminated letter A priest announced he had a very sad story to tell about losing his soul last year. He was embarrassed expressing this soul searching tale, right? It went on for about 15 minutes. He was working at a camp and met a really good tennis player and had a few games which developed into a competition, and he lost his soul. . . He lost his SOLE off his shoe. . .


How do you backtrack in a situation like that? 300 people laughing and the deaf person sitting there bewildered.

- Maureen Griffenham

Illuminated letter I'm presently an ITP student in VA. However, before I realized that I needed some "help", I started "interpreting" at our congregation. I'm Jewish and that is important to this story. About 3 years ago I offered to interpret at an Episcopal church near my home. I wasn't interpreting for any old service - oh no. I was interpreting for the Easter Vigil service. This service is rather complicated and is long as well. Since my background is Jewish, I had no idea what I was in for even though I had asked for a copy of the service. Due to unexpected traffic, I arrived late to find the church pitch-black. There was not one light on in the place. I'm thinking to myself, "How am I going to interpret without lights?" I finally found the Deaf couple and their kids and friends somewhere in the middle row. The Deaf man kept asking me about the lights and I told him I would find out. Well, I explained to the Deacon (I think that was his job, anyway) that the Deaf couple really needed to sit in front and we REALLY needed some lights - like right now. He moved the people and said to wait a minute, there would be lights soon.

Ugggh! You can imagine my panic as the priest began speaking before there were any lights. I spied a window with some light coming through and began interpreting by the light of the moon. I soon found out that the service starts out as a candle-lit service - moreover they chant the beginning of the service. As beautiful as it was, I would have given my eye-teeth for the Shema about then. [Editor's note: the central Jewish statement of faith.] As we were going through the service, one of the couple's kids began to get ill, and, you guessed it, tossed her tacos at my feet. Would this night ever end? We cleaned things up and the kids were baptized when suddenly the lights went out again. I didn't know what was happening; the Deaf couple didn't know what was happening - the Deacon did. Oh, he tells me, the priest is changing right now. I'm thinking "Changing? Who changes clothes in the middle of a service? Is this some kind of fashion contest?" Meanwhile, the Deaf couple were asking me about the lights. I thank Hashem [G-d] that there was a window close by with moonlight streaming in. I explained the situation to the best of my ability and told them the priest was changing clothes. This was the strangest service I had ever gone to in my life.

We went back to our seats. Finally the lights came on and we finished the service. As it turned out, right before Easter the altar is stripped bare and after the vigil, both the altar and the priest have matching vestments. (No, the priest does not come in bare like the alter.) Had I really understood the visual drama that the service portrays, I would have been able to make appropriate adjustments. I did not. It was an awful experience for the Deaf people and for moi, but we did survive the service. I came away with a sure knowledge that one should be very careful (and experienced) before one attempts to interpret outside of the religious realm that they know.

- Cheryl Zapien

Illuminated letter Big Daddy's Rap (The Lord's Prayer in Ebonics)

Yo, Big Daddy upstairs,
You be chillin
So be yo hood
You be sayin' it, I be doin' it
In this here hood and yo's
Gimme some eats
And cut me some slack, Blood
Sos I be doin' it to dem dat diss me
Don't be pushin' me no jive
And keep dem Crips away
'Cause you always be da Man

(Standard version) Our Father, who are in Heaven
Hallowed be Thy name
Thy Kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.

Illuminated letter My wife and I went to a bar mitzvah of a son of our Deaf friend. There was a Jewish interpreter. She is an RID certified terp. We almost died when she signed "Bar Mitzvah" in a different way. Instead of the well-known "Bar Mitzvah" sign. . . that is when you (I am no linguist or can't explain via words. . . maybe you can do it) use the "A" shape on both hands and one hand moving around the other hand and arm like putting on the tefillin, she simply fingerspelled "BM"!!!!

- Kenneth Rothschild

Illuminated letter Funny/embarrasing/confusing experiences with interpreters who were or were not Jewish? Actually the peron signing in this case WAS Jewish (but shall remain nameless -- and NO, it wasn't ME!). The person in question was solemnly explaining the ritual of the scapegoat which Aaron was to perform on Yom Kippur -- but instead of signing "goat", was signing "frog" (just flicking two fingers under the chin instead of the two-part sign for "goat"). Thus the story went, "God told Moses, 'Tell Aaron to take two male frogs from the community; one frog will be for a sin-offering; the other frog shall be kept alive, and Aaron shall confess the sins of the people Israel over the second frog, and send it into the wilderness.'" The "scapefrog" had the deaf rolling in the aisles -- non-signing congregants didn't get the joke (nor, unfortunately, did the person signing, who thought the sign was correct!).

- David, Joanne, and Jonah Kays.

Illuminated letter I live in the Baltimore/Washington area, and do a lot of Jewish interpreting. In Washington, there are a handful of interpreters comfortable with interpreting situations where Hebrew is used. In Baltimore, you can count us on one hand. This morning I was interpreting (platform) for a large public event where lunch was being served for a few hundred people. I was working with (and mentoring) an interpreting student. I am white and Jewish, she is African-American and J-hovah's Witness. I started the job, and after a few introductory speaker's, my co-interpreter/student noticed that the person preparing to make the invocation blessing was an African American police administrator. She thought it would be a good time to switch interpreters so she could interpret the blessing. I agreed and we switched.

The first words out of his mouth were "I'm a member of a synagogue(!) and I'd like to begin with the blessing that we say whenever we reach a special occasion. . . Baruch ata. . . (and he recited the Shehechiyanu prayer in Hebrew!!) My mouth and my co-interpreter's mouth both dropped open! Who would have expected that an African American policeman would get up and start speaking Hebrew! And with only two or three interpreters in town who felt comfortable interpreting from Hebrew - what are the chances that I was on the job but had JUST SAT DOWN when he started! I guess it just goes to show that you can never predict what will happen on any interpreting assignment!

- Sheryl Cooper

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