Leaders in German-speaking Countries Upgraded to Presidents

It isn’t always easy being an international member of a church in which English dominates—not only is the headquarters located in an English-speaking country and the hierarchy largely populated by native speakers of English, but the only authentic version of its founding and distinguishing scripture is English.

For one thing, you get saddled with awkward translations of insider jargon. Take, for example, the name of the Church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sounds straightforward enough for (long-time?) English-speaking members. But in German “of Latter-day Saints” becomes “Heiligen der letzten Tage”—literally “Saints of the last days”—which is a totally weird thing to announce to a German on their doorstep. Of course (long-time?) German-speaking members are likewise accustomed to the German name of the Church, but I would estimate that I spent about a third of the time I interacted with non-members on my mission explaining the odd collection of words on my name tag (starting with “Elder,” which for some reason was left untranslated during my time in Austria, not that “Ältester” was any better).

Another example of an awkward translation is “covenant path.” I doubt that this expression makes much sense to an outsider anyway, but for those in the know it’s a pithy expression of a more complicated idea. In German, however, brevity is sacrificed for the sake of clarity, and that phrase swells to “der durch Bündnisse gekennzeichnete Weg” or “the path marked by covenants” (literally “the by covenants marked path”). What a mouthful. By the time you get to “path” you’ve forgotten what marks it.

Finally, it turns out that when it comes to callings in the Church, German-speakers have been at something of a rhetorical disadvantage compared to their English-speaking counterparts. Here, auxiliary leaders are just that—leaders (“Leiter” or “Leiterinnen” because German uses grammatical gender), not presidents, of their respective organizations. This isn’t because German lacks an equivalent for “president” or that its equivalent “Präsident” has strange connotations that make “Leiter” an obviously better choice. Actually, I have no idea why auxiliary leaders remained leaders rather than presidents—it’s just always been that way as far back as I can remember (which, I’ll be honest, is only 25 years, so what do I know).

Now, I don’t personally know anyone who has actually felt that this discrepancy between languages in the Church’s terminology was a big deal. But apparently someone thought it might be a problem, because yesterday the Europe Area Presidency distributed a letter announcing a list of changes to the German translation of terms used in reference to several positions in the Church, explaining that “it is hoped that they will provide more clarity and unity in the work throughout the Church.” And since the Area Presidency would like to see the changes reflected in common usage sooner rather than later, I have reproduced the list below:

One thing you might notice is that Stake President/Presidency and Elders Quorum President/Presidency are not on the list. This is because they are already referred to as presidents in German. So this change not only harmonizes the titles of certain callings across English and German but also levels the playing field among the organizations of the German-speaking Church. No longer will there be leaders on the one hand and presidents on the other within a stake or ward; now we are all presidents!

I will be interested to see how the membership responds to this change. Since it uproots decades of well-established practice, I expect it will be like the guidance to refrain from using “Mormon” in referring to the Church. So I suppose people will be a little more self-conscious when speaking to and about each other, and I imagine some will be annoyed by what they see as meddling in things that aren’t broken. But I think it’s the right move. Even without taking the English terms into consideration, it is a step in the right direction to refer to the heads of all organizations within the Church as presidents rather than distinguishing between presidents of quorums and leaders of auxiliaries.

What do you think? Much ado about nothing? A bold/tepid stride toward gender equality and women’s empowerment within the Church? Did anyone reading this in another part of the world receive a similar letter regarding a local language? Share your thoughts!

Comments

  1. I have no idea if these changes are in any way related, but consider this development as well:

    “A new position added to the organisational structure of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Europe calls upon women to mentor congregational officers and participate in leadership councils. Ann-Mari Lindberg, Sibylle Fingerle, Letícia dos Santos Rudloff, Ghislaine Simonet, Julia Wondra, and Traci De Marco are the first to be called as International Area Organisation Advisers in the Europe Area.”
    https://news-uk.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/church-expands-leadership-roles-for-women-in-europe

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for the update, Peter.

  3. Interesting. In Finnish, presidents are also “leaders” (johtaja). I think Mission president used to be an exception in past, but at some point it was changed to “leader” too (which was confusing, because there was also ward mission leader). Finns rarely speak of people as “leader Lastname”, they might use “Stake president Lastname” (vaarnanjohtaja Lastname), but EQ pres. or other leaders on ward level are just Brother/Sister.
    Finnish ‘presidentti’ is only used when talking about political leaders, a president of a country.

    The name of the Church in Swedish has also “sista dagars heliga”, Saints of the last days. There was once a Swedish TV show about different religions and they visited a member family in an episode about our Church. I thought it was odd, how big of a deal the show made about home storage. Then I realizes that they probably were thinking that the Saints of the last days are waiting for an imminent end of the world.

  4. What a great example of our continuing, modern-day revelation!

  5. As an example of how old habits die hard, we haven’t had “auxiliaries” since October of 2019. :) (per Elder Cook’s remarks in the Saturday afternoon session, the RS, YW, YM, Primary and SS are now “organizations” not “auxiliaries”.)

    The fact that they’ve always been Presidents in English doesn’t stop large numbers of US members from referring to the EQP as “President Smith” while the Primary President remains “Sister Jones”. I’ll admit that even though I fully support the consistency of calling them all President, I occasionally fall into mimicking the linguistic patterns of others. Habits like that can be hard to break, particularly after hearing them for decades. (My personal preference would be to drop all the titles at church except for formal occasions like sustaining ward officers and call everyone “Brother Joseph” or “Sister Mary”.)

    I attend ward council in my ward, where despite the best efforts of the executive secretary to list them all as “President” on the agenda, the women are almost always referred to as “Sister”. The Sunday School President gets a mixture of mixture of President and Brother, while the EQP is virtually always President. Maybe one of these days the executive secretary will turn up his passive-aggressiveness and leave the women as President and change the men to “Brother Smith”.

  6. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    This is interesting, and wouldn’t be surprised if it gets rolled out Church-wide. I’m going to hold off on thinking of this as continued revelation. While there may be some social significance to it, this is really a rather mundane administrative change (and we diminish the idea of revelation by applying it to such things). It’s a nod to equality without any real change in authority or autonomy. It’s what I’ve come to expect from Church leaders, unfortunately. Oh, they’ll make “much ado” about it. But it’s “nothing”.

  7. Thanks for the responses. It’s interesting that president in Finnish is reserved for political offices; as a non-native speaker of German I can’t really say how weird it is to refer to a volunteer member of a lay clergy as a president, but speaking for myself, as someone currently holding a leadership position, I share Clark’s preference for dropping all titles at church for day-to-day interactions. But how we talk to and about each other does matter, even if it’s hard to discern how, so if all this letter does is raise a little awareness, it won’t be for nothing, I reckon.

  8. nobody, really says:

    “The revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”

  9. Translation is always more complicated than it looks on the surface, because it always involves the cultural element that is sometimes difficult to manage without producing unintended meanings. This may be why “Ältester” never gained traction for missionaries. It means, literally, the oldest one (male, of course). Weird title for a nineteen-year-old.

  10. I am egalitarian and gave up on titles for people I know years ago. So first names generally rule. If “Moses” was good enough for well, Moses and “Brother Joseph” and “Brother Brigham” were good enough for Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, what are we really trying to do here? Jesus did not walk along the shores of Galilee and call his apostles by any titles. He called them by their names. I address all of my friends, regardless of their positions in the Church, by their first names. And if my ears are clear, the Spirit addresses me by my first name. It reminds me that I am known and loved. I crave nothing more from my friends.

  11. John Mansfield says:

    A week and a half ago Washington Post published an article headlined “Germans have coined more than 1,200 words to talk about coronavirus.” From the article:

    Over the past year, languages all over the world have had to expand and adapt to address the pandemic and the lives it has upended. The French adopted “quatorzaine” for a 14-day isolation period, and the Dutch use “hamsteren” to describe a frantic, hamster-paced stockpiling of supplies..But in German — which has a grammar that lends itself to the forming of long, composite words and which borrows heavily from English — the rate and number of words added during the pandemic have no precedents in recent times.

    Social distancing is Mindestabstandsregelung (minimum-distance regulation). Or, to get more precise, Anderthalbmeter­gesellschaft (one-and-a-half-meter society) for a group abiding by distancing rules. You need ways to cope? How about a little Glühweinstandhopping (hopping between mulled-wine stands) while, of course, paying attention to Mindestabstandsregelungen?”

    [. . .]

    Möhrs and her team have tracked more than 1,200 new coronavirus-related words as part of their ongoing effort to document changes to the language. Many of these words are borrowed from English, a habit Germans have practiced at least since the 1980s, when they started saying “computer” and “email” instead of “Datenverarbeitungsanlage” (data-processing unit) and “elektronische Post” to describe some of their new digital activities.

    But aside from such English borrowings as “home office” and “lockdown,” the list of coronavirus-related German neologisms mostly features the traits that German neologisms are generally known for: length and precision.

    So, my impression, as one with only a standard glancing experience with German, is that the German translations above for the church’s name and “covenant path” are not unusual for the German language. Perhaps one part of it is that term “neologism”: these complicated phrases belong in the language, but they retain a quality of something that hasn’t been part of it for long?

  12. Wondering says:

    Interesting. Partly a move toward gender equality (though not with respect to SS); partly an unfortunate (in my view) move toward greater formality and at least linguistic authoritarianism. I’m with Old Man on that. I call everyone in the ward council by their first names except the bishop. He gets addressed as “bishop” because it would discomfit him and some others if I did otherwise. Even the titles Brother and Sister were seemingly once intended to draw people together as family. Maybe they did that when tied to first names. They certainly don’t in my experience when tied to last names. Instead, they are distancing formalities. I recall a stake president, a good friend, who once periodically gave talks on the importance of our addressing each other with titles “Brother” and “Sister”, etc Then immediately after the meeting he would be comfortably addressing me at church by my nickname — no “Brother” or other title.
    Yes, “Ältester” was significantly odd and uncomfortable as a 19-year-old missionary in Europe. Even explaining the connection between the name of the church and the “Heiligen” of the New Testament was enough more than enough, without having to explain the connection between “Ältester” and, e.g. Acts 14:23 (Und sie ordneten ihnen hin und her Älteste in den Gemeinden…” Luther Bibel 1545

  13. PeterLLC: It looks to me like this will bring the German-speaking Relief Society into some parity with the Elder’s Quorum. That is, both of those organization’s are now led by a “President.” Or am I reading it wrong?

  14. lastlemming says:

    Not meaning to hijack the thread, but between 1976 and 1978, we were Bruders, not Ältesters.

    Also, I seem to recall an instance in which the discussions referred to the Führers of the church, which we were instructed to change to Leiters.

  15. In the 2000s, a native speaker Elders Quorum President mentioned to me, unprompted, that it was absurd to call everyone at church a “Präsident,” and it would make much more sense to use “Leiter” instead. Oh, well.

  16. John, I definitely think the German version of covenant path is clearer than simply translating the two words directly and ending up with, say, Bündnisweg. Part of the issue with translating the vocabulary of an upstart American church is that a lot of it is likewise neologism, covenant path being a good example.

    Wondering, you make a good point that Brother and Sister have been repurposed into more formal titles. Something similar happened with the archaic language we use in English in the Church to address deity in prayer.

    Hunter, yes, that’s exactly what the change is doing.

    lastlemming, thanks for the historical perspective. Translations are often a work in progress, so it’s no surprise that titles have changed along with the 1970s version of Book of Mormon itself. Also, Führer definitely has strong connotations in German, so no surprise it’s not used as a title. Though it does survive in “Führerschaftsversammlung” (leadership meeting).

    C. Keen, my native German-speaking spouse thinks it’s weird to call everybody president, so your former EQP is probably right that “Leiter” is linguistically the better choice. But for some reason the powers that be have been fine with calling the Stake and EQ Presidents as such for decades at least. I can only assume they felt it was a distinction with a difference.

  17. charlene says:

    Upvote for Old Man’s comment! I’m all in favor of a flatter, more egalitarian language. The major problem I see is a confusion of “Brother Johns” in my region.

  18. Amen, Old Man

  19. John Mansfield says:

    . . . a confusion of “Brother Johns” . . .
    Don’t worry about that; we who bear the name John are used to it being completely contextual. My Uncle Anson, on the other hand . . . Well, when I was visiting his house many years ago with my little son also named Anson, it was for him a pretty weird thing to hear someone calling “Anson” to get the attention of someone else.

  20. I’m struck that the change for all general offices of the Church was to append “der Kirche” to them. I would have instead expected them to be preceded by some form of “Allgemeine,” which would seem much easier to use.

  21. Is it just a typo that on the first row of the table the second alternative for approved translation is “Präsidenting” with g in the end?

  22. Good catch, Niklas, that is indeed a typo.

  23. Wondering says:

    Looking at the list again, I was surprised to see JM-Präsident and JM-Präsidentschaft I thought we’d gotten rid of those positions entirely in favor of the Bishopric acting in those roles. What have I missed or misunderstood?

  24. Allan Garber says:

    It is a gross overstatement to call this change a revelation. It is just administrivia.

  25. Geoff-Aus says:

    While we are talking about language… I have industrial deafness, which means I struggle to understand higher pitched sounds. Some American women seem to becoming more nasal in their speech. The lady on npr news for example.
    The combination of high pitched, and nasal makes white noise for me.
    Some women in Australia are doing it too.
    Does it cross language barriers?
    How can we stop it?

  26. Left Field says:

    I’m not interested in expressing any opinion about whether this is revelation or not. But I will express the opinion that whatever the test of revelation is, it has nothing at all to do with where it falls in anyone’s scale of “importance.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.