Edna Alba recalls sitting at a banquet table, bulky headset in place and her feet resting on a dirt floor underneath the Tabernacle during a session of general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). Alba assumed the task of interpreting the meeting's proceedings from English to her native Spanish language. Not only was there a dirt floor, but also an Army tent pitched as a protective barrier from interrupting noises.
Alba was one of the very early interpreters for conference proceedings, beginning her volunteer service in 1966.
The process of interpretation, the spoken transfer of information from one language to another, actually began with the October 1961 session of conference. From that time to today, thousands of interpreters have participated in conveying messages of Church leaders throughout the entire world. The October 2011 general conference marks the 50th anniversary of providing interpretation services for general conference.
"That first interpretation was spurred by the fact that stakes were created outside the United States, and Church leaders were being brought in to conference," explained Jeff Bateson, director of the Church’s translation division. "There was a need to make the messages available in other languages.”
The interpreters began with only four languages (German, Dutch, Samoan and Spanish); today's interpreters employ 93 languages.
Working now with cutting edge equipment, individual booths with monitors and satellite relays to worldwide locations is a far cry from the rudimentary beginnings of the language transfer process Alba and others experienced.
Not only was the technological capacity of the day limited, but according to correspondence between then Church leader Theodore M. Burton and German immigrant Horst Reschke, “the availability of men skilled in the language” was an additional concern.
"We'd get a message that said we had four speakers today, two prayers and the choir will sing ... and good luck,” Alba reported. “Then we had Thursday sessions for the auxiliaries, conference on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, a welfare session and then a special meeting for the patriarchs after general conference concluded."
“Those early interpreters were true pioneers,” says Doug Rosborough, who has worked with the Italian team since the 1970s. “Their live interpretations skills were honed … without rehearsal on many occasions. But the interpreter, when he relies on the Spirit, becomes transparent to the listener, almost invisible, and all of the speaker’s emotions and expression come through as if they were speaking in person in the target language.”
Joseph Stringham, manager of interpretation training for the Church, says that "every level of preparation is useful to convey the message with the Spirit and emotion with which it is delivered."
To interpret successfully, interpreters work on a tight time limitation. "If a talk runs 10 minutes, so does the interpretation,” Brad Lindsay, manager of interpretation services, explained. "These are amazing people who understand two languages, two cultures and two value systems in order to convey the whole meaning of the message."
The ability to convey the messages of conference expanded with the increasing technological advancements.
The work of translation began with Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon in the 1820s. Church translation (of which interpretation became a part in 1961) formally started in 1947 when the late Gordon B. Hinckley, who later served as Church president, organized it as part of his duties then. "There was a need at the time (the growing international membership of the Church) and he filled it," Bateson added.
"As the Church would expand, we would add more languages to interpretation," Lindsay said. "It depended on who was coming to conference. Now we have requests from area leaders throughout the world; we are adding Georgian, which will make 93 languages for this October session of conference.”
From an initial team of three or four interpreters, the group has grown to more than 800 worldwide with 43 remote locations employed.
Beginning with the Sunday morning session of conference in April 1962, proceedings were broadcast by shortwave radio. The transmissions originated in New York City; three went out to European countries and two were sent to South and Central America. A Spanish interpreter was dispatched to New York to simultaneously interpret the session.
Following that session, President J. Vernon Sharp of the Andes Mission reported, “The shortwave program of inspirational conference received perfectly in Lima, Peru. Reception good.”
For a German Church leader at the time, Bishop Hans Knoedler of the Stuttgart Stake, “the translation was fine, except a little fast.”
Foreign-speaking leaders attending conference in Salt Lake City were assigned to sit in designated rows in the Tabernacle where earphones were installed to receive the interpretation rendered from the basement.
Working since 2000 from the Conference Center, interpreters employ sophisticated equipment but still rely on a paper copy of the session’s agenda.
Portuguese translator Luis Camara Manoel describes that setting at the October conference of 2010: “I was slightly delayed going to the booth. When I finally arrived my team members were in a difficult state; it was obvious they had been crying and smiling and crying again. My colleague Bishop Silva pointed to a green sheet of paper next to the control panel — ‘a temple in Lisbon, Portugal,’ it read. I picked up the paper to ensure this was not a mistake as I heard, over my headset, that Lisbon was the first of five new temples announced by President Thomas S. Monson. We were all in a state of celebration, but we couldn’t express our joy; we had to quickly move on with the interpretation of the session.”
Juan Bol Bol was only 12 years old in 1997 when he first heard general conference in his native language, the Guatemalan dialect of Kekchi. “I was in the chapel in Senahu, Alta Verapaz, or the ‘highlands’ of Guatemala. The first time you hear in your own language is something incredible. In my own language I understand better and even more. Of course, it was emotional and I was excited to press forward.”
The process of interpretation clearly broadens the understanding of the Church and its teachings to the worldwide membership of more than 14 million people, and the diligent staff of interpreters has cause to celebrate its 50 years of service.