Eduardo Balderas: Translating Faith into Service


Could this man, Rhea Ross asked herself, be the powerful speaker and teacher so loved by Spanish-speaking Church members in the Los Angeles area? When she had been transferred to El Paso, Texas, the California members had asked her to express their love to Elder Eduardo Balderas. But dressed in his soiled work clothes, he didn’t look much like a returned missionary.

It was during the mid-1930s when Sister Ross, then a missionary herself, first met the man who would become her husband. At the time, neither of them could have imagined that he would one day stand beside prophets to interpret their words for eager Saints.

Yet it happened. Eduardo Balderas has frequently been called on to translate for Church leaders as they have spoken before Spanish-speaking audiences. But Spanish-speaking Church members, though they may not realize it, are probably more familiar with his work in the translations, or revised translations, of the scriptures, Church hymns, and other LDS publications.

There was little indication when Eduardo was a young boy growing up in El Paso that he might ever do such work—or even be an active member of the Church.

He was born in Mexico City, 14 September 1907, to Jose Apolinar and Maria Centeno Balderas. Jose Apolinar had entered a monastery as a youth and begun schooling that would have led him to become a priest. But because of some of the customs and practices in the monastery, he had chosen to leave and take up barbering as a trade. In 1910, civil strife in Mexico persuaded him to take his family and pursue his trade north of the Rio Grande River in El Paso.

A few years later, two astute LDS missionaries, realizing Jose Apolinar would not want to send them away in the middle of a haircut, began to tell him about the gospel while they sat in his chair. They invited him to Church. Thinking it might be a way to secure some new customers, he went. The visit proved very rewarding, but not in the way he expected. He studied the gospel almost a year before he was ready to be baptized.

One morning, he told his thirteen-year-old son, Eduardo, that he was to stay home from school that day. Eduardo was pleased, thinking it meant a free day, but soon a car arrived to pick him and his father up. They rode to the Rio Grande River, where the missionaries baptized Jose Apolinar, and then Eduardo. “Before I knew it,” Brother Balderas says, “I was under the water.” He knew little of the gospel, but it was his father’s decision that he should be baptized, and Eduardo dutifully obeyed.

Jose Apolinar became a stalwart member of the Church and, in time, was called to be the first Mexican-born president of the Spanish-speaking branch in El Paso. Some referred to him as the “silver-tongued orator of the Latins.”

In 1922, two years after his baptism, Eduardo accompanied his parents to the Salt Lake Temple to be sealed.

Though he had left Mexico when he was only three, Eduardo learned, through a dual-language upbringing, to be fluent in both Spanish and English. With his friends, he often spoke English, but in the home, Spanish. “English outside the house, Spanish inside the house,” he recalls his mother saying. “When you want to talk among yourselves or talk to me, I want to know what you are talking about.”

But fluency was not enough to get Eduardo through a high school Spanish class. He had signed up because a friend suggested it would be easy for him. “I couldn’t see any sense to studying. If I could speak it, read it, and write it, why study the grammar?” He earned a failing grade in the class. But the teacher explained to Eduardo that it would reflect on her own reputation to give a native Spanish speaker a failing grade, so she gave the errant young scholar a passing mark instead. Later, Eduardo would need to make up for that lack of study.

He found a profitable use for his language skills while doing odd jobs in a silent movie theater at age fifteen. The manager had been impressed with his competence in English and gave him the job of translating the English subtitles of the films and putting them on little pieces of celluloid so they could be projected on the screen for those needing Spanish.

But the theater job kept him away from Church part of the time. Things improved in his spiritual life, however, when he went to work for a sash and door company and was able to attend meetings more regularly.

He confesses that his mind was often elsewhere during meetings. Though he sometimes did not understand what was being taught, he silently and dutifully endured. An experience one Sunday, however, changed his attitude about sacrament meetings and gave him the beginnings of a real testimony. Suddenly, he says, “I experienced a distinctive pop in my ears which seemed to cause me to understand all the speaker was saying.” The speaker had not changed, the language had not changed, but the concepts were clear to him! “My mind was in tune with the speaker. From that time on, I could clearly understand the gospel concepts taught in Church meetings.”

Further spiritual growth prepared him for a mission call, which he received in 1929. He served in Arizona, then for a time in the Los Angeles area, and finished his mission in San Diego, California.

There were few opportunities for translation work during his mission. But when he returned to El Paso, he worked during the day at a lumber yard across the river in Ciudad Jaurez and in the evenings did translation work for the mission headquarters located in El Paso.

Enter Sister Rhea Ross of Salt Lake City.

After her mission, their relationship grew as they corresponded and shared their feelings. At her invitation, he traveled to Salt Lake City to meet her parents. He called her on the telephone and sang a Mexican ballad to announce his arrival. It was during his stay in Salt Lake City that they made the decision to marry.

Their plan was not greeted with unreserved happiness. Some people, including her father, viewed the prospect of a cross-cultural marriage with alarm. (Rhea’s father, Milton H. Ross, was a schoolteacher at the former LDS High School; prominently known as “Mr. Penman,” for years he lettered the missionary certificates issued to thousands of departing missionaries.) In time, however, Rhea and Eduardo won his approval.

They were married in the Arizona Temple 10 October 1935 and established their home in El Paso.

In 1939, Elder Antoine R. Ivins of the First Council of the Seventy extended to Brother Balderas an offer of a job as a translator at Church headquarters. Elder Ivins already knew of his ability; he had used Eduardo before, as a translator for visiting General Authorities in Texas.

The United States was still recovering from the Great Depression, and there was no promise as to how long the $100-a-month job would continue. But Eduardo and Rhea decided he should accept the offer, believing the Lord would direct them. Brother Balderas was firm in the faith that if he were spiritually prepared, he could accept every assignment confidently.

He became part of the Missionary Department of the Church on 1 September 1939. Elder Stephen L. Richards, then a member of the Council of the Twelve (and later First Counselor to President David O. McKay), presided over the department, but Brother Balderas’s immediate supervisor was the executive secretary of the Missionary Committee, Gordon B. Hinckley. President Hinckley, now Second Counselor in the First Presidency, recalls that the new translator was needed because of Church growth in Spanish-speaking areas.

“I soon came to appreciate his great skill as a translator, as well as his integrity as a man and his faithfulness as a member of the Church,” President Hinckley recalls.

Brother Balderas’s first assignment was to translate some of the hymns for the Spanish edition of Hymns of Zion. Poetry and music are among the most difficult of items to translate, but the new translator accepted the assignment with a humble willingness to serve.

“As I worked with him through a number of years,” President Hinckley comments, “I noted his versatility in translating the words of the hymns so that the thought of the original author came through with proper meaning for those who would sing them in their native Spanish. He was fast and accurate in translating lesson manuals and similar materials. He knew the idiomatic language of the Church and could express it in either language. He was likewise exact and precise in translating legal documents and similar writings.”

For a time, though, that lack of Spanish grammar study in high school came back to haunt Brother Balderas. He was working under the direction of Elder Ivins, a scholar and very capable translator who sometimes corrected his work. On occasion, Brother Balderas challenged Elder Ivins’ interpretations, only to have his supervisor go to a shelf, take down a Spanish grammar, and show him the rule. But Brother Balderas persevered in his belated studies, and eventually the day came when Elder Ivins told him his translations would no longer have to be checked.

During his years of working at Church headquarters, Brother Balderas has associated with many Church leaders. He remembers well President Joseph Fielding Smith’s style of teaching. “Do you know how he used to help me? By asking me questions. When I would go to him with a problem, he would ask me questions to find out what I knew about the subject.” Soon, through his replies to President Smith’s questions, the answer Brother Balderas sought would become clear.

His ability in translation won the respect of Church leaders with whom he worked. President Hinckley recalls that President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who had served as United States ambassador to Mexico before he was a counselor in the First Presidency, once called Brother Balderas one of the ablest translators he had ever met.

In addition to numerous manuals, handbooks, articles, missionary tracts, and other supplementary materials through the years, his list of major book translations is impressive. It includes The Articles of Faith, Jesus the Christ, and The House of the Lord, by Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve; A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, by Elder LeGrand Richards of the Council of the Twelve; The Miracle of Forgiveness, by President Spencer W. Kimball; The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Essentials in Church History, by President Joseph Fielding Smith; Gospel Doctrine, by President Joseph F. Smith; much of Hymns of Zion; and the Pearl of Great Price. He also assisted Elder Ivins in completing the translation of the Doctrine and Covenants, and has reviewed and updated the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Local Church leaders in places from Latin America to Spain have attested to the quality of his translations.

One day while he was translating the hymnbook, his wife found numerous scraps of paper in one of the pockets of his suit. She learned that he had been translating hymns during Church meetings and saving the papers. Carefully, she tucked them away in a book, but when he asked for them later, they had been lost. It could have been a domestic crisis, but he averted it by saying softly, “That’s all right, the translations were wrong and I needed to do them again anyway.”

Once their oldest son, Robert—when he was twelve—came to Brother Balderas and asked, “Do you and mother ever quarrel?”

“I was a little curious,” Brother Balderas explains, “so I asked, ‘Why do you ask that?’ He said, ‘When I go over to my friend’s home and the father comes home from work, you should hear the awful words they say to each other.’” Robert was curious because he had never heard his father and mother speak evil words to each other. Then Robert continued: “‘Or do you have your quarrels when we are not with you?’ I said, ‘No, we wouldn’t do anything like that; we have no reason to quarrel. You can see we are a happy family and we love you kids. We think we are enjoying the blessings of our Heavenly Father.’”

Eduardo and Rhea Balderas are the parents of five children: Marta Nancy, Robert Ross, Anna Maria, Daniel Ross, and Samuel Ross.

“One thing that always impressed me about Dad at home,” Anna Maria recalls, “was that I don’t remember his ever going to work without kissing my mother good-bye, and kissing her hello when he came home. I also remember when I was at home—and he undoubtedly does the same thing now—he would call home to check on Mom, just to see how she was doing. Mother could count on his calling just about the same time every day.”

She recalls that he was gone frequently, doing Church work, but that he always had time to do the right things with his children. “He was in the branch presidency (Salt Lake City’s Mexican Branch), and later on the high council. He was busy and we didn’t see him a lot, but he had a lot more influence on us as children than we realized.

“I remember the day that I was married. He wanted to give me a father’s blessing. I still remember sitting in that chair and having his hands on my head. It was a special moment in my life. He wanted to send me off in good health and with a blessing as I got married. It is something special that I will always remember about Dad.”

Through the years, Brother Balderas has had many opportunities to extend service beyond his family. He is a patriarch who now resides in the Salt Lake Parley’s Stake, “with the privilege of accepting anyone who wants a blessing in Spanish, regardless of where they’re from.” As he has traveled with Church leaders, he has had the opportunity to give blessings to Spanish-speaking Saints in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, and the Dominican Republic. He has given more than five thousand of them.

Another of the privileges that has come to him in later life is the opportunity to be a sealer in the Salt Lake Temple. “It is a wonderful thing to have these people shake my hand and tell me what it means to them to have an understanding of the significance of the sealing in their lives.” Often that understanding comes because he takes care to perform the ordinance and explain it in Spanish for native Spanish speakers, even though they may also understand English. “I feel if I pronounce the words in their natural language, it will reach them a little deeper. Being in their own language, the words will be more meaningful,” he explains. “One of the most beautiful feelings I have had after performing the sealing ceremony when I have to use both languages is in seeing the tears of joy on the face of that woman who has just been sealed to her husband for time and all eternity. This makes me feel they understand what they have just gone through.”

Have there been difficulties in his own life? If there have, they seem not to have been significant enough to stand out in memory. “My problems have been just as anyone else’s, as far as I know. I haven’t had any that make me fret or would cause me anguish.” Then he quickly adds: “One thing that I’ve never had to face is any doubt as to the truthfulness of the Gospel or the Church. That one thing I’ve never had to struggle with.”

Yet he does confess that later in life one thing did bother him—the prospect of retirement. “I guess I had to realize there would be someone else to take my place.” When official retirement did come in the fall of 1977, it did not change his dedication to the work he loves. The morning after his retirement, and the party in his honor at the Church offices, he arose and prepared for work in the usual manner. When his wife asked what he was doing, his reply was, “Well, I’m going to work like I always have.” He has continued to do it since then, offering his services in whatever assignment may be given.

In 1980 he finished the work he began on the new Spanish triple combination. And he has continued to travel extensively, giving patriarchal blessings to Spanish-speaking Saints. During his most recent trip to Spain, he gave more than 620 patriarchal blessings. Much of his time in Salt Lake is spent editing the transcriptions of the blessings.

What is Brother Balderas’s philosophy of life? “Trust in the Lord completely and be prepared to do his bidding.”

It is a philosophy that has served him well, because, he says, he is “a very blessed son of our Heavenly Father. He has given me just about everything I have needed to make me happy and content. Opportunities to be of service to him and to be productive—those are the main things.”

[photos] (Left) Eduardo served as a missionary in the Mexican Mission, which included the southern border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas; (second from left) six-year-old Eduardo with his younger brother Guillermo; (center) Brother and Sister Balderas reminisce nearly fifty years of marriage at home in Salt Lake City; (right) Eduardo and Rhea pose outside their El Paso, Texas, home in 1936, a year after their marriage in the Arizona Temple.

[photo] Brother Balderas translated numerous manuals, handbooks, articles, and books in his years at Church headquarters. Though he retired in 1977, he continues to offer his services as a volunteer in the Translation Department.

[photo] In the 1960s, President N. Eldon Tanner welcomed Mexican Saints who had traveled to attend the Arizona Temple. At his side interpreting was Eduardo Balderas.

John E. Carr, former director for Church Translation and Distribution, currently serves as financial clerk in the Salt Lake Home Branch.