Why It’s a Big Deal — When Conference Speakers Speak in Their Native Language

Why It’s a Big Deal — When Conference Speakers Speak in Their Native Language

On Saturday morning, October 4, 2014, when Elder Chi Hong “Sam” Wong delivered his General Conference address in his native Cantonese, he did something that was a much bigger deal than many people realize.

To understand why this was such a momentous event we need to understand what goes on behind the scenes at general conference.

This year, 2014, conference sessions are being broadcast in 94 languages. To make this happen, the following steps take place:

  1. Scheduled speakers prepare and submit their talks 2-3 weeks in advance.
  2. These talks are then reviewed for accuracy. For example, a scheduled speaker may have prepared a talk dealing with the dedication of the Kirtland temple and used 1833 as the year of the dedication. The correct year is 1836.
  3. After being reviewed and needed corrections have been made, the text is then submitted to the Publishing Services Department where written translations (into the 94 broadcast languages) are made.
  4. The translated text is delivered to the various interpreters who will be providing the language interpretation for the live broadcast.
  5. The text is formatted for display on the teleprompter. The teleprompter projects a scrolling readout of the text onto large plates of glass, which are mounted in front of the three main cameras directed at the pulpit. This allows the speaker to read his or her text while looking up at the congregation or to look directly into the camera.
  6. When the speaker steps up to the pulpit and begins delivering his message, the 93 interpreters, each in a sound booth in the conference center, begin following along in the language they are interpreting. * Because these interpreters are following along with the speaker standing at the pulpit, it is important that each interpreter be fluent in English in order to stay on track and not get ahead of the speaker or fall too far behind.
  7. General Conference is broadcast with closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing. This captioning is provided in English and Spanish and occasionally other languages. The text needs to be formatted for those closed caption languages.


Although these six steps are a simplified explanation of the process, it gives us a good understanding of the basic process. Let’s now take a look at how this process is complicated when a speaker at the pulpit speaks a language other then English. For this discussion we will use Elder Wong as an example.

  1. Elder Wong prepares his remarks in his native language.
  2. He submits it for review. Before it can be reviewed, it must be translated into English because those doing the review do not read Cantonese.
  3. The reviewed and corrected text is then submitted for translation into the 93 languages, which will be broadcast.
  4. The text is formatted for the teleprompter. Keep in mind, the teleprompter is there for Elder Wong, therefore, it needs to be in Cantonese. It is also important to know that the teleprompter follows Elder Wong, Elder Wong does not follow the teleprompter. The teleprompter operator needs to scroll the text at Elder Wong’s pace. The teleprompter operator, who is expected to keep up with Elder Wong, does not speak or read Cantonese. To overcome this hurdle the teleprompter operator has a native Cantonese speaker sitting next to him following along with a pointer indicating where Elder Wong is in the text.
  5. When Elder Wong steps up to the pulpit and begins speaking, the 93 interpreters follow along in the language they are interpreting. The challenge comes in the fact that Elder Wong is speaking Cantonese and the 93 interpreters do not speak Cantonese. This hurdle is overcome in this way. A person interprets Elder Wong’s address into English and this English interpretation is delivered to the ears of the 93 other interpreters who then interpret into their given languages. This English interpretation is also broadcast on the English satellite channels.
  6. Another challenge is that Cantonese is the native language of few, if any, of those in attendance in the conference center. Therefore, an English translation needs to be projected on the screens in the hall. Again, the person providing that text most likely does not speak or read Cantonese and therefore needs to follow the English interpretation.
  7. Closed captioning also needs to be broadcast in English, Spanish and other languages. Each person providing the captioning needs to follow, not Elder Wong at the pulpit (because they don’t speak Cantonese), but the English interpretation.


We have not even mentioned the engineers who make sure each language is routed to the correct satellite channel so Saints in Norway don’t get Navajo, and saints in Hong Kong actually hear Elder Wong’s voice.

This has been an over-simplified explanation of the interpretation process, but with hope it has helped you appreciate the dedication of hundreds of people who make General Conference look simple.

If you’re looking for latter-day miracles, you can find them in 94 languages every six months. Broadcasting the sessions of General Conference is not a simple thing. There are many major problems that could occur; yet it is rare for the viewing or listening audience to see or hear anything that doesn’t look flawless.

When King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon wanted to speak to God’s people he asked that a tower be built. From this tower he addressed the people. Today, the tower builders are the engineers, the interpreters, the camera operators, the audio engineers, the lighting people, the ushers, the secretaries, the gardeners, and many, many others who work with dedication to assure the message reaches God’s people.


* It should be noted that although many of the interpreters are located in the conference center, some interpret live from locations around the world via Internet lines.


Copyright © 2014 by Energy Media Works LLC

When using portions of this article, please credit: MormonMediaNetwork.com

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6 Comments on “Why It’s a Big Deal — When Conference Speakers Speak in Their Native Language

  1. If the talk is translated into English for fact checking, why not just have those presented to the 93 translators?

    • Dale, If I understand your question correctly, you’re asking why the translated text that has been provided for the reviewers is not used for the translators. That is what happens. In the case of Elder Wong’s talk, his Cantonese text is translated into English to be reviewed, then that English translation is used by the other 93 translators for them to translate it into Spanish, French, Polish, Japanese, etc. I hope that answers your question.

  2. I enjoyed this article; the information was very interesting! However, I don’t think it really explained why we, the viewers, could not just listen to the native tongue of the speaker while reading subtitles on the screen (as they did in the Conference Center). We felt like we missed out on hearing the speaker’s emotions and inflections, and the voice-over was very distracting. My children were disappointed, and every adult I have talked to concurred: We want to hear the actual voice of the speaker, not a translator! I realize that some are visually impaired and can only listen, but to us the voice-over seemed to defeat the very purpose of having the speaker talk in his native tongue!

  3. The reason is one of technology limitations as well as courtesy to the other 93 non-English languages. Because we can only send out one video stream through KSL and over the satellite feed, we opted not to impose English subtitles on all viewers in all other languages. The way that English was heard over the top of native languages is exactly the way that all non-English speakers receive Conference talks. If someone wants to experience the talks in Spanish, Portuguese or Cantonese, one has only to stream that language over LDS.org during the broadcast. BYU TV International also broadcasts live in Spanish and delayed in Spanish and Portuguese.

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