Eli McCann: Gift of tongues eluded me as an LDS General Conference interpreter

I love Ukraine and Ukrainians, but I sometimes butchered their language.

Pat Bagley cartoon for Eli McCann tab column.

Mere weeks after I returned to Salt Lake City from my mission to western Ukraine in 2005, I was recruited to volunteer to provide interpretation services for General Conference sessions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I learned that while there was a deep bench of professional native-speaking interpreters for such languages as Spanish and French, the church was desperate at that time for anyone in Utah with basic proficiency in Ukrainian.

That’s how I, a supremely unqualified 21-year-old, who 24 months earlier couldn’t have even pointed out Ukraine on a map, ended up sitting in a fancy booth at the faith’s Conference Center in downtown Salt Lake City trying desperately to keep up with the translation of hours’ worth of sermons.

I was hardly the first missionary to be dropped into the deep end on interpretation services. My sister likes to tell the story of a time she visited a Latter-day Saint sacrament meeting in Italy, where she was handed headphones to listen to the interpretation being offered by an American missionary who sat in the next room speaking into a microphone. During the meeting, the missionary went dark for several minutes while an Italian speaker at the pulpit rapidly mumbled through what my sister guessed was a long and convoluted story before finally pausing to look down at his notes. During the brief break, the missionary’s defeated voice came through my sister’s headphones, “uh . . . I think he said something about a boat.”

Growing up in Latter-day Saint congregations, I had regularly heard about the miraculous gift of tongues bestowed upon missionaries, a gift that supposedly enabled them to master a new language in a matter of weeks of fervent study at Provo’s Missionary Training Center. Imagine my surprise several years later when I sat, wide-eyed and barely competent enough to breathe on my own, in a Soviet-era Kyiv apartment wondering why I didn’t understand a single word of a conversation happening in front of me between a toddler and her mother.

My first Sunday talk in Ukraine

The next Sunday I was invited to stand at the pulpit in sacrament meeting to introduce myself to the congregation, having just arrived in Ukraine that week. After the meeting, I asked my mission companion why I had been laughed off the stage after muttering the two or three phrases I had repeatedly practiced that morning. He looked at me with such pity, contemplating whether to let me know I had misremembered the word for “new.” “Well,” he said. “I think you really lost them when you announced, ‘my name is Elder McCann and I’m horny. Fortunately, I’ve already met some of you, so I don’t feel too horny. I’m grateful that you have all helped me not feel so horny.’”

“Don’t feel too bad,” a friend who had arrived in Ukraine the same time as me told me a week later, when I ran into him and shared my embarrassing story. “A few days ago I announced to an entire Sunday school class that I believe God murdered Joseph Smith.”

A few weeks after that I was assigned to be the choir director for our small branch in Lviv. After our second or third practice, I dismissed the group by tearfully informing them, “I really enjoy sleeping with each of you every week. You are all so talented, and it makes me happy that we all get to sleep together after church.” The choir was reduced to tears of laughter, and it took a minute or two for anyone to gain enough composure to explain to me what had happened. As we left the building to go home that night, a choir member put his arm around my shoulders and mumbled in broken English, “I think it will better if you more studying to speak.”

“I think it will be better if I more studying to speak,” I thought to myself in 2005 as I sat, white faced and shaking, in the Conference Center’s Ukrainian interpretation booth. Copies of the many talks had been emailed to us days in advance so we could practice, but the email came with a warning that it wasn’t uncommon for certain elderly speakers to go off book.

It turned out I was right to be worried, or so I found out mere minutes into the conference session in which I frantically tried to keep up, frequently losing my place. A friend sat in the booth next to me, switching off with every other talk, performing about as well as I was.

The fatigue grew over the two hours of that morning conference session. I couldn’t help but picture my Ukrainian friends on the other side of the world, listening to me massacre their beautiful language, no doubt remembering times I inadvertently propositioned them for sexual favors while adorned in a black nametag and a cheap, oversized, boxy suit.

Looking back with fondness

I was fired from my interpretation job not long after this experience — I was told the powers that be had located enough native Ukrainian speakers to handle the work going forward, but I’ve always wondered if that was just a polite lie.

I stepped away from the church many years ago. Fuzzy memories of my short stint as a General Conference interpreter feel almost like an odd fever dream to me now — as foreign as they are funny.

Even still, I’m grateful I had that experience. It was humbling, and I probably needed to be humbled. It was fun and exciting, although intimidating and exhausting.

More than anything, it makes me smile to know that somewhere, out in the world, there’s a video of an old man standing behind a pulpit speaking for a moment or two before my young flustered dubbed voice interrupts and says in sloppy Ukrainian, “I’m so sorry everyone. I’ve lost my place. By the way, I miss you terribly.”

(Courtesy) Tribune humor columnist Eli McCann.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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