How the Scriptures Came to Be Translated into Spanish
September 1972

“How the Scriptures Came to Be Translated into Spanish,” Ensign, Sept. 1972, 27

How the Scriptures Came to Be Translated into Spanish

The translation of the standard works of the Church into Spanish has a history of hardship, loyalty, often persecution and always financial duress. Through it all, however, runs the thread of dedication as men of religious fervor have pursued their appointed tasks to success.

The story of the translation of the Bible into Spanish began to unfold in A.D. 1233, when King James of Aragon issued an edict in the Council of Tarragena prohibiting “both clergymen and laymen to read, or even to have in their possession, copies of the sacred scriptures unless these were in Latin.” This is the earliest indication that translations of at least some portions of the scriptures were in circulation.

Another evidence that the scriptures existed in Spanish at that time is a group of manuscript versions dating from the thirteenth century that are found in Madrid. Some of this work was done under the auspices of King Alfonso X, better known by the distinguished title of Alfonso the Wise, who reigned from 1252 to 1284.

Other versions of the Bible in Spanish were the Bible of the Duke of Alba, completed in 1430, and a version made in one of the dialects of the province of Valencia and completed in 1478. These and other versions, although of particular interest, in no way constitute a complete list of the translations or portions of the scriptures that have been found in Spanish dialects.

The Spanish version of the Holy Bible presently in use among the Spanish-speaking members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is published by the American Bible Society. Known as the Reina-Valera Version, it is the fruit of the doctrinal reformation felt in Spain during the sixteenth century.

Casiodoro de Reina, the original translator, was born in about 1520, three years after Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the doors of the church at Wittenberg. In 1557 we find him as a member of the monastery of San Isidoro and one of the leaders of the group that favored the Reformation.

It was inevitable that this type of activity in the monastery should be brought to the attention of the Inquisition, especially in view of the fact that Seville had been the headquarters of the Inquisition since the thirteenth century. Because of severe pressure brought to bear against them, twelve of the monks fled to Geneva. Among them were two men in whose hearts existed the noble purpose of giving to Spain the Bible in their mother tongue—Reina and Cipriano de Valera.

They arrived at Geneva just as a committee of scholars was making preparations for a revision of the Bible in English, and Reina had the opportunity of familiarizing himself both with the learned men who had undertaken the revision and with the Greek text they were using, as well as the methods they employed in performing their task. In 1559 Reina moved to London, where he became the pastor of the refugee Spanish Protestants who had come in great number to seek protection under Queen Elizabeth.

In 1564, having learned of efforts by King Philip II of Spain to have him banished from England, Reina moved to Antwerp in the Netherlands. Once again he was among scholars who were busy in the translation and revision of the scriptures. Under the sponsorship of Philip II, they were preparing for the publication of the Polyglot Bible in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.

When Reina’s activities came to the attention of King Philip, a handsome reward was offered for his arrest. Consequently, he fled to Frankfurt, Germany, where he became a good friend of Theodorus Beza, the greatest scholar of his time in matters relating to the New Testament; in 1565, the year that Reina arrived at Frankfurt, Beza published the first of nine editions of the New Testament in Greek.

In 1568 Reina finally completed his Spanish translation of the Bible and moved to Basel, where it was printed the following year. This edition, published by the printing establishment of Thomas Guarinos of Basel, carried the symbol of the publishing house on the title page, a bear eating honey from a tree; for this reason it was called “the Bible of the Bear.” Today, four hundred years later and after several revisions, this version is still being distributed.

Ten years after the publication of Reina’s translation, Cipriano de Valera commenced the revision of this important work. He modernized the terminology and spellings, eliminated Reina’s explanatory notes in the margins, and followed the pattern set by other translations of the period, establishing a clear distinction between the canonical books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha. Instead of following the order found in the Vulgate, Valera grouped the Apocrypha together and placed these books at the end of the Old Testament.

The Spanish version of the Bible published by the American Bible Society still carries the following words on the title page of nearly every edition: “Ancient version of Casiodoro de Reina (1569), revised by Cipriano de Valera (1602), and subsequently compared with diverse translations, and with the texts in Hebrew and Greek.”

As was the case in the translation of the Bible into the Spanish language, so also in the translation of the Book of Mormon into Spanish we see the hand of the Lord directing the course of events and raising up men whom he prepared for accomplishing his purposes.

On the title page of the Book of Mormon are found these words written by Moroni, as he sealed the plates and hid them up unto the Lord: “Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites—Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile … Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile—The interpretation thereof by the gift of God.”

And in the “Testimony of Three Witnesses” is the impressive statement by Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris that the plates were “translated by the gift and power of God.”

On March 10, 1843, in the town of Garganta-La Olla, Province of Caceres, in western Spain, a newborn child was christened Meliton Gonzalez Trejo. The progenitors of the Trejo family had arrived in Spain during the time of the Roman Empire, and many of the Trejo’s ancestors made significant contributions to the military and religious life of that country.

Favored by his noble ancestry, Meliton Trejo received a liberal education and graduated from a military academy. He subsequently received his doctorate from the University of Bordeaux. His superior preparation and education, as well as the prominence of his father’s family, gave him a great deal of prestige among his companions. But more important than this was the fact that these opportunities helped to prepare him for accomplishing, later in his life, an important work for the Lord.

Throughout his early life Meliton thought seriously about religion, but in his investigations and reading he found nothing to satisfy his religious desires and yearnings. One day he heard one of his companions mention a group of “saints” in the Rocky Mountains who had been led there by a prophet of God. Meliton, suddenly filled with an intense desire to see these people, requested permission from the queen to accompany a military expedition to the Philippine Islands, which then belonged to Spain. He hoped that this would give him the opportunity of visiting the United States, and especially Salt Lake City.

Once in the Philippines he dedicated himself to his work so devotedly that he forgot for the moment the true purpose of his voyage, until he fell victim to a serious illness. During his lengthy recuperation he had time to meditate; remembering the reason for his coming to the Philippines, he decided to go to the Rocky Mountains. In fervent prayer he asked the Lord to help him in his investigation of the truth. That night Meliton had a dream that left him completely satisfied, but the details of which he apparently revealed during the course of his life only to one other man—Brigham Young.

As soon as he could arrange his affairs with the army, he obtained two thousand dollars in bills, which he sewed inside the lining of his vest, and secured passage to the United States. Landing in San Francisco on July 4, 1874, he immediately left for Salt Lake City. Although he had received a good education and could read English, he had had no opportunity to speak it. How was he going to be able to receive the truth that he was seeking in this English-speaking community?

Putting on his uniform of an officer in the Spanish Army, he walked through the streets of Salt Lake City, attracting a great deal of attention. Finally a Brother Blanchard, a native Frenchman who taught romance languages at Brigham Young Academy in Provo, addressed him in Spanish. Immediately Meliton made known to him his desires, and Brother Blanchard accompanied him to his hotel, where they could speak without being interrupted. At last Meliton had found the pearl he had been seeking so long. Brother Blanchard taught Meliton the restored gospel and introduced him to Brigham Young and other Church leaders.

Brother Trejo related the story of his life and his sacred dream to Brigham Young and told him that his most fervent desire was to translate the Book of Mormon into Spanish and to take the gospel to his people. His desire was about to be fulfilled.

Earlier that year another convert, Daniel Webster Jones, who had spent some time in Mexico and had learned the Spanish language, had been asked by Brigham Young to prepare and publish extracts from the Book of Mormon in Spanish to be used in missionary work. Jones and Trejo joined forces and together prepared a publication entitled Trozos Selectos del Libro de Mormon (Selected Portions from the Book of Mormon), which was printed in 1875.

In October 1876 Brother Trejo was called to the Mexican Mission. He returned in 1877 and was called on a second mission there in October 1879. In 1884 Elder Trejo married Emily Jones in the Logan Temple. Subsequently, when the Latter-day Saints began to colonize in Mexico, he was again set apart as a missionary to that land. Taking his wife and four children with him, he remained in Mexico for eleven years.

In 1883 Elder Moses Thatcher of the Council of the Twelve, who had been given the responsibility of overseeing the translating and printing of the complete Book of Mormon into Spanish, called Trejo and James Z. Stewart to perform this labor. In 1886 the first edition of the Book of Mormon in Spanish was printed in Salt Lake City.

This work, quietly accomplished, has been of great importance because it has enabled countless thousands of Spanish-speaking people to study the gospel in their own tongue.

Because of outmoded words and changes in spelling, the 1886 edition was revised in 1922 and again in 1929 by President Rey L. Pratt of the First Council of the Seventy. In 1952 a further revision and updating was authorized.

For many years the only standard works to which the Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints throughout Latin America had access were the Bible and the Book of Mormon. In 1930, however, there began to develop a further fulfillment of the promise of the Lord as recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 90:11: “For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language. …” [D&C 90:11]

President Pratt, who was then serving as president of the Mexican Mission, was given the privilege of translating into Spanish some of the latter-day revelations of the Lord. He had lived in Mexico as a youth and had been called on a mission there in 1906. In 1907 he was called to preside over the Mexican Mission, which position he held for twenty-four years. In 1925 he was appointed to the First Council of the Seventy.

President Pratt was given permission to translate the book Latter-day Revelations into Spanish. He finished the translation by the end of 1930 and was revising and giving final form to his work for its publication at the time of his death in April 1931.

He was succeeded as mission president by Antoine R. Ivins, who had studied law in Mexico City and had become well versed in the Spanish language. He continued the work of revision that had been started by President Pratt and upon its completion proceeded to publish the book, which bore the title Revelacion de los Ultimos Dias, a direct translation of the English “Latter-day Revelation.”

In January 1934 President Ivins returned to Salt Lake City to assume his responsibilities in the First Council of the Seventy. Feeling that the time had arrived for the Spanish-speaking Saints to have the entire volume of revelation, he obtained permission to continue the work and proceeded to translate the parts that had not been included in the first edition.

I was asked to help, and after a careful revision and comparison with translations in other languages, in 1948 we were able to publish in its entirety the Doctrine and Covenants in Spanish.

Being language conscious, in the process of translating, we marveled many times at the simplicity of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s language, and yet the beauty and spiritual tone it carried. President Ivins frequently commented, “He would not have been able to express it this way if he had not been inspired.” It can truthfully be said, as I think back upon this particular assignment, that the translation thereof was accomplished because of “the gift and power of God.”

While the type was being set for the Spanish edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, some thought was given to the translation of the Pearl of Great Price. It was decided that it would be included in one volume with the Doctrine and Covenants, and the translation assignment was given to me.

With the publication of the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price in 1948, all four of the standard works were now available to the Spanish-speaking people throughout the world. The fullness of the gospel, as contained in them, is now within their reach, and every Spanish-speaking person can hear it “in his own tongue, and in his own language.”

  • Brother Balderas, a Mexico City-born Spanish translator for the Church, is patriarch in Parleys Stake and a sealer in the Salt Lake Temple. During Mexican excursions to the Arizona Temple, he assists in giving blessings and as an officiator.