Every Man … in His Own Language

“Every Man … in His Own Language,” Ensign, July 1974, 23

“Every Man … in His Own Language”

“Tagata ta’ito’atasi … i lana lava gagana … ”
“Todo homem … no seu próprio idioma … ”
“Hvert menneske … på sitt eget sprog …”
“Todo hombre … en su propia lengua …”
“Jokainen … omalla kielellänsä …”
“Jedermann … in seiner eigenen Sprache …”
(D&C 90:11)

We are beginning to see the expansion of the Church. We are beginning to see it no longer as an American church,” said President Harold B. Lee in April 1972 to the Regional Representatives of the Council of the Twelve. “It is an international, universal kingdom of God. … When you think of the different cultures that are represented here, you begin to see, somewhat, the tremendous challenge that we face in providing for the teaching and the translations and all that has to do with meeting their needs.”

Much of the responsibility for translating the message of the Church into foreign languages rests with its Translation Services Department, first organized as the Translation Department in 1946.

One of the Church’s first full-time translators was Eduardo Balderas, who began to translate Church literature into Spanish in 1939. At the end of World War II, he was joined by Danish, Dutch, French, German, Norwegian, Samoan, and Swedish translators. Still employed as a Spanish translator for the Church, Brother Balderas interpreted for President Harold B. Lee at the Mexico City Area General Conference in 1973.

In 1960 the Translation Department in Salt Lake City was dissolved and the mission presidents assumed responsibility for translation of Church materials in Europe.

Five years later, the First Presidency directed the Presiding Bishopric to establish a translation, publishing, and distribution organization for the Spanish-speaking members of the Church. Elder J. Thomas Fyans, presently Assistant to the Council of the Twelve and director of Internal Communications, was appointed the first director of the Translation Services Department. He was succeeded as head of Translation services in 1969 by John E. Carr, who presently serves as head of the department.

In 1966 the European languages were added to the department’s responsibilities. Later, Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan, and eventually, the other languages used by the Church were added. Between 1966 and 1974, the average annual translation workload increased from 4,000 to 17,000 pages per language.

Since the organization of the Translation Services Department, 38 stakes have been organized in non-English-speaking countries. To fulfill the needs of these Saints, more than 18,000 translations of various Church materials have been produced, 2,400 of which are in process at the present time. These include scriptures, lesson manuals, visual aids, organization bulletins, missionary tracts, report forms, and certain hardbound books. The most recent hardbound book authorized for translation is The Miracle of Forgiveness by President Spencer W. Kimball, scheduled to appear in 15 languages.

As far as can be determined, members of the Church currently live in 102 countries and speak 112 languages. (Spoken languages in the world, including major dialects, number over 3,000; written languages number 1,500 to 2,000.)The entire Church offering of printed materials, including standard works, curricula, and handbooks, is translated into 16 languages: Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Samoan, Spanish, Swedish, Tahitian, and Tongan. (United Bible Society figures show that at least one book of the Bible has been translated into about 1,540 languages. There are 329 complete translations of the New Testament alone.)

Some translation work, mostly on the Book of Mormon, the missionary discussions, and the basic tracts, is being done in Afrikaans, Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindustani, Indonesian, Navajo, Niuean, Raratongan, Thai, and Vietnamese. Translations of the Book of Mormon, complete or in part, will be available in Bulgarian, Czech, Filipino, Hungarian, Rumanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Turkish. Parts of the Book of Mormon and other literature have also been translated and tape recorded into Aymara, Cakchiquel, Quechua, and Quiche for the Lamanite members of the Church living in Central and South America who cannot read their language. Book of Mormon translations today total 45.

Much of the translation work in the Church has been a labor of love. For example, a Russian-born member of the Church who served as the president of the British Mission during World War II has recently completed the translation of the standard works into Russian, a project that took many years.

A missionary in Greece, who returned to that country after his mission to work for the U.S. State Department, translated the Book of Mormon into Greek in his free time. His work has been described as “so beautiful, it is just like Shakespeare.” It is now being used as a basis for the new Greek translation of the Book of Mormon.

A nonmember Biblical scholar and lecturer at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, was employed by the Church in 1968 to translate the Book of Mormon into Afrikaans. He was asked how he would resolve problems that would arise in translation. He indicated that he would first read a number of other translations to find an answer. If he could not find an answer in these translations, he would return to the English version, because “I know that that was an inspired translation from the original.” When asked what he would do if he couldn’t find the answer in the English translation, he said, “Many times I knelt and prayed to the Lord for an answer.”

The Book of Mormon is being translated into Arabic by professors at the Middle East Center at the University of Utah. One observed recently, “We are very concerned that a mistranslation could cause dissension in the Church, with each sect holding to certain passages. We feel a tremendous weight of responsibility. We are concerned that the first translation is as correct as humanly possible. We could translate the book, provide a first draft, and say the next edition will be better, but this destroys the faith of the people. It must be correct the first time.”

Many nonmember translators, after working with the Book of Mormon and other Church literature, sentence by sentence, for months at a time, become convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel and join the Church.

The bulk of Church translation work is performed by translators who live in a country where the language is spoken. The translators in Salt Lake City translate correspondence to and from Church headquarters. If a letter in a foreign language is received in Salt Lake City, it is translated into English. The English answer is translated into the foreign language, signed by the Church official, and mailed. The Salt Lake translators are also heavily involved in synchronizing or subtitling different languages with motion pictures and translating and recording sound tracks for filmstrips.

The Translation Services Department has implemented a training program for translators that emphasizes translation techniques, and English and the target language skills. Translating is a very exacting work, requiring not only technical skills but also guidance by the Spirit. Only those applicants who have passed a thorough test are hired. To insure highest quality, every translation undergoes two final checks: one for style, spelling, and grammar, and one for the accuracy of the translation.

There are four types of translations: (1) Formal translation (scriptures, talks by General Authorities, etc.), where emphasis is on following the literal content. (2) Dynamic equivalence (lesson material, Church magazine articles, etc.), where the objective is to keep the translated material as close as possible to the original, but alterations may be needed to keep the message clear. For instance, a boat in an American family’s driveway as a symbol of worldly success would not communicate the same thing to a Korean Saint. (3) Adaptation, where references to the American Fourth of July would be replaced by the French Bastille Day, or where Oriental families would replace American families in Japanese illustrations, etc. This kind of activity, more than translation, is transculturization. (4) Rewriting, when material might be so firmly embedded in its culture that translation becomes next to impossible. For instance, in the film, Five Principles of Supervision, the main character, reproaching himself for cowardice, looks in the mirror and sees reflected a large chicken. This may be funny to Americans, but there’s no way to translate chicken since it does not mean coward in most other languages.

Lessons dealing with dating, homemaking, or finances usually need extensive reworking to be understood in the country where the material will be used.

When the Internal Communications Division decides to translate an item, five basic steps are followed. First, in Salt Lake City, an international adapter replaces or removes elements that are strictly American from the text. Then an area adapter for Latin America, Asia, Polynesia, or Europe further screens the material and makes additional cultural modifications. The language area adapter gives it a final screening. Then the material is translated and checked at least twice for accuracy.

The actual translation is simplified by a number of translation aids: (1) An LDS International Glossary that lists the official translation and definition of Church terminology. (2) An LDS Translation Index that identifies material that has already been translated. Avoiding duplication of translation work saves 20 percent of the cost of translation. (3) The LDS Church History Word List that cites events, names, and places of Church history. (4) The Scripture Comparison List that is designed to assist translators who work with the scriptures. Many times a phrase in the Book of Mormon will also appear in the Bible, making it possible for the same terminology to be used in both places in the translation. For instance, the words “marvelous work” appear in D&C 6:1 and also in Isaiah 29:14. [Isa. 29:14] This painstakingly slow process, originally done with concordances, was speeded up considerably when the four standard works were computerized at Brigham Young University. The computer identifies the parallels and prints them chronologically and alphabetically.

An interesting by-product of this work was the discovery that the most commonly used verb in the scriptures is come, followed by give. These two verbs truly represent the gospel message.

Another activity of the Translation Services Department, this one in cooperation with the Church Education system, is collecting significant and pertinent data for an intercultural data bank. This data bank is available to writers, adapters, and other Church workers, and contains answers to a wide variety of questions they often encounter, such as major holidays of various countries, dating customs, store hours, banking, or methods of collection of fast offerings. Eventually, the data bank will include information concerning values and traits such as competition, social interaction, view of God, view of nature, work and achievement, and wealth and materialism.

In addition to work on written materials, the Translation Services Department provides spoken interpretation in area or general conferences. Nine rows in the Tabernacle on Temple Square are equipped with headphone jacks and dials so that up to 240 listeners can hear the translations of their choice. During April 1974 general conference, the proceedings were translated into 15 languages.

One of the most exciting prospects for Church Translation is computer-assisted translation. This is a result of the efforts of Dr. Eldon Lytle of Brigham Young University’s Linguistics Department, and his research team.

Dr. Lytle stresses that this work is very slow and difficult; there are no overnight miracles; and it concerns a field where many attempts have failed. One reason for BYU’s enthusiasm is that its system provides considerable interaction between human and computer to answer questions about reference and syntax during the analysis step.

As Dr. Lytle explains, the basic ideas for “junction grammar,” the method used by the BYU team to represent language structure, first came to him in 1968 shortly after he came to BYU. Junction grammar is an analysis of the structure of sentences that not only describes the structure, but also predicts what kind of sentences can be formed. Thus, one formula consisting of algebra-like symbols can generate hundreds and hundreds of sentences. Vocabulary is almost the only limitation.

What is exciting about this process is that it works not only for English sentences, but also for languages as different as Spanish and Chinese, or Russian and Japanese. The junction system, or system of syntactic relations, still holds true.

How does machine translation work? At BYU, it begins with the English text that the computer first analyzes, and questions the human operator as needed as it proceeds, at the same time describing the sentence in the symbols of junction grammar. This is the “neutral representation” that is true of most, if not all, languages.

Then comes the transfer step where many of the cultural and linguistic differences are considered. For instance, passive verb construction is found more frequently in English than in other languages, but other languages have simple equivalents. The computer has been programmed to make these transfers on demand.

Then, in the third step, synthesis, the material is translated into the target language, using a pre-established word list and following programmed constraints that prevent the computer from concocting sentence constructions not normally appearing in the language.

Why might computer-assisted translation be better than the all-human method of translation? It is true that the computer requires a human operator for the analysis, much like a human translator, but once the grammatical analysis of a source language is made, it can be translated simultaneously and rapidly into many languages. For example, the international Church magazines could conceivably be translated into their respective languages within a few hours, a job that now takes a month for each language.

Another advantage is that the machine translation is consistent, since the same word is translated for a given meaning the same way at all times. Furthermore, the operator need only know the source language once the target language transfer and synthesis have been programmed.

When will this system become operative? Dr. Lytle predicts that by March 1975 the first evaluation runs from English into French, German, and Spanish will be ready, but cautions that it will probably be about five years before this system is fully developed.

What lies in the future? Dr. Lytle looks forward to the time when computers will convert live speech to print instantaneously and provide the kind of voice-to-voice live interpretation now possible only by humans, eventually even reproducing the voice of the speaker.

“Our own General Authorities have predicted that automatic translation will be a reality. Whenever I have doubted, the Spirit has reconfirmed my feeling. It can be done. It will come to pass,” Dr. Lytle added.

He quotes President Hugh B. Brown, who addressed the BYU faculty on September 11, 1961:

“Remember the message of the Master, ‘… Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.’ (Mark 16:15.) We can stand in Salt Lake and talk to all the world, and, regardless of their languages, they will understand what we say, and thus will the world become prepared for the coming of the Son of God. … My brethren and sisters, be prepared. All of this will happen.”

President Spencer W. Kimball summarized this feeling when he spoke to the Regional Representatives at their seminar on April 4, 1974:

“The Lord will lay in our hand inventions which we can scarcely conceive whereby we will be able to bring the gospel to the peoples of the world.”

  • Justus Ernst is manager of special projects in the Church’s Translation Services Department, and serves as high councilor in Salt Lake Butler Stake.

Paul Igbal, Hindustani translator.

Translation’s multi-lingual secretarial pool.

Margene Rhinehart feeds information into the computer with this office terminal.

Spanish subtitles on a Church filmstrip.

Solveig Hess uses microfiche translation aids.

Monitor and control board for live translation in the Tabernacle.

Skilled European translator Immo Luschin translates for Elder LeGrand Richards at the Munich Area conference.

Dr. Eldon G. Lytle contemplates the complexities of this junction grammar model.

Eduardo Balderas, Spanish translator for nearly 35 years.