It’s true, I did. Multiple times, in fact. And although modesty restrains me from elaborating on the difference in righteousness between those of us who are invited to speak in conference and the rest of you sinners, backsliders, and reprobates who are not, it would nonetheless behoove you to keep that difference in mind, should you ever want to disagree with or take exception to something I say. I hope none of you tries to steady the ark by over-analyzing, nit-picking, critiquing, or wresting my words by looking beyond the mark. We must keep the doctrine pure.
OK, OK, so I didn’t technically prepare a talk. I was an interpreter, and did live translation for the conference speakers. Here is how the process works. Several weeks before conference, talks from the general authorities start to come in to the office of the translators’ supervisor. He made the assignments as to who would translate for whom, so you always hoped that your speakers would get their talks in early. I would say maybe 25% of the speakers submit complete talks at least a week before conference, 25% submit a detailed outline, 25% submit only a rough outline, and the rest submit nothing at all. Some of the old-timers told me horror stories about being called upon to interpret for LeGrande Richards, who never spoke from a text. He spoke as the Spirit gave utterance, and a written text would only have slowed him down. When you get the complete talk beforehand, you can spend lots of time translating the text, but that process can give a false sense of security. Sometimes, speakers deviate from their prepared text, so you still need to be on your toes.
In the tabernacle, the space under the choir seats contained a large room where all the interpreters assembled. There had to be 30 or 40 languages represented, and each language had a booth with two chairs and two microphones. A toggle switch was installed in the booth which controlled which mic was live. There were always two people in the booth, so if one interpreter got stuck on a phrase or started to fall too far behind, the other one could simply flip the switch and jump right in.
The experience of interpreting the words of people we sustain as prophets has shaped the way I understand the gospel. I hadn’t realized how much the device of language can channel our thoughts, and how much our language shapes our culture. English is an especially rich and idiosyncratic language, and allows a speaker to do just about anything. For instance, consider the title of the movie that came out a few years ago, Dumb and Dumberer. You can get away with that in English, but not in other languages. Another example is the talk by Elder Bednar in a recent Ensign. He makes a point of emphasizing the verse from scripture which says that the Spirit carries a witness unto the hearts of men, but not into them. My German version of the scriptures doesn’t make the distinction nearly as neatly, so this talk presents a challenge to a translator.
Another challenge that is almost inevitable arrives when the speaker starts telling sports stories. Words like “fourth and long”, “bottom of the ninth inning”, and “three point shot” don’t translate at all, so the only thing an interpreter can do is slip into the third person and say “Elder X is now telling a story about the American sport of basketball. It was late in the game, and the opposing team had a large lead in points. . .” Stories about scouting and YW camp are hard to render in a way that is comprehensible, since most members outside of the North America don’t know about scouting or YW camp as official church programs. A few years ago at BYU Education week, the schedule gave notice of a parenting class entitled If You Don’t Want Your Kid to Act Like Bart Simpson, You Need to Quit Acting Like Homer. I have no idea how an interpreter would have approached that. Also, talks about the language of prayer are hard. In English we use the very formal form of address, and in most other languages, members use the familiar. What do you say if you are interpreting and the speaker singles out the familiar “du” or “tu” and reprimands his listeners for becoming too casual in the manner in which they address diety?
All in all, translating for conference is a great experience. Seeing the talks a few weeks ahead of time makes you feel like the ultimate insider. You don’t get paid, but you do get a ticket that entitles you to a free lunch in the COB cafeteria. And you can get lost in the tunnels that go from the tabernacle to the temple to the COB and now, presumably, to the conference center. The general authorities use small golf carts as a means of conveyance, with the older men being driven by someone and the younger ones driving themselves, and some of the younger ones have a lead foot. The horns on the carts make a sound that is exactly like the beep-beep noise that the Roadrunner makes before running over Wile E. Coyote, so when you hear that sound echoing off the tile walls of the tunnel, you better get out of the passing lane. I always got a thrill to think that the church members who had assembled at odd hours in their chapels on another continent were hearing the prophet’s words through my voice.
Note 1. Everything I have described here is as it was 20 years ago. Perhaps some of the details have changed now.
Note 2. This is probably the only thing you will ever read that combines commentary on conference with references to Dumb and Dumber, The Simpsons, and Roadrunner cartoons. Isn’t that what you come to BCC for? If not, be grateful for small blessings.