In His Own Language

By Sandra Williams

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    The work of translation is an important part of sharing the gospel message with every nation, kindred, tongue, and people

    On a cool evening in late June, 1987, voices were raised in song outside the Oakland California Temple. Had you been there, you would have recognized the beautiful song, but wondered at the unfamiliar words. The song was: Thov Vaj Tswv Kom Peb Rov Sib Pom Dua, or “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” sung in Hmong. Hmong is the language of many hill tribes in Laos, Southeast Asia, and the native language of Kua Lo and his brothers Yia Lo and Chong Lee Lo, who had just had their families sealed to them in the temple. It was one of the happiest days of their lives.

    The conversion of the Lo families, and the song they sang, are but parts of a much larger, and even miraculous story of the Church’s efforts to preach the gospel to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.” (D&C 133:37.)

    The Lo families first attended the Church in a Salt Lake City ward where they met Scott Jenkins, the stake mission president. He, with the assistance of Brian Walker, a returned missionary who spoke Thai, began teaching the Lo families. Brother Walker would give the gospel message in Thai which Kua Lo would then translate in Hmong to his family and friends.

    In spite of difficulties in communication, the Lo families enthusiastically received the gospel message, continued to attend church, and became the nucleus of a Hmong-speaking branch. Eventually, the Church’s Translation Division was able to provide Hmong versions of the sacrament prayers, portions of Gospel Principles, and some hymns, and branch members could hold entire meetings in their native language. Later, they received complete copies of Gospel Principles and of Book of Mormon Stories.

    Following the Lo families’ baptism, Kua Lo was called to serve as president of the first Asian Branch in Salt Lake City. He now lives in Bakersfield, California, where he serves as president of the Asian Branch there. Constantly sharing the gospel message among his people, Brother Lo has been responsible for at least ninety baptisms.

    Brother Lo can testify of the influence of the Holy Ghost in his conversion, an influence that could be felt despite language barriers. But without translated gospel materials in Hmong, the Lo families may have had to wait much longer than they did to receive the blessings of the temple. Perhaps they may never have received them at all.

    Making the Blessings of the Gospel Available

    In preparation for the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise that one day, “every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language” (D&C 90:11), the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve directed the establishment of the Church’s Translation Division in 1965. The workers of the Division, whether they be at the headquarters in Salt Lake City or at one of the auxiliary offices located throughout the world, quietly labor to make the blessings of the gospel available to more and more people. This task is accomplished by producing the Book of Mormon in approximately 150 languages and other Church materials and magazines in many languages.

    The Brethren directed the creation of the Division at a time when modern technology in the form of computers makes translation easier and quicker than ever before, even in languages that use special symbols and letters.

    But computers lack inspiration, and so the Lord has prepared many individual translators for the work. For example, in 1980, a Division supervisor had the assignment of getting Church materials translated into Bengali, a language of India and Bangladesh. Unable at the time to find Church members who knew the language, he turned for help to two non-member teachers. When their translation was completed, the supervisor then hoped to find a member to review the translation for doctrinal and grammatical accuracy.

    As if in answer to his need, he read an article about Towhid-ul Alam, a recent convert from Bangladesh who was studying at Brigham Young University—Hawaii. Thanks to the help of Brother Alam, the Bengali Selections from the Book of Mormon was printed in New Delhi, India, in 1985.

    A Need to Do Something for the Lord

    Sometimes the Lord works in other ways. Sister Sampson-Davis of Ghana was inspired to translate the Book of Mormon into her native language of Fante before the Translation Division was even assigned the task. While growing up, Sister Davis enjoyed associating with Christians. As a youth, she was so impressed with and grateful for Christ’s sacrifice that she felt a strong need to do something for him. Almost forty years later, after learning English in the Netherlands and returning home to Ghana, where she joined the Church, she found an opportunity to accomplish her girlhood desire.

    One night after attending sacrament meeting, Sister Sampson-Davis realized that some of the people in the congregation did not sing from the hymnbook because they did not know English. She felt impressed to translate gospel materials for the benefit of her people, and that night she translated “I Am a Child of God.” The translation of other hymns followed.

    Encouraged by accomplishing these small works of translation, Sister Sampson-Davis felt led to the enormous task for which she had been prepared over many years—translating the Book of Mormon into Fante. When the Church’s Translation Division reviewed Sister Sampson-Davis’s translation of the Book of Mormon, they were astonished that this schoolteacher, with little or no professional translation experience, had produced an excellent translation with a high degree of accuracy.

    Sister Sampson-Davis is an example of the quality and dedication of translators the Lord has prepared, and is preparing for use by the Translation Division. Currently, the Division is working on translating doctrinal material in at least one major language for every nation of the world. This project, approved by the First Presidency in 1986 and called the Every Nation program, will result in reading material in many additional languages over the next few years.

    “Lights to Their Own People”

    The “every nation” title of the program is derived from a 1978 talk by President Spencer W. Kimball in which he said:

    “If we only make a small beginning in every nation, soon the converts among each kindred and tongue could step forth as lights to their own people and the gospel would thus be preached in all the nations before the coming of the Lord.” (Regional Representatives seminar, October 1978.)

    Eb Davis, director of the Translation Division, says of the program, “The Brethren are inspired in their direction of this work. Initially, we thought that many of the languages of the Every Nation program were so rare that we would have difficulties finding translators, but we discovered that the way was prepared for us. For example, we found twenty members of the Church from the Seychelles—islands between India and Africa—who could help us. We have forty members from Uganda that we can call upon, and we located four people in the Salt Lake Valley who speak Ethiopian.”

    Lowell Bishop, who oversees the work in African languages, says that most of the translators for these languages have been members of the Church for only as long as the Every Nation program has been operating. He adds that for almost every language the Division has worked with so far, a member has indeed “stepped forth” to do the translation.

    A Return to Their Native Language

    As an example, Brother Bishop describes the members the Division found to translate materials into two of the languages of Zaire—Lingala and Tshiluba. Church materials are translated into Lingala by Alfonse and Maguy Muanda, in addition to their being actively involved as stake missionaries and operating their own business.

    Tshiluba is the native language of Ambrose and Louise Massala, but in their college days they lived in an area of Zaire where Swahili is spoken, and that became their daily language. Shortly after they were married, Ambrose suggested that they go back to speaking to one another in Tshiluba. Louise thought the suggestion strange because by then they had been speaking Swahili for a number of years. However, they began using Tshiluba again, and their children grew up speaking Tshiluba at home. Surprised when they were asked if they would translate material into Tshiluba, Louise said she finally realized why Ambrose was inspired to return to using a language they had almost forgotten.

    But whether the language be Tshiluba, Hmong, or any of the many other languages that the Church Translation Division is directed to work with, the message must be “translated” into the daily lives of the individual Latter-day Saint. Like Brother Kua Lo, once we have the gospel, we need to share it with family members, neighbors, and friends, so that together we might all speak the eternal language of the gospel.

    The importance of sharing the gospel has often been emphasized by President Ezra Taft Benson. On one occasion he said, “We are required to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation of the world … This commission to take the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people is one of the signs by which believers will recognize the nearness of the Savior’s return” (General Conference, April 1984.)

    Illustrated by Lori Anderson