Translation and the WCC: A 70-year relationship

by Pamela Valdes last modified 02 October 2019 04:18 PM
Translation and the WCC: A 70-year relationship

Photo: Rhoda Mphande/WCC

01 October 2019

On occasion of International Translation Day, WCC Language Service coordinator Pamela Valdés* shares her thoughts on the topic.

For more than 70 years, the WCC Language Service has ensured WCC material is made available in a variety of languages. Today is International Translation Day. It is also more than 70 years since the WCC created its Language Service, tasked with the challenge of making the organization’s work available in a variety of languages.

While the field of translation continues to evolve amid a range of challenges in today’s digitalized world, the importance of translation remains clear for Christianity, and for the steadfast effort around the world to spread the Word.

Our translation work is crucial for the work of the WCC. The fellowship of the World Council of Churches has more than 350 member churches representing millions of Christians worldwide from very diverse cultural backgrounds. In the WCC we have four “working” languages: English, German, French and Spanish.

Although English has become the main global language of communication and policymaking, Christians all over the world still prefer to receive God’s call for unity and the churches’ appeal for social justice and peace in their native language, the language of their hearts, the language that resonates with them. I love the quote by Prof. Lamin Sanneh: “The original language of Christianity is translation”, because it clearly illustrates the importance of translation for an organization such as the WCC.

Reading through some documents dating back to the 1970s, when a WCC Language Policy Task Force was put in place, one can only be reassured that the language issue has always been a priority for the ecumenical movement.

There are records of translations provided back in 1948 at the council’s first Assembly in Amsterdam into English, French and German, which were most needed at that time. Spanish was added later, in 1981, as a working language for the organization. However, today, we translate into many other languages as well. Here, I am referring to translation alone, not interpretation. It is important to make that distinction.

Among the biggest challenges in translation today is keeping the quality and terminology consistent in a rapidly changing environment. Our translators used to rely on multiple dictionaries, encyclopaedias and glossaries to support their work, and the terminology databases were therefore kept on paper, (I can’t help but think of the ordeal Martin Luther must have gone through when he translated the Bible into German).

Over time, with the use of new technologies, translators have started relying more and more on electronic, online databases which are helpful in a way but can create inconsistencies, as many versions of the same terms are available online. Computer-assisted translation software is becoming increasingly accurate and many organizations are using these programs to cut back on costs, but at the risk of lowering quality.

I do not believe translation technologies will replace human translators. Translation is an art, and speaking two languages does not make a translator. It requires excellent writing skills, good knowledge of grammar, semantics and syntax, not to mention an excellent command of both the source and target languages. While software might get 90% of the meaning right, it cannot choose a gender-inclusive language, it does not have a sense of humour, it does not understand those fine cultural nuances. Most organizations will hopefully continue to value quality, especially for the type of content produced by the WCC.

I’d like to thank all the WCC’s translators for their tireless commitment to a profession that is sometimes under-appreciated but remains dearly needed.

pamelaPamela Valdés, is a professional Conference Interpreter and has been working in Geneva, Switzerland, as a freelance interpreter for several international organizations since 2007. She joined the WCC as the Language Service Coordinator in 2016. She is passionate about languages and learning from the complexities of both the translation and interpretation fields.


The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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