Intercultural Communication among Friends

Group of volunteer interpreters at 2012 World Gathering of Friends at Kabarak University in Nakuru, Kenya. Photos courtesy of the author.

It was the spring of 1987. I had recently moved to the Philadelphia suburbs and had started attending Gwynedd (Pa.) Meeting. A Friend announced one Sunday at the close of worship that the meeting was going to host a refugee couple from El Salvador who were awaiting asylum in Canada; volunteers who spoke Spanish were needed. I am a professional translator and interpreter, so I offered my services. A few months later, another member of Gwynedd listened to me interpreting for the refugee couple in an adult First-day school presentation and told me afterward that Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC) was looking for volunteer interpreters. It was the beginning of 33 years (and counting) of service to the Religious Society of Friends as a facilitator of intercultural communication.

Most of that service has been as a volunteer, then as an employee, and now again as a volunteer with FWCC, mainly interpreting for Section of the Americas and worldwide events, but also translating and editing. For several years, I managed the production and distribution of the Wider Quaker Fellowship literature that FWCC mailed out to Friends and friends of Friends. I have been blessed to meet and serve Friends from a variety of countries, cultures, and Quaker traditions, and to work with so many Friends dedicated to that same service.

I grew up in a programmed Quaker meeting in Kansas, moved to California to study translation and interpretation for my master’s, and have lived in several states. I did not always attend the local Friends meeting or church—if there even was one—but Gwynedd Meeting has been my spiritual home for over 30 years now. FWCC has become a close second; my experiences of worshiping with so many diverse Friends have greatly enriched my spiritual life and reinforced my sense that Quaker worship is where I most often experience the love and presence of God.

Other Friends had already begun the work of intercultural communication. Early on, I worked with Jorge Hernández and Loida Fernández of Mexico, Kjeld (Renato) Lings of Denmark, Christine Snyder of Ohio, and D. Pablo Stanfield of Washington State. One issue we faced was the lack of equivalent terms in Spanish for Quaker terms used among unprogrammed, English-speaking Friends. Also, many Liberal Friends were unfamiliar with terminology used by Evangelical Friends, whether in English or Spanish. Most Spanish-speaking Friends worship in pastoral, programmed, and often evangelical worship services, while many “traditional” Quaker terms developed from English, unprogrammed Quaker history and practices. Direct translations of some terms did not always carry the same connotations.

For example, take something as basic as the term “Friend,” which English-speaking Friends use to address or refer to each other. Most Spanish speaking Friends call each other “Hermano/a” (brother or sister), which implies a closer relationship among themselves than “amigo/a” would describe.

Liberal Friends often are not as familiar with the Bible as Christocentric Friends are, and this also can cause confusion. While employed by FWCC, I once sent a Wider Quaker Fellowship pamphlet (in English), pre-publication, to a Liberal Friend to proofread. The Evangelical author wrote of “clouds of witnesses,” a phrase I had heard other Evangelicals use, and which I knew came from Hebrews 12:1. My proofreader questioned the term, wondering if it should be “crowds of witnesses.” That gave me a chuckle.

On another occasion, we were holding unprogrammed worship at an FWCC Section of the Americas annual meeting. A Central American Friend stood to minister and quoted a Bible verse. I was going to interpret, so whispered to him to ask him to tell me the citation. Four or five other Latin Americans quickly jumped in to tell me the book, chapter, and verse, without even consulting their Bibles!

In 1994, FWCC Section of the Americas sponsored a week-long consultation to create a “Quaker Glossary” (“Glosario Cuaquero”) document. Several Latin American and North American Friends met together to describe, not prescribe, the language Friends could use to communicate among ourselves. The Section has since asked its volunteer interpreters and translators to use this glossary for their documents and meetings as a way to standardize communication. This very useful tool is available online to download from the Section’s website.

African Friend interpreting into French in a simultaneous interpretation booth at the 2012 World Gathering of Friends at Kabarak University in Nakuru, Kenya.


I had heard that interpretation between English and Spanish at Friends gatherings had been a matter of Spanish speakers clustered in the back corners of the rooms, with volunteers whispering interpreted presentations to them. That began to change when Renato Lings and I spent a long weekend at Pendle Hill retreat center in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, interpreting for the International Planning Committee for the 1991 World Conference of Friends. One of the host countries was to be Honduras, but the two Honduran Friends on the committee were relegated to “audience” status while we interpreted to them simultaneously.

By lunch time on my first day, Renato, who had worked alone the day before, was exhausted. He suggested asking the group to let us switch to consecutive interpreting: less stressful for us and better for allowing the minority-language speakers to participate fully in the discussion. The group worried about running overtime but agreed to give it a try. The Hondurans, not wanting to “be a burden,” offered to try it for a half day, and go back to simultaneous if it did not work out. By that evening, we all decided it was working, and the Hondurans withdrew their offer. Consecutive interpreting did not double the time needed. Friends began to plan what they wanted to say, instead of just jumping in. By Sunday afternoon, we finished the meeting only half an hour behind schedule.

I believe it was because of that experience that the Section of the Americas decided to try using consecutive interpretation in their business sessions during the next annual meeting. They would continue to use simultaneous interpretation for formal presentations or lectures, when everyone would be listening. There was some resistance at first, but it has become the standard at Section meetings. At first we had doubts from English speakers: “Is it really necessary to interpret consecutively if only one or two Spanish speakers are present?” The answer was yes: If we agree that they are full participants in the organization, then we need to act as such. It is up to the participants from the dominant group to remain open and welcoming.

There was a brief phase of “playing Stump the Interpreter” at Section meetings. Some English-speaking Friends would speak rapidly or very colloquially, then look at us interpreters as if to say, “Let me hear you interpret that!” One Friend went so far as to announce the site for the next year’s meeting by singing a little jingle she had written, extolling the virtues of the upcoming venue. She did not warn the interpreters of this, just looked at us with a big grin when she finished. It was my turn, so I stepped up to the mic and matter-of-factly stated in Spanish something like, “The preceding has been a commercial for [the venue], which will be the site of next year’s annual meeting.” I stepped away to laughter and some applause.

When discussing whether to interpret in Section meetings for worship, we considered concerns such as interrupting the flow of ministry, inclusion, and other issues. Our decision to go ahead was in part guided by a comment from Jorge Hernández: “This idea of ‘understanding the Spirit without understanding the words’ is a lovely Gringo romanticism.”

As time passed, we began hearing comments like this from English speakers: “I love listening to the interpreters.” “Hearing the discussion in both languages helps improve my Spanish.” Time, familiarity, and generational change have all made the practice more commonplace for Section representatives. Latin American Friends also have evolved in their participation from simply listening to asking questions and offering opinions. The Section and FWCC World Office have also worked to consciously make room for and invite the full involvement of non-English speakers on committees and in positions of leadership in Friends World Committee and have made it a practice to provide interpretation and translation for committee meetings and documents as well as at larger gatherings.

2016 World Plenary of Friends in Peru.

The Section of the Americas is also working on recruiting younger Friends to facilitate communication in the future. A few Latin American representatives complained in the past that all the interpreters were North Americans. At the time, the only response was that there were few Latin American Friends who spoke both languages. That observation, whether perceived or real, is changing. Volunteers at recent Section meetings included young Friends from Mexico, Bolivia, Guatemala, and El Salvador as well as the United States.

FWCC Section of the Americas has worked hard to become a truly bilingual organization and has made a lot of progress over the decades. In addition to the interpretation at meetings, they provide documents in advance of the meetings to both English- and Spanish-speaking representatives. At the world level, Spanish and French documents and interpretation are provided for FWCC’s worldwide gatherings, and efforts have been made to provide Kiswahili interpretation when possible.

Lack of financial resources has limited efforts to become a truly multilingual organization. Quaker yearly or monthly meetings in other countries often send representatives to FWCC gatherings who speak at least some English or make sure someone from their membership is bilingual enough to help their other representatives follow what goes on. At the Triennial meeting in Ireland, the World Office contracted with a court stenographer to provide live transcriptions of all the meetings, which were projected on a screen in front of the room. This was done to make it easier for the representatives with limited English to follow the proceedings. Translators and interpreters for meetings have always been volunteers. Those who can, pay their own way. FWCC covers costs for those who cannot afford to do so.

There are also volunteers working to provide Quaker literature in Spanish. Susan Furry and Benigno Sánchez-Eppler of New England Yearly Meeting come to mind. Their yearly meeting’s connections with Cuba Yearly Meeting prompted their first efforts to translate Quaker writings. FWCC Section of the Americas has worked through the Wider Quaker Fellowship and now through Voices of Friends to add to the literature available in Spanish, both translated works and writings by Latin American Friends.

A quite different Quaker organization, Friends General Conference, took a step this year to extend the reach of their annual Gathering by providing simultaneous interpretation into Spanish of most of their evening plenary sessions, which were held via Zoom. They contacted FWCC for guidance, and found five Friends who volunteered to interpret; I was among them. It is worth noting that the volunteers worked from our homes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, and Bolivia.

Many North American Quakers are quite surprised to learn that the five countries with the largest number of Friends in the world are (in order) Kenya, the United States, Burundi, Bolivia, and the United Kingdom (maps and statistics are available at and Yet in many ways, English is still the dominant language of Quakerism. Eliminating language barriers among Quakers will require funding for the work of both written and spoken communication, of course. It will also require greater awareness in the dominant Quaker culture of the growth of the Religious Society of Friends in parts of the world where English does not predominate. And, more than just awareness, it will require willingness to learn about and accept all “those other Friends” as “our Friends” in the fullest sense.

Vicki Hain Poorman

Vicki Hain Poorman is a lifelong Friend and a nationally certified translator and interpreter. She lives near Philadelphia, Pa., with her husband and son. She works as a medical interpreter for Spanish-speaking patients at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and is a member of Gwynedd (Pa.) Meeting, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

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