When I was a student (a little after Noah’s flood!), I little suspected what knowledge of languages would offer me. I guessed it would come in handy for my travels, but little suspected how useful it might be in my current career.
Indeed, at that time, I had no idea that such a career existed, let alone what a civil celebrant was!
Meanwhile, over the course of 25 years, I passed on my knowledge of languages, as a teacher.
Finally, in 2013, I changed direction and became a civil celebrant. I didn’t see any obvious use any more for my knowledge of tongues, although I still travelled a fair bit.
It became clear, however, that my reading knowledge of Hebrew was valuable. I started being found because I could conduct Jewish (and part-Jewish) ceremonies. One advantage was that I could read one of the most important wedding prayers, the “Seven Blessings”. I also conducted two “shivas” (or funeral services at the family home).
At that point, I saw the value of languages in my field, and made changes to my website accordingly.
Not long afterwards, I was located by a Parisian travel agent, who, rather bizarrely, was fixing up a Vow Renewal ceremony for his clients in London. It turned out they were French Canadian. They claimed to be fluent in English.
E-mails came and went, and I met the couple in a London hotel at the appointed time. They were charming, although Jacques struggled a bit with the conversation. As we started the ceremony, I realised the reason: his English was extremely shaky! He clearly didn’t understand much of what was going on. Luckily, French wasn’t a problem for me, so I improvised a little, could explain what was going on and put him at his ease.
Soon afterwards, having been briefed and having practised hard, I even read a paragraph at another wedding … in Swedish – which is definitely NOT one of my languages!
Interestingly, I was also asked to prepare an Italian ceremony, but that didn’t materialise. However, I am proud that I did conduct a part-Russian wedding.
Thanks to the website, I was invited to be interviewed by the couple, who wanted some Russian in their service. They even recorded me reading aloud, and sent the recording off to parents in Moscow! Luckily, I passed the test.
As a consequence of that wedding, I was asked to do another part-Russian wedding, this time in Portugal,so I blessed my knowledge of languages!
As a fluent German speaker, I am awaiting my first German ceremony (and even Czech, although I am very rusty now). If you know anyone looking for some foreign languages in their ceremony, please think of me!
Photo: Victor Shack
When I first became a celebrant (some 8 years ago, as I write), I thought it would all be quite simple. I’d meet the client, find out what they were looking for, send them a few draft emails, and then conduct the ceremony on the day at their chosen venue.
That’s the process in a nutshell.
An Embarrassing Moment
Over the years, however, I’ve been asked for more than I had bargained for. One example was the funeral for someone known to everybody as “Greenie”. The family asked me to wear something green, when officiating. Everybody else would be.
I was happy to comply.
On the day, there must have been a change of plan not communicated to me, but I was the only person wearing green!
I had never thought that linguistic skills would be an asset as a celebrant. But on several occasions, I’ve been asked to read Hebrew blessings (I can – with practice – manage this), which was great.
I had prepared an English Vow Renewal service for a French-Canadian couple. I had been assured that they both spoke fluent English, and their emails bore this out. However, although the wife did indeed speak and understand perfectly, it became clear that the husband had little understanding of what was going on. I had to improvise and translate the main bits for him as we went along. It was much appreciated, but quite a challenge!
Another time, I was invited to read a paragraph of Russian. Fortunately, my Modern Languages degree covered this, but the bride made me record a reading and sent it off to her parents in Russia, before I could be approved!
This had an unexpected benefit, as another Russian native, who was a guest, liked what I did and booked me for his wedding!
I have been invited to write and conduct a wedding in Italian, which is quite challenging, as I never learnt Italian grammar, although I can manage a passable accent when reading. Google Translate is an aid, but is fallible, so I need quite a lot of input from the couple. Still, linguistic skills are continually proving to be quite a boon.
Finally, the Swedish I read at one wedding comes to mind. I have no knowledge of Swedish (I think “tak” means “thank you”, but that’s the limit of my expertise). However, even though all the guests from Sweden were probably English-speakers, the groom wrote a welcome paragraph of Swedish for me, and coached me over the phone so that it sounded recognisable! It went down a treat, by the way.
All I want now, to complete my “full house”, are ceremonies in German and (possibly) Czech!
I am beginning to learn that it doesn’t really pay to hide one’s light under a bushel.
People think of me as a civil celebrant, but I am also a linguist. Apart from a decent command of my native language, I have a degree in French and Russian, speak fluent German, read Hebrew and get by in Czech and Italian.
Being the sort of businessman that I am, it never occurred to me until recently that that might be an asset to my current profession! But now I know differently.
One of my present assignments is working on a wedding service for a couple from mixed cultures: he is British, but she is Russian. There will be a few guests coming over from Magnetogorsk, so I suggested welcoming them in their native language. Wow! This idea has gone down a treat!
Well, when you think about it, it makes sense. Of course, I’ll have to work out how best to market this asset, as the language bit may appeal to quite a number of couples. Indeed, maybe this would lead to a few ‘gigs’ abroad, which would be very exciting!
The Hebrew side proved very useful last August when I conducted a Jewish wedding. No, I am not a rabbi; in fact, the couple’s rabbi was among the guests and (I’m relieved to say!) he professed himself very happy with my service.
Photos: Philippa Gedge Photography
In case you’re a bit baffled, let me explain that the groom was marrying a non-Jewess, who, though a regular synagogue-attendee, had no desire to convert, so the rabbi couldn’t conduct the ceremony. I was therefore approached to put together and lead the ceremony.
In the event, I led a (slightly creative) service, containing some elements I had suggested and some the couple had included.
As that bushel has now been removed, I’d like to conclude with the testimonial I received from the couple for that wedding:
“Michael Gordon conducted a Jewish religious wedding ceremony for us immediately following our civil wedding ceremony. Michael was very receptive to our input and the whole process was smooth and pleasant. On our wedding day, Michael impressed everyone with his delivery, warmth, good humour and professionalism. We had many comments afterwards from our guests saying how impressed they were with Michael and how they felt a part of the ceremony (something that was important for us and which Michael helped us to achieve).
“Michael is happy to tailor a ceremony to meet a couple’s particular requirements. His knowledge of Hebrew is both impressive and authentic. We would certainly recommend Michael to any couple who want to add a spiritual or religious element to their wedding celebrations without necessarily having something formal in a church or synagogue.”