For the past two weeks, we had a short-term team with us from America and I have had both the pleasure of working with them, and also the responsibility of translating for them most of the time. Though my Thai ability is not superb, it is usually sufficient to get the job done. However, I know that pronunciation is not my strong suit and part way through this past Sunday’s sermon, I was hoping against hope that I was getting a certain word right. I wasn’t.
As my friend Luke preached in English, I did the best that I could to translate what he said into Thai. All was well until he took us to Zechariah 10:3, “My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders; for the LORD Almighty will care for his flock, the house of Judah, and make them proud like a horse in battle.” From that point on in the sermon, Luke used the word “warhorse” quite frequently.
Thai is a tonal language and there are many words that sound identical except for the tone. “Maa” with a high tone is “horse” and “Maa” with a rising tone is “dog”. I tried to be careful to get the high tone right every time the word “warhorse” came up, as in “You were lost sheep but God has made you into warhorses”. I hoped that I was succeeding but after the sermon was all done, a lady told me that I was often saying something in between the two words. But all was okay, said she, because after the third or fourth time that I said “wardogs”, she figured out what I was trying to say. My wife later told me that during the sermon, an exasperated lady shouted out “horse” from the back of the room, in a desperate attempt to correct me. Fortunately I didn’t notice.
I really wanted to get this one right because poor pronunciation can be disruptive the flow of the sermon and forces listeners to work harder than they need to in order to hear God’s Word. Although I am disappointed that I got the word wrong despite consciously trying to get it right, I am glad that God can use imperfect vessels to do his work. I am also glad that both my friend Luke and the congregation were gracious and patient with my imperfect language.
This incident and those like it serve to remind me that I will never have native Thai pronunciation or range of idiom and expression. In terms of language ability, I will never preach (or translate) a sermon as good as a Thai person. Every time I do something like tell the congregation that they are wardogs, I am reminded that as a missionary I am a temporary place holder, and not a permanent fixture, in the Thai church.
Native Thai preachers with a solid grasp of Scripture, and deep love for Christ and his church are desperately needed. There are some already, but not nearly enough. “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38 ESV) Thailand could use a lot more missionaries but even more so, Thailand needs Thai labors for the Thai harvest field.