Saturday, September 25, 2010

Translating General Conference, a story from the Harold B. Lee files

I was fascinated this morning with a story that first appeared in the Deseret News in April 2010, highlighting the work of the translators and interpreters at General Conference.

I was amazed to learn that Conference is now being translated into 92 languages.  In 1961, Conference was first translated into four languages — Spanish, French, German and Tongan.  It was a very small group of dedicated volunteers who were situated in cramped quarters under the Tabernacle back then.

Now, conference is interpreted live in up to 92 languages — 52 in the conference center, 28 via the remote Tieline system and another dozen on-site in countries across the world.

In the Conference Center, 43 of the languages, from Spanish to Turkish, are broadcast live, and another nine, including Malagasay, Swahili and Twi, are recorded to be distributed via DVD later.

Teams outside the Conference Center, usually in their native country, interpret the conference proceedings in 28 more languages, including Mandarin, Russian and Dutch, which could be in the middle of the night depending on the time zone. The interpretation is sent via the digital Tieline technology to Salt Lake City and then seamlessly broadcast via satellite, with the other languages.

In all it takes 800 people, including hundreds of interpreters and dozens of support staff, for Conference.

When I read the story this morning, it reminded me of an obscure event in the life of President Harold B. Lee.

President Harold B. Lee
The year was 1973.  The October General Conference had just concluded, and President Lee had gone to Ricks College to deliver a speech in which he gave a memorable assurance that America would not fail.  I have made reference to that speech in a previous post.

A week after his experience at Ricks College, as President Lee was having lunch at the Lion House next door to the Church Administration Building, he walked over to the table of Dr. Truman G. Madsen, director of the Institute of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University, and after a cordial greeting made this startling statement:  "A translator who was assigned my closing address at the general priesthood meeting of general conference had an experience which was most remarkable. It helps me understand how the Prophet Joseph Smith could translate the Book of Mormon. I would like you to have a copy of his story."

Without further explanation President Lee excused himself, leaving his hearers breathless and wondering. Brother Madsen wrote President Lee later that week for the promised story, but it appeared first publicly in President Lee's words in this press account of the memorable Ricks College address:

"We had something happen at the last conference that I am going to tell you about to indicate something that will give you a key to how the Lord can open the mind of a man and give him spiritual understanding beyond what his natural self could do.
"We had eleven translators or interpreters who were down in the basement of the Tabernacle, translating in eleven different languages. One of these brethren was translating for the Swedish brethren, and for most of the talks they had the script so they could study it, and as the speakers spoke in English, they would repeat it for the benefit of those who were listening. This man, who was translating from my English into Swedish at the priesthood meeting, where he had no script (I was talking from an extemporaneous standpoint in my closing address), said something happened, and I want you to hear what he said:
"'The whole conference was a spiritual experience, but at the general priesthood meeting I had an experience which I have never had before. I knew that there were some Swedish brethren attending the conference who had never been here before and perhaps would never come again. Therefore, I had a great desire that they receive everything that the prophet had to deliver. Not having a script, I commended myself into the hands of the Lord, and as you began to speak, I was startled by the fact that I knew one or two words and even three ahead of the time you would say them. At first, I was so startled that I did not dare to pronounce them as they were given. Usually I close my eyes and listen and then interpret as I hear the speakers deliver, but this time I was prompted to look at your face on the television screen. In this very unusual situation, I looked at you and began to translate the words as they came, but to my amazement I did not receive just the words in my mind, but with my inner eyes, I saw them emanating from the vicinity of the temple of your head and coming toward me. I did not see them actually as written on something, and yet, I saw them and how they were spelled and experienced the power of the Spirit as I received them.
"'One of the things that made it even more dramatic was that when a complex sentence was about to be delivered, I received more words so that I could reconstruct the grammar into good Swedish and deliver it at the very moment you pronounced the words. Never have I experienced the great force with which the interpretive message was flowing as I did at that time.
"'The same experience happened during your closing remarks on Sunday afternoon, except that I did not see the words coming to me. I have talked with the Swedish members in attendance who have expressed an awesome amazement of what they experienced. They said they heard the interpretation and understood the interpreted message delivered at the same moment as you delivered the words in English. But the interpretation was all they heard, that the message came directly from you to them. They have all expressed that their attendance at the conference was a fantastic experience, never to be forgotten.'"

President Lee provided his interpretation of the experience for his Ricks College audience, saying:

"Latter-day Saints, don't you think for a moment that the Lord does not have means of communicating with us, sending us messages that are beyond our understanding, even to translating an unknown language into our understandable language. He did it with the Prophet Joseph. He did it with King Mosiah. He has done it with others. He will do it today, as we have need. I have no doubt.
"My whole soul pleads that I may so live that if the Lord has any communication that he would wish me to receive for my beloved people that I could be a pure vessel through which that message could come. I do not ask for anything. I do not want anything more than the Lord is willing to send, but I trust that I may live worthy so that I won't be a lame vessel or a broken reed that the Lord cannot use in times when he wants to communicate with his people."  (L. Brent Goates, Harold B. Lee: Prophet and Seer, 561-2).

* * *

Having been a careful observer and participant in many General Conferences, it seems to me that each of us is a "translator."  It is for each of us to "translate" into action the words spoken by the living prophets among us as we take counsel from them and give heed to their admonitions.

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