Adventures in Wedding Interpretation

Regular readers may remember that I had an interpreter job at a preparatory meeting for an intercultural civil wedding last month. Well, the wedding was today and because the registry clerk liked how I did my job the last time, I got to interpret at the wedding as well, even though I don’t have the court approval that’s normally required for any kind of legal interpreter jobs.

Like the preparatory meeting, the wedding ceremony also took place in the registry office in the North Bremen neighbourhood of Vegesack. Vegesack is still quite a way off from where I live, but getting there was easier this time. First of all, there was no traffic jam blocking most of the logical routes. And since the wedding didn’t take place quite so early in the morning as the preparatory meeting, I could avoid rush hour traffic as well. Else, my somewhat confused GPS, also didn’t try to plunge me into the river this time. That is, I suspect she was trying to direct me to the damn ferry again (Else seems to think that ferries are the best way to get anywhere), but since I ignored her directions and drove onto the highway instead, Else eventually relented and took me where I wanted to go.

Parking was easier as well this time, since I just drove into a parking garage, as the groom and the registry clerk had both advised me to. The parking garage is connected to the municipal services building which houses the registry office by a foot tunnel, which gained a measure of local infamy as a huge waste of taxpayers’ euros, when the building costs overran significantly and the amount of people actually using the tunnel was far lower than expected. Indeed, once I had parked my car, I simply asked a fellow parker if he could tell me where to find the “expensive tunnel”. Having actually walked through the tunnel, I have to say that I can’t see what they did with the approximately 800000 Euros that the damned thing cost either. The tunnel is much as this local newspaper article from March describes it, dull, white and deserted. Though some of the maritime artwork that is promised in the article can be found near the entrance of the tunnel.

Once inside the basement of the Vegesack townhall, I took the elevator right up to the third floor, where the wedding ceremonies are performed. However, I was 45 minutes early and so the waiting lounge and reception area for the wedding office were still locked. Apparently, there were no weddings on in the early slots today. So I took the elevator down again and sat down in the big main waiting area, where dozens of people were waiting to register cars and their home addresses, apply for marriages and passports, etc… I waited for 25 minutes or so and used the time to scribble into my trusty Moleskine. Then I went up to the wedding area again, and – lo and behold – the waiting and reception lounge was open.

The bridal couple was already there, as were some of the groom’s family. Since the bride is from the Philippines, her family couldn’t be there. Though from what I could tell, the groom’s family was welcoming to the bride. Which is a good thing, because not all families are, particularly with international weddings.

I said hello to bride and groom and guests and immediately found myself attempting to deal with a minor emergency, because the bride had just noticed that her nylons had developed a ladder. Because nylons, being a tool of the devil, inevitably tear and get ladders when you really want to look your best. I’m not much of a nylon wearer (I’m allergic to the damned things), but I still went mentally through the list of emergency responses to ladders and runs that I somehow absorbed. Replacement nylons? Not possible twenty minutes before the wedding. Glue or clear nail polish to stop the ladder from spreading? Unfortunately, no one had any. The bride then came up with a remedy of her own, namely getting a black pen or kajal or eye shadow to paint over the bits of skin showing (the nylons were black). So I went through my bag in search of a black pen, but only found a black ballpoint pen. Okay, no problem. There’s plenty of people here, maybe someone else has a black pen. So I asked the other guests and even the photographer if anybody had a black pen or eye shadow or something. But all we could scrounge up was a lipstick (not in black – it wasn’t a goth wedding) and some blue pens and another guest adding her suggestions. So the bride had to get married with the ladder in her tights. I reassured her that the hole was very small (it was), that no one would notice and that you could touch it up in Photoshop in the photos.

Lesson: My Mom was right about always bringing a spare pair of nylons. And by the way, I had the exact same problem at my confirmation – specifically bought lacey nylons tearing. Plus I had braces, so I didn’t dare open my mouth, and a fresh nasty pimple in my face. Actually looking at my confirmation photos more than twenty years on, I can’t see any of those blemishes I felt to very strongly about.

But while I wasn’t able to solve the bride’s nylon dilemma, the fact that I always carry moist handwiping towels with me came in handy with another dilemma. For one of the guests was an approximately three year old girl attired in her very best dress (which we all duly admired). The little girl’s Dad fed her a chocolate bar, which resulted in the little girl managing to smear chocolate all over her face, hands and even the dress. Luckily, my handwipes came to the rescue, so I was able to help at least someone.

Finally, the registry clerk arrived and it was time to get married. They had done their best to make the wedding room look appealing with candles and flowers on the table/desk, a bowl for the wedding rings and a big heart painting on the wall. Bride and groom sat down at the table in front of the registry clerk. And since I was the interpreter, I got to sit next to the bride in the chairs normally reserved for wedding witnesses, if the couple brings any. I actually was a sort of witness, too, since I had to sign the wedding certificate along with bride and groom.

Now I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never been married, never been a bridesmaid or wedding witness and don’t intend to get married either, so this was probably as close as I’ll ever get to the “hot seat”. And it was certainly very interesting to be so close to the proceedings without the wedding jitters that affect the bride and groom.

As interpreter jobs go, the only difference between interpreting at a wedding and interpreting at a business meeting is the content of the words and lines said. The registry clerk was obviously experienced at dealing with interpreters (there are lots of immigrants in Bremen and some of them get married), because he remembered to leave appropriate pauses for me to do my job. This is a far cry from people who manage to get through three Powerpoint slides without stopping to take a breath once, until I had to say, “Could you please slow down here, cause I have to translate this?” Though I did have one unexpected difficulty, namely the three-year-old girl who evidently got bored by the whole ceremony (I can’t even blame her, wedding ceremonies are boring for small children) and simply blabbered to herself and her parents all the time. Business negotiations never have babbling toddlers in the background. Still, I just mentally tuned her out.

So how do civil weddings work in Germany? Not so very different from elsewhere in the world, I guess. There was still some reiteration of formalities, names, addresses, etc… Then the registry clerk quoted a few lines about marriage, partnership, happiness, love, etc… and read a poem by Leo Tolstoy. He subsequently handed the poem over to me, so I could translate.

On the way home I realized that absent any actual experiences with how civil weddings are conducted in Germany, my view of such ceremonies largely derived from a book I read as a teenager and didn’t even like (It’s this one and I explain here why I intensely disliked it). In the book, the POV character remembers her wedding at one point (the book was set in East Germany, so of course it was a civil rather than a church wedding) and recalls that the registry clerk recited prepackaged verses about love and marriages that were so sterile as if they had just been taken out of their cellophane wrapping. It’s a great image, that’s probably why it stuck with my for twenty years. However, the reality is different, because what the registry clerk really did was using these “prepackaged lines” as a framework for a ceremony tailored to the individual couple. In a way it’s similar to how non-denominational eulogists operate (around here, if someone dies and was not a church member, the family hires a speaker to deliver the eulogy). They have a store of suitable poems and verses, a bit of information about the person(s) in question and use a formula to construct a eulogy/wedding speech. It can be done badly and I’ve seen some horrible eulogists. But if it’s done well, it works. And this registry clerk was definitely good at his job. He wasn’t too serious about the whole thing and tried to lighten the tension somewhat, probably because he knows that weddings are stressful enough for the participants. As for the verses and poems, of course he’s probably got a collection, from which he chooses suitable text. Which isn’t so different from me going through my own collection of verses and poems for weddings, births and sympathy cards, when writing a congratulations card for the couple yesterday (I also bought a bottle of wine as a gift along with the card). I finally picked this piece by George Eliot, since my favourite wedding poem is in German and I needed one in English for obvious reasons.

Finally, we came to the all-important question. The registry clerk first asked the groom in German, then the groom answered, then I translated question and answer. Then it was the same with the bride, only that I didn’t have to translate her answer, because she said “Ja” in German. I largely stuck to the wording we’re all familiar with from a hundred movies and TV shows with the alterations for German legal requirements. The signing of the marriage certificate and other documents (three documents had to be signed altogether) was a bit of a problem, because the bride hadn’t practiced signing her new name and so I had to explain to her how she was supposed to do it, including some German oddities such as that fact that her married name includes an “ß”, which is a letter only found in the German language (“It’s like a capital B, only with an extra line drawn downwards), and that she was supposed to put “geb.” (short for geboren – né) in front of her maiden name. Still, she managed without any major hitches and she’ll get used to it in time.
Finally, the couple exchanged rings, were pronounced husband and wife in the eyes of the law and kissed with a bit of prompting.

Afterwards, congratulations were exchanged, photos were shot inside the wedding room and outside. I’m definitely on the group photo and probably on some of the others as well. It’s kind of weird knowing that you’re on someone else’s wedding photos and that someday maybe children or grandchildren will ask “And who’s that woman there?”, just like I asked my own parents about the bridesmaid on their wedding photo I don’t recognize (she was the girlfriend of my mother’s cousin, the relationship didn’t last).

Meanwhile the next couple was already in the waiting area. That wedding also required an interpreter, because the bride was Russian. That couple sure had a lot of guests – they probably had problems fitting them all into the wedding room. The third couple of the day arrived early, too, so the waiting area was full with members of different wedding parties. Especially since the groom’s sister had brought a bottle of champagne and some glasses to toast the happy couple, so my party was still in the waiting area as well.

All in all, this was definitely one of the most interesting interpreter jobs I’ve had. Plus, helping a couple get married gives you a better feeling of having accomplished something of importance than many of the business jobs I do. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I am considering taking the class I need to do to apply for court approval.

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5 Responses to Adventures in Wedding Interpretation

  1. Kaz Augustin says:

    > In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I am considering taking the class I need to do to apply for court approval.

    That’s great! I think you should do it. Not only will it shake up your usual interpretation activities a little, get you out and about, and involve you in one of the most important decisions any couple will make in their lives…speaking as a purely mercantile writer-ideas person here…think of what it could inspire?!

    • Cora says:

      That’s actually part of the reason why I consider doing this, because of potential for inspiration. The tech and business stuff mostly isn’t all that inspiring, though I have gotten a story idea or two out of it. It’s not just weddings either, but interpreting during police investigations, court hearings, etc… A colleague specializing in South East European languages regularly shows up at the monthly translators’ meet-up with the words, “Sorry, I’m late. Had to go to prison again.”

  2. Estara says:

    Fascinating again and I think it’s a great idea to qualify for this kind of job generally. Makes a nice change and people are always getting married.

    • Cora says:

      Like I said to Kaz below, it’s not just weddings but also police interviews, court hearings, trials, etc… Basically any legal act that requires an interpreter.

  3. Pingback: A Thousand Kilometer Round-Trip | Cora Buhlert

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