A Conversation about Translating the Word of God for “Every Nation, Kindred, Tongue and People”

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    The Ensign recently visited with Eb Davis, director of translation for the Church. Brother Davis spoke of the extensive task of translating the scriptures to meet the challenges of a world-wide missionary effort.

    Q: When did the Church begin to feel the need for a widespread emphasis on scripture translation?

    A: Since the earliest days of the Church, members have felt strongly motivated to translate the scriptures into as many languages as possible. In fact, translation was one of the first big issues as the fledgling Church began missionary work. After the Prophet Joseph Smith completed his translation into English, the Book of Mormon was soon translated into Danish, German, French, Italian, and Welsh. Although those early translations were rather spontaneous, most were surprisingly adequate.

    Translation progressed steadily during the Church’s first 138 years and by 1968, the Book of Mormon—and also many more materials—had been published in 18 languages. Since then the work has skyrocketed. Today either the Book of Mormon, selections of it, or basic gospel materials have been published in 96 languages. Those languages are used by 76 percent of the world’s people.

    Q: That is quite impressive, but how much further do we have to go?

    A: Although our progress has been phenomenal, the challenge still before us is staggering. Our ultimate goal was set by the Lord when he said the gospel must be preached unto “every nation, kindred, tongue and people.” (D&C 42:58.) The other 24 percent of the world’s population speak more than 4,900 languages. Many of these are spoken languages only and have no written equivalent. As we set out to translate the word of the Lord for those people, the Brethren are guiding us in the directions and at the speeds they feel are prudent. They have counseled us to “take every opportunity that would allow us to teach the gospel to all people.” President Kimball’s leadership has been vital to this explosion of translation activity.

    But the momentum for the work has been provided by Church members, through their hard work and prayers. Hundreds of translators donate countless hours in scripture translation. For instance, we have translators sitting under trees in Micronesia, or laboring in the dim light of kerosene lanterns in the Mideast.

    Q: You mentioned translations of the Book of Mormon or selections of it. Isn’t the entire book translated at one time?

    A: Not usually. When we are beginning translation in a new language, we don’t generally begin with the Book of Mormon. We first start by translating “Gospel Principles,” a manual containing basic gospel concepts in rudimentary form. This approach allows us to train new translators, and also allows us to get a feeling of how the gospel message will be accepted by a particular people or culture. Next, based on our experience with that manual, selections of the Book of Mormon are translated, then the entire book, and then the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.

    Q: How many languages have a complete Book of Mormon translation?

    A: We have the entire Book of Mormon translated into thirty-one languages, with some of the more recent translations in Vietnamese, Hindi, and Kekchi, a Mayan tongue in South America. Selections of the Book of Mormon have been translated into thirty-seven more languages, including the just-completed Marshalese, Haitian and H’mong translations.

    n addition to those, we have recently completed the Icelandic and Afrikaans translations of the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, bringing the availability of these books to twenty-seven languages.

    Q: What tongues do you see the Church focusing on for the remainder of the decade?

    A: In the past, we have seemed to emphasize our translation efforts in certain world areas. During Joseph Smith’s and Brigham Young’s time, the focus was mainly on Europe. Since the beginning of President Kimball’s leadership, a major effort has been with the Lamanite languages in Central and South America.

    Once again the focus is gradually shifting. For the next few years the Brethren have directed us to focus mainly on Africa and Asia-Indonesia. In Africa, where Christianity is growing faster than anywhere else in the world, we are working on such languages as Efik, which is spoken in Nigeria; Akan, from Ghana; and others including Zulu, Xthosa, Swahili, and Kiisi. Palaun, from the South Pacific island of Palau, and Singalese from Sri Lanka, are just a few of the Indonesian languages we are working on. For the past decade, we have been adding about seven new languages each year.

    Q: Has the Church done any Bible translations?

    A: Up to this point, no. The World Bible Society has translated the Bible into approximately 1,700 languages. However, in the future we may need to make LDS translations in areas where the current Bible translations are inadequate.

    [photo] Photography by Eldon Linschoten