The challenges a church planter faced translating Center Church into French
Tim Keller is one of those spiritual giants on whose shoulders sit dwarves like myself. I still remember the first time I met him. I was participating in the Redeemer City to City International Intensive in New York City. He was wearing sneakers and drinking a can of Diet Coke — and he was taller than I expected!
A few months later, the phone rang — or, rather, an email arrived. It was from a French publisher, asking me to work on a big translation project. How exciting!
“The book is called Center Church by Tim Keller,” they said. “It needs to be done in six months and quality work is expected — no pressure!”
What should I do? I thought. On the one hand, I didn’t really feel up to the task. I’d translated books before, like A Fresh Start by John Chapman, but with all due respect to Chappo, Center Church is a heavy book and a hard nut to crack. On the other hand, I had participated in the International Intensive, so I wasn’t totally ignorant of Keller’s theology on the subject. (And little did I know that I was going to plant a church in a big city just a year later). So I said yes.
I soon realized that I had shot myself in the foot…
Now, don’t get me wrong — Center Church is a great book packed with practical wisdom for doing balanced and gospel-centered ministry in our cities. I love the way Keller starts with the centrality of the gospel, which should shape and drive our ministry. I also think that he hits the nail on the head when he advises to “preach to both Christians and non-Christians at once” (“evangelize as you edify, and edify as you evangelize”), when he gives practical tips on being a missional church, or when he insists on the importance of intentional, sound, balanced, and biblical contextualization. I even had the idea of creating a French book club in our church when I was reading his chapters on missional community! So please, don’t get me wrong — I’m very thankful for Center Church, which is basically the bible for church planters in our postmodern world. But at the same time, I struggled.
I’m very thankful for Center Church…but at the same time, I struggled.
In a nutshell, I struggled to translate Center Church into French. For instance, take phrases such as “hive off” or “spin off.” I mean, what do those even mean? In my hard copy of the book, I have question marks next to sentences such as, “The problem, however, is that each model tends to overlook the implications of the points on the storyline other than the one around which it finds its center of gravity.” I see what Keller means, but think of people like me who have to translate such conundrums into another language! I don’t know how many times I prayed that the Lord would sustain me physically and psychologically so I could do a proper job and finish it on time.
Every week, I needed the help of my wife, who is Australian, but also fluent in French. I took my computer with me to the hospital when our third child was due for monitoring — I knew that I would be able to ask her questions in the waiting room. I also picked the brains of my parents-in-law a few times before dinner: “Hey, would you know what ‘an individual act of human knowing’ means, by any chance?” The way they stared blankly at me made me think I was speaking a different language. Sometimes, out of sheer desperation, I would send Facebook messages to my brother-in-law for help: “Hi, Paul! Just wondering if you could help me understand ‘temperamental bias.’”
I also had to make some adjustments for the book to make sense for French-speaking people. For example, I used the French concept of laïcité (separation of the church and the state) to translate expressions such as “lay leaders.”
In March of 2018, three years after the book was published in French, I received this Facebook message from a friend:
“Jonathan, I just thought you’d like to know we have been distributing copies of your translation of Center Church in Central Africa this week. They love it!”
That was so good to hear. But despite that encouragement, I was determined not to translate any other books by Tim Keller ever again — it was way too hard. And then, guess what? Another email came. Another French publisher contacted me about a big translation project.
”Oh no, please…”
What had to happen finally happened. I ended up shooting myself in the foot again by agreeing to translate Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical. After all, who am I to say no to Tim Keller? And despite the difficult nature of the task, how can I refuse to serve French-speaking people by putting one of the best apologetic books I’ve ever read into their hands? Of course, there are always tricky bits to translate and adjustments to make. But hey, it’s for a good cause — a good news that the whole world needs to hear.
Jonathan was born and bred in Pau (southwest France). After graduating in English and bilingual journalism, he worked as a journalist in Paris, studied Theology in London and near Paris, and worked with students in Lyon.
Jonathan now lives in Melbourne and serves as the French pastor at Camberwell South Anglican Church with his wife Meg and their four children (Emma, Édouard, Hugo and Juila). They enjoy watching Disney movies together––in French, of course!