General Conference talks go through at least three translators for foreign languages

Written by: 
Alex Maldonado

In the weeks approaching General Conference, the LDS Church relies on the quick, thorough translation skills of a select few members from around the world. Blake Fisher, an alumnus from Conference, has helped translate every general conference since April 2014 into his mission language Chuukese from the Micronesian state of Chuuk.

Fisher said, “We start receiving conference talks about three weeks before conference–we receive them as the general authorities finish them. Once we have the talks, we have 48 hours to finish translating them before sending them back to Salt Lake.”

According to Fisher, the work of translation is a three-person job. The first person receives the talk directly from church headquarters and translates it from beginning to end. The second person then has 24 hours to do what is called “content review,” which is where they make sure the translation is harmonious with the English version, and fixes any grammatical or punctuation errors.

The final translator, known as the “language reviewer,” is sent the revised piece and is supposed to read it without any reference to the original English version, Fisher explained. It is the language reviewer’s job to spend no more than 24 hours making sure the translation flows, sounds right, and makes sense. The final product is then resubmitted to church headquarters, where it will be used and read live by an interpreter during general conference.

Fisher added, “Everybody does all the different jobs; for some talks I’m the translator, some talks I’m the content reviewer.”

Part of the translating job also includes translating church publications like the Ensign, manuals, and other broadcasts, said Fisher. “When I’m translating things for publication, I get to say things however I feel is best, as long as it gets the message across.

“However, when you’re translating for conference, because there’s going to be someone reading it live, [the church] wants you to make sure there are the same number of lines in Chuukese as there are in English. You have to adjust the way you’re saying things to say it in a more concise manner; it takes a whole lot longer time to translate something for conference than it does for general publication.”

One of the most frustrating parts about translation Fisher described is when speakers make points using rules within the English language. He said, “One thing that drives me nuts is when a general authority will say something like, ‘The four R’s of missionary work.’ I’m just like, ‘Those aren’t R’s in my language!’ Sometimes every word they use begins with a different letter.

“Sometimes they break down the roots of the English word to say what it means, but I can’t break down my Chuukese words the same way. Sometimes I can say, ‘This word means this [in English], and when you break down the English word it means this,’ but then I’m adding so much more length to [the talk].”

Another struggle translators face is when a volume of scripture is being quoted that hasn’t been translated into their language. Fisher said neither the Doctrine and Covenants nor the Pearl of Great Price have been translated into Chuukese, and the Book of Mormon translation was only completed [in 2015]. Up until its completion, Fisher said the people of Chuuk only had a few excerpts from the Book of Mormon to read along to as well as an unofficial yet widely accepted Catholic translation of the Bible.

Fisher said, “Whenever we come across a verse we didn’t have translated, we would have to change the way we said things. If we were quoting the Doctrine and Covenants, instead of, ‘I the Lord say this,’ we would say, ‘In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord tells us that we must do this, and he says this.’ We simplify the language a little bit and paraphrase because we cannot say, ‘This is what the Lord says,’ because it has not been approved that ‘this’ is what the Lord says. There’s not a canonical way of saying what the lord says in that language yet.”

Another position a translator might fill is “interpreter.” The interpreter is the person who reads the talks during conference and translates on the fly if the speaker varies from their notes. Fisher said some of the hardest speakers to keep up with were Elder Packer and Elder Scott because they would stray from their original talks regularly.

“Elder Scott spoke very slow so his talks were always short to translate, but he was a translator’s nightmare. He used really long, run-on sentences, large vocabulary, and lots of things that made it very difficult to translate. Then when conference actually came, he would throw half of it out the window it would seem sometimes.”

He added President Monson’s talks are also difficult to translate at times.

A misconception Fisher said people often assume is translators learn big church announcements earlier than everybody else. Fisher said when there is an announcement like a new apostle being called or a new temple being built, he doesn’t hear about it until it’s announced in conference.

Fisher gave an example, “When they announced the new apostles in [October 2016], we got a full schedule for who’s speaking in conference, but they had blocked off sections for ‘Talk by new apostle,’ and we were not given the talks. We were not allowed to see those talks until the apostles had been named.”

“They announced them on Saturday, and we had to do a whole translation, content review, and language review in one day, then submit it to Salt Lake for the interpreters to read the next day.”

Charity Chiokai, an alumna from Palau, regularly translates church publications into her native Palauan. She reflected on her opportunities to translate, “The best part is not about being able to know beforehand what they are going to talk about, but when I have the talks in front of me I feel like I enhance my knowledge more. And I feel the Spirit more. I get to understand the deeper meaning more than I do [when] listening to conferences. I feel like Heavenly Father and our Savior are speaking to me directly.”

She added, “Translating requires us to pray continually before, during, and after doing the work to invite the guidance of the Spirit. I am Palauan, and as much as I think I know my language or how fluent I am, it’s still hard to translate word for word. You have to know what the message is about and have to deliver it as simple as possible, right to the point.”

Both Chiokai and Fisher agreed the most rewarding part about translating was having knowing they were helping people around the world receive the Gospel in their own tongue. Chiokai said, “I know that some people are not capable of understanding the English language, and by doing this work it makes it possible for everyone to have access to his knowledge and be able to hear the words of the Lord through His servants.”

If someone wants to become a translator, Fisher said they must be well versed in both English and their target language, have access to a computer and the internet, and be temple worthy. If the criteria is met, they can contact the church language headquarters in Salt Lake, where they will be directed to the satellite headquarters that specializes in their language. The church generally tries to recruit native speakers to ensure the best translation, but for smaller countries like Chuuk, returned missionaries who know the language are also often employed, according to Fisher.

Fisher said the hiring process begins with the church consulting other speakers of the same language to determine the applicant’s linguistic level. The job seeker than goes through what fisher referred to as a “trial by fire.” He said, “[Church language headquarters] gives you a training packet with a list of approved Gospel words. They tell you to use whatever resources you need. If you need a dictionary, you can grab a dictionary, but you’re not allowed to ask anybody else for help. You just do the translation to the best of your ability.

“Then they review your translation. They see how well you did, then take the opportunity at that point to teach you the ins-and-outs of the formatting. Formatting is really the biggest thing–it needs to be formatted a specific way for their programs to pull the translation straight out and prep it for publishing. If you follow all the guidelines, you’re good. They then decide if you’re going to continue with the team based on your translation.”

Teams vary in size and experience, according to Fisher. He said his team consists of anywhere from 6-12 natives and returned missionaries, while others like the Japanese team are made up of several master’s level linguists and scholars.

Date Published: 
Saturday, October 7, 2017
Last Edited: 
Saturday, October 7, 2017