Rethinking Consultancy: A Conversation with Bryan Harmelink

Bryan Harmelink

Bryan Harmelink is Director for Collaboration for the Wycliffe Global Alliance. We spoke with him about changes in practice and mindset in Bible translation consultancy.


You have been part of a multi-organisational approach to rethinking Bible translation consultancy. What prompted that?

We are working in multiple contexts that call us to reconsider some of how we have perceived the need for and the actual process of consulting, and the kind of input that a consultant should give.

What are some of the benefits of this rethink?

Many consultants in training have great experience. Some were the primary translator for a complete New Testament or even more, in the language they speak. The process of getting them approved as consultants has been very slow because many of the criteria have been based on academic training. Whereas if a shift is made more to competencies—What can this person demonstrate that they can do?—then I think that will be a great help in recognizing the vast experience that some people have in translation that they can bring to the consulting process.

Would it be fair to say that, in the past, consultancy has been a one-size-fits-all approach? Or is that oversimplifying things?

As soon as we would say that, people would push back with counterexamples. But having said that, it has been a fairly one-size-fits-all training and preparation, and then assuming that the consultant will know how to adapt to the local situation and be able to work appropriately. We have a tradition of believing that a certain style of translation—many people refer to it as meaning-based translation—is the best translation for everybody. Well, is it? If you end up in a community or a region where there are a lot of primary church influences from a fairly liturgical, traditional church denomination, I think that’s where consultants need to be aware that, OK, personally the consultant may have this ideal of meaning-based translation as preferred, but they negotiate it because the best translation is the one that will be used by people.

This has been in discussion for a long time, but I don’t think it has been what we call normal practice for consultants, as part of their training, to be trained to evaluate the benefits of different styles of translations for different church contacts. ... I think I’ve heard consultants say things like, “Well, we had to give up on what we know is the best style of translation, because we discovered that the church would just not accept it.” So there is this sense of, this is the best kind of translation, and after attempts to convince others that they should accept that kind of translation, the consultant begrudgingly gives in. There should be an upfront awareness that there are different theological and ecclesiastical views of Scripture and, as I said, the best translation is the one that’s going to be used.

I’m hearing you say that it’s moving from a parental mindset to more of a partnership mindset. Is that accurate?

In a sense, it’s a view of a consultant more as the person who comes alongside. Not in every situation is this possible, but there is an increase in these situations where translations are being done as primarily a local initiative. Some organizations have wanted to have more local initiatives but haven’t felt that they were really given the freedom to, because they are so used to this model of external decision making, external guidance, external consultancy. 

How does a consultant work more as a coach or advisor, one who is a conversation partner? 

I can imagine a room full of denominational leaders, and they have asked for someone to come and help them think through what considerations need to be made with the translation projects that they want to begin. So someone would say something more like, “You say you want to do it this way? Have you considered these other possibilities?” In a sense, more of a coaching, advising capacity. Because I think we are in an era of the global church where this kind of collaborative conversation and coming alongside is an appropriate role. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be training consultants so that there still are consultants who can function in the standard way for many projects that still need that type of support or input. But I think even when they are, it’s a shift in the mindset. The goal of consultancy would be the increasing of local capacity, even if it seems minimal, to do various parts of the process. 

I’m not saying that all of a sudden the consultant says to their team that’s used to one way of interacting, “Oh, from today on, you’re going to be doing this instead of me.” But it’s a consultant who gradually works through the process of training and capacity-building to assist a translation team—in a sense, rather than providing the exegetical input they need for certain problems they are facing, helping them discover ways that they can find solutions for the kinds of issues that they encounter in translation.

I would imagine this would be a challenge for people who have been in consulting for a long time, because suddenly you are talking about a very different skill set. Are you seeing this as a struggle? I don’t mean that in a negative way, but the reality is, this is different for people.

The ongoing, multi-agency discussion was led by SIL for what they refer to as a competency-based certification approach for all kinds of consultants. ... One of the parts of that discussion is the recognition that the soft skills are of primary importance. Yes, for a translation consultant there is the expertise in biblical languages and cultures, and certain exegetical things—the list of things that would be assumed to be part of translation consulting. But there’s been an increased awareness that there needs to be a focus on competency development in these other kinds of communication and interpersonal and coaching skills, because many times they are the lubricant that helps the wheels keep turning. You can have great academic expertise, but if the interpersonal skills are missing, you’re going to have a much harder go at any kind of successful outcome in the consultancy relationship.

Am I understanding correctly, then, that it is a two-pronged approach where we are doing some retraining of current consultants, including Western consultants, but organisations are also looking to identify and appoint local people for some of these roles? 

Yes. I don’t know if others are talking this way, but one of the things I have said several times is that instead of talking so much about the consultant as this expert person, we need to be looking at the process of consultancy. Breaking that down into the various parts of this consultancy process that strengthen the translation that is taking place. I think when you tease it apart that way, you begin to see that there really could be parts of this consultancy process that others could be involved in and others could provide. 

I know in India and a couple of other places there have been some experimental approaches ... In one place, there were several people named by the church association in India for roles in translation quality assessment. And there were two or three consultants who worked with them. So the experienced, highly-trained consultants weren’t the actual consultants working directly with the teams, but providing assistance or guidance to build the capacity of people named by the local churches to be the ones to actually carry out the process of consultancy. And in a sense, this is multiplying the work of the highly trained consultant through people in the local churches who are fully qualified to do that, but perhaps didn’t have the title of consultant or the full training as a consultant. They are fully capable of carrying out some of the consultancy processes.

That must be exciting for you and others who have been trying to solve this bottleneck for a while.

Hopefully, these kinds of situations will increase. It is a shift in mindset. … I think there is a definite need for at least reminding consultants that it really is the interpersonal relationships, these soft skills. I remember when I did my first experiences as a consultant within a workshop in Peru, quite a few years ago now, it was so drilled into us that the foundation of consulting is trust. It’s not your skill, it’s building that relationship of trust. So these ideas have been around for a long time. But I think it’s been easy, given the tendencies to want to accelerate, to want to provide more measurable kinds of progress in the consulting process, for sometimes the tasks and the numbers of verses checked per day or per week to kind of take over the approach. And so, this provides some reminders that no, no one wants translation to stop, but perhaps chatting with the team for 15 minutes about their families or their animals or their crops, or whatever the situation is, that’s part of the relationship.

With a move to more virtual meetings during the pandemic, that must be a particular challenge.

Zoom kind of enforces a get-to-the-point-quickly approach. It’s a good reminder to resist that. To resist the thought of, “I have an hour, so I need to use every minute for the work.” And I know consultants are resisting this. They are using the technology well. But I think there is a tendency. The side conversations are harder to have.

My last question is, what has God been teaching you through this process of rethinking consultancy?

It has been a good reminder for me that these interpersonal skills are right at the top of the list. Being able to talk appropriately to people who are perhaps what I perceive to be very traditional in their approach. For good reasons, they are very concerned about the quality of translation. It’s always a negotiation to help them realize that I’m also concerned about quality, but the sense of quality is much broader than perhaps some of the criteria that have traditionally been used. So being able to interact in respectful ways with people with different opinions. I think that’s been a good journey for me.


Interview: Jim Killam, Wycliffe Global Alliance

Related story: Read more about the global move toward competency based consultancy.

Alliance organisations may download the images from this story.


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