By Stan Friedman
KARAWA, DR CONGO (August 28, 2012) – “Eight hours, three minutes!” declared Pete Ekstrand. “That beats my record of seven hours and 10 minutes!”
Ekstrand, an Evangelical Covenant Church missionary, has run marathons, but this time he was talking about another kind of endurance test. He had persevered in translating the final worship service at the 75th anniversary of Covenant ministry in Congo.
Covenant missionaries all spent hour after hour translating portions of the services and lectures from Lingala into English for the North American contingent at the gathering held August 12-15, but Ekstrand and Keith Gustafson would share Iron Man awards if they were presented.
They each translated morning, day, and night. That included the worship services plus other business meetings that involved the North American and African Covenant leaders.
Despite the long days and nights, Gustafson said he never counts how many hours he has translated during a specific stretch. “I don’t even think about it.”
The translators kept pace with each of the speakers, rarely having to pause to consider how to bridge Lingala and English. “I don’t know how I do it. It just goes in and comes out,” said Gustafson. “Once I recall the first word, then the rest starts coming.”
But he would be hard-pressed to tell you what the entire sermon was about. Each translator focuses on the individual words, sentences, and paragraphs.
Then there are the speakers who forget another person needs to translate their words. “Sometimes you have to let them finish this long piece and you have to go back and get the gist,” said Ekstrand.
“It’s exhausting because you’re really paying attention,” he added. “It’s a lot of work mentally.”
Occasionally the mind fools the tongue. “There are times I’ve translated and thought I was speaking English,” Ekstrand said. “I’ll speak in Lingala and think I’m speaking in English. You don’t realize it until the other person is giving you this quizzical look.”
Translating presents other struggles. “Adding my own thoughts and commentary is a real trap,” said Ekstrand. “It’s a big challenge.”
Translating also can present its humorous moments. Gustafson recalled translating from English into Lingala for David Williams, a short-term missionary. Some of the Congolese had never seen a black missionary, and Williams wanted to emphasize that he was in solidarity with them.
Williams pointed to his arm and declared, “I want you all to know that I am not white.” Gustafson pointed to his own arm and translated, “I want you to know that I am not white.”
Williams again pointed to his arm and exhorted the gathering, “Look at my skin! I am black!” Gustafson also pointed to himself and continued, “Look at my skin! I am black!”
The translators also try to speak with emotion similar to that of the speaker, but they don’t attempt to mimic. President Gary Walter has quipped to Gustafson, “I should have you around all the time. You make me more interesting.”