Translating Correctly

A young man gave a talk in our Sacrament Meeting that was a first for me, in that instead of using scriptures and written notes, he used his PDA. He said he had come to appreciate the Old Testament, as he discovered how New Testament writers (he focused on Paul especially) had drawn from the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms. He was using his hand-held devise to track himself from one testament to the other, showing how a phrase in Paul had its match somewhere in the Old Testament. My thoughts strayed from his presentation to wonder if he was using a computer program that would search and match phrases for him, and then to think about problems of translation.

I wondered if his parallels were brought to us courtesy of the erudition and theological bent of the King James translators. I wondered if the same parallels showed up in other English translations, or in Bible as translated into other languages.

Philip Barlow’s Mormons and the Bible explains how Mormons came to prefer the King James version over other translations. On page 176 he cites a conservative Mormon scholar who objects to using other translations of the Bible because they obscure doctrines of the restoration. He compares the KJV’ s “dispensation of the fullness of times” to, for example, “when the time is right,” or “when the time fully comes.” Other examples in a footnote include saying the “curtain” of the temple, rather than “veil,” and “confirms for us the message of the prophets” rather than “we have . . .a more sure word of prophecy.”

Curious, I did some comparing of my own. Doing a “marvelous work and a wonder” (Isaiah 29:14) becomes “being prodigal of prodigious prodigies” in my Jerusalem Bible. That there are “also celestial bodies and bodies terrestrial” (1Cor 15:40) becomes “there are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies”. In Jude 6 “angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation” becomes “angels which had supreme authority but did not keep it and left their appointed sphere.”

This raises some interesting questions. We would like to believe our doctrines are founded on a concept rather than a turn of phrase. We would like to think these concepts would be present in any translation.

So, I have a question especially for all of you who served foreign missions. What vintage was the Bible translation you used in your mission? Was it as old and its language as antique as our King James version? Did you have trouble finding the doctrines of the restoration in the Bibles you used? (This is Kathleen from Dialogue querying.)


  1. Interesting post. But you have to realize we are talking *translation.* A translation is only as good as the knowledge of a translator. There is no way to truly understand the scriptures (especially the Old Testament) without getting to the Hebrew for oneself. That is precisely why Joseph Smith *showed* us the way, and we continue to ignore it in the church. Why no learning the scriptures as Joseph did?

    Any translation does not, and cannot express the *real* meaning and intent of what was understood anciently. It’s really too bad we still don’t get this, but then we hardly are ever encouraged to get it since Joseph died.

    My favorite Bible at this point is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensian based on the Hebrew. Septuagint Greek is also good. No English translation gets the full view, and all are full of astonishing weaknesses.

  2. It would be troublesome to use a different Bible version, for the reasons you have described. The phrases in a new version would not match the phrases in latter-day revelations. However, phrases not matching is different from doctrines not matching.

    Curtain or veil is an easy example of a phrase making little difference to the doctrine. As for the 3 kingdoms, terrestrial has always meant earthly, but Section 76 does not use it in that way. Another word would do as well to describe the concept of the second kingdom. In fact, I would prefer an easier word that better fits the kingdom. How about Lunar?

    1 Cor 15:41 can be viewed as describing various glories in the resurrection in any translation, but the immediate inspiration for Sec 76 was John’s gospel. I expect that the KJV phrases were triggers than led to inquiries and revelations, but I don’t know that the resulting doctrines depend on those original phrases.

    The saints would adapt to a new Bible version eventually, if necessary, but it may not be necessary. I would be happy to just edit out the old English in KJV.

    And, many thanks for an interesting topic. I hope to read other comments.

  3. The Bible we used in Japan was a version put out by the Japan Bible Society and used by many protestant denominations there. I think that the New Testament portion was a translation specially prepared from Septuagint Greek – Japanese in the 1950s, therefore it had little to do with the KJV.

    Unfortunately, I was little attuned to textual (or doctrinal, for that matter) subtleties at the time and so the only thing I noticed about it was that it was incredibly easy to understand (even for an American reading Japanese). It was far easier to understand than the BoM and D&C translations we had at the time. I remember that the “baptized for the dead” verse translated well enough for our purposes.

    Strangely, I recently used it to answer a question my wife had about an ambiguity in the KJV text. Someone had told her that a certain passage (sorry, can’t remember) indicated that children should be baptised at 8 years of age, but that didn’t seem right to me. The Japanese Bible confirmed that it wasn’t.

  4. Yes–I noticed huge differences in the way the word “atonement” is defined. I have noticed this in several languages–not just one.

  5. In Brazil we’d use the João Ferreira de Almeida version. I often heard that it was selected because it was roughly the same vintage as the KJV. But they were much less strict about using that version exclusively than we are in English.

    Speaking of computers and translation there was a fascinating article in Wired a month or so ago about a new method of automated translation that is amazing in its simplicity.

  6. In Austria (and Germany), the “Einheitsübersetzung” is the standard. It was a more or less joint Catholic/Protestant project based on work done from 1962-1980. In 2005 the Protestant side pulled out before the planned revision was completed.

    On my mission I used a 1984 “mustard seed” edition of the Luther Bible because it was much smaller than the Einheitsbibel and caught a lot of flak for doing so since the language was different.

  7. This is one reason why we won’t (alas) ditch the KJV: Mormon language is KJV language, and the Bible would seem less “Mormon” if we couldn’t find our favourite Mormon expressions in it.

  8. Ronan: too true. The intricate network of Mormon-speak traces these phrases forward from the Old and New Testaments, through Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon translation and the Doctrine and Covenants, into every-week Sacrament-Meeting speech. Disrupting these linkages by pointing out that the phrases were originally created by non-prophetic scholars in James’ England might therefore seem like a minor heresy.

    Kathleen: in my mission, and (I believe) most Spanish-speaking missions, the Bible of choice is the 1960 Reina-Valera translation, which is basically as central to Spanish-speaking Protestantism as the KJV has been to the English-speaking variety. That Bible text created unique difficulties: it is extremely difficult to read, for second-language missionaries, of course, but also for nearly all of the investigators that we worked with. The Bible also had a feature that raised serious concerns for a lot of people and gave the Jehovah’s Witnesses extra business: the Tetragrammaton in the Old Testament is always rendered as Jehová.

    During my mission, I worked through the institute manuals in Spanish using the Reina-Valera text. A few of the classic Mormon proof-texts simply didn’t carry over, although at this remove it’s difficult for me to remember which. But it was nothing as dramatic as Isaiah’s “virgin” becoming a “young woman.”

  9. To add to Kathleen’s list of KJV’isms that are now sacred Mormon expressions:

    “nail in a sure place” (Is 22:23); “more sure word of prophecy” (2 Peter 1:19)

    NetBible equivalents: “a peg into a solid place”; “the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing”

    So, when they translate these expressions for non-Anglophonic Mormons, do they try to equate it with expressions from the classic native Bibles?

    A study of non-English “Mormon language” (and its effects) would be fascinating.

  10. Back-translating Reina-Valera versions of the “Mormon-speak” expressions mentioned here:

    Is 22:23: “a nail in a strong place.”

    Is 29:14: “a great and frightening wonder”

    1 Cor 15:40: “and there are celestial bodies and earthly bodies.”

    2 Peter 1:19: “the safer prophetic word.”

    Jude 6: “angels who kept not their dignity, but abandoned their proper dwelling.”

    A funny feature of the Spanish-language institute manuals is that their lessons sometimes translated the KJV text of these passages into Spanish, rather than using the Reina-Valera texts. The same is sometimes true of other instances of Mormon-speak. For example, the Spanish-language version of the book, “A Marvelous Work and a Wonder” is “Una Obra Maravillosa y un Prodigio,” not “Un Prodigio Grande y Espantoso.” This preserves the traditional Mormon phraseology in the Spanish but robs the resulting title of Biblical resonance.

  11. Julie M. Smith says:

    What shouldn’t be lost in this conversation is that trying to determine when an NT author is quoting or alluding to an OT author is a good and important way of increasing understanding of NT texts. It appears that most (if not all) NT authors used the LXX as their OT translation, which means that there is an easy way to determine if Paul really is quoting the OT or if you have an artifact of translation: compare the Greek NT text with the LXX.

    My experience with this is that there are far more quotes/allusions than most people realize. I’d say something like 70% of NT verses have at least an allusion to the OT.

  12. I hear that the German translation of the Bible is the best, and most closely aligns to the original Greek and Hebrew, but in Romania, on my mission, we used a KJV Romanian version that is most commonly used. It uses some older Romanian terms that seem nowadays to be antiquated and no longer used. To Romanians who don’t read the Bible, they really had a hard time understanding some of those words. Normally, missionaries carried with them an English KJV so they could get an idea of what verse they were reading and help their investigators understand the old text.

  13. Luke 22:32 (“when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren”) becomes a problem quotation everytime it is translated into the Spanish language, for the Spanish Reina-Valera version of the Bible says something to the effect of “once you return, confirm your brethren”.

    Use of this concept in a talk with reference to that verse requires interruption of the talk flow to allow for explanation of its meaning in the KJV, and though manuals usually introduce notes to explain this difference in translations, imagine the problem when this quote is used in a General Conference address with real time simultaneous translation into Spanish.

    Of course, I have not yet heard a native Spanish speaker use this quotation unless He/She is fluent in English, even if the topic of their talk is on conversion, helping each other, “strengthening feeble knees”, etc..

  14. I hear that the German translation of the Bible is the best.

    Dan, me likey Deutsch, but I think this is a relic of 19th century Teutonophilia, one, of course, which our Joseph also encouraged. Funnily enough, Joseph’s own Luther Bible is not used by Germanic Mormons. As Peter says above, it’s unkosher.

  15. In King Follett, Joseph Smith gleefully referenced Bibles in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and German, a way of showing his freedom from the errant translators of his day (though he used it to make his point about Jacob/James, which is New Testament, and I don’t think there was a Hebrew New Testament published at the time). This of course was the same translator who reified the phrases Kathleen mentioned above. I think Joseph was open to inspiration wherever it came, and sometimes it came from particular language of the KJV, and other times it came from investigations of other languages or translations. The German reference was Joseph being excited about learning German and realizing that KJV had flaws manifest even from that view. There’s no reason to prefer the German over, for instance, the Greek/Hebrew texts, or e.g NRSV or Jerusalem Bible.

    The Russians have always used the American Bible Society edition, which is fairly old. It’s a bit tenuous to get the scriptures to match up literally the way the translated manuals hope, which does speak to Kathleen’s point.

    I think it’s better to consider Joseph Smith as the source of these revelations rather than the Bible per se, which liberates us from this uncertainty in the face of updated translations. (NB for anti-s, I’m not saying his revelations were anti-Biblical, I’m saying he brought something more than simply the Biblical text).

  16. The Dumbiest thing a missionary could do was bring out a bible and try to argue for validity there in my mission. Either people didn’t know the Bible at all, or if they did know the Bible, knew it sufficiently better than any missionary would know it. I always found it embarrassing when Missionaries would try this with a seventh-day adventist, trying to prove the SDA wrong with the bible. I allowed my greenie to try with a SDA I really liked who was a scriptural genius, and enjoyed, I must admit, watching him be humbled.

    It is better for missionaries to stick with the program of the Church, and use the Book of Mormon, restoration, and promise of answers to prayer, to effectively do missionary work. The Bible is valuable and good, but in most cases, it is like bringing a knife to a gun fight, where missionaries are involved. Bible Bashing is idiocy and the foundation of contention.

  17. In France the majority (and all the missionaries received) the Louis Segond Bible. There was however a fairly significant segment who used the Revised Louis Segond. I remember being a bit surprised as a fresh missionary following along in my Bible during Sunday School and not having the words match. There is some defacto flexibility that results from such a situation.

    If I am not mistaken, the Church has added French scriptures to their website…but no bible translation yet. Not sure what the plan is there.

  18. Matt,
    It’s interesting, though, that our early missionaries used the Bible almost exclusively.

  19. The Church does not “own” any translation of the bible outside of the currently printed KJV. Since they do not “own” a french, cebuano, or italian bible, I do not believe they can publish one on their website.

    There was only one translation of the Bible in Cebuano, and it was based on the NIV if I recall correctly. I gave mine away, and got a small gideon’s copy of the NT instead (same translation as far as I could tell). Unles you count the New and Old Testament readers the church publishes as a translation of the bible. We did use those some, now that I think about it, but I do not think that method would work in other areas.

  20. Ronan (18), this is true, but times have changed…

  21. I’ve given only one talk from a PDA. That was because I had forgotten my paper version at home. Luckily I had a backup on my PDA. Unfortunately, 5 minutes into my talk, my batteries died and I ended up having to give it from memory. It’s a good thing I had rehearsed it 50 times that week.

  22. Matt, The church doesn’t own a version of the KJV, which is in the public domain, it owns the footnoting and formatting. There is no copyright on the Louis Segond text, so the church could easily put that up, but the footnotes are something else.

  23. That’s why “own” was in quotes above. I mainly was thinking of the fact that the church doesn’t currently manufacture print editions of the Bible outside of English. I do not believe they will put a web edition of a bible they do not make a print edition of. This is just my opinion, of course.

    Thanks for the correction on the Segond. That”s interesting to know.

  24. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    My institute teacher, who is a NT scholar at the University of Toronto, says that the New Standard Revised is the clearest and most correct English version.

    I think we don’t study the scriptures the way Joseph does is that not all of us have the time, talen, or inclination to learn all the languages necessary.

  25. Steve Evans says:

    PDoE: well, MY institute teacher says the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures is the clearest and most correct English version. So there!

  26. Brad Kramer says:

    It’s also interesting how bibllical (KJV) language infuses more than just our scriptural texts and public ritual language. It also spills over into personal prayer. I find it fascinating and troubling that English-speaking saints are asked, due essentially to a gramatical misunderstanding, to cultivate a relationship with God based on what has become highly formal terminology (thee, thy, thou, etc) whereas saints from other language traditions enjoy the immediacy and affinity of informal pronominal usage. English speaking lds might squirm when public prayers invoke “you” and “your” but can you imagine the effect if we told the rest of the church thatj they had to start using the second person plural to address Heavenly Father–like he were a college professor or a social superior of some kind?

  27. SilverRain says:

    #26 – That always makes me laugh, since “thou-speak” is actually grammatically informal and our typical “you-speak” is formal.

  28. Brad,
    Thou art right. Forsooth, some of the conjugations one hears are appalling.

  29. Brad Kramer says:

    Sure the gramatical gymnastics are amusing and the formality of “thou-speak” ironic, but I’m more concerned with the question of whether the linguuistic distinctions lead to fundamental, qualitative differences between our relationship with God and the relationship of those who speak with him like a close, personal friend and, on some level, a respected equal. Sure we thank Him and acknowledge Him and beseach Him, but when I pray in Russian, I do those things like I would to my brother or sister or peer, not someone I would address as sir or ma’am.

  30. SilverRain says:

    #6 – Yes! The weight loss with the Luther Bible was well worth any possible ridicule. Several ward members also used the Luther Bible, feeling it was a more correct translation (and was certainly easier to understand.)

  31. Kevin Barney says:

    There are a number of problems if the Church ever seriously wants to move away from the antiquated KJV, and the loss of familiar phrases is certainly one of them. It is much easier for the Church to adopt something more recent like the Einheitsbibel in German-speaking countries than it would ever be to adopt the NRSV in English-speaking countries.

    Sometimes the loss of the distinctive phraseology is inconsequential to meaning, but often we have invested the turn of phrase with a heavy load of meaning that was never intended by the original author.

  32. I gather you’re talking about the revised Lutherbibel, correct?

  33. Re: this thou thing, I don’t think it’s fair to condemn the thou-speakers by the rules of obsolescent English. It is no longer the case that “thou” is the informal “tu” and you is the plural/formal “Ud(s)” (I use Spanish as the example most relevant for US but most indo-european languages retain the distinction).
    As I understand it, “thou” currently represents a poetic, sacred variant of “you,” which is more than simply an inverted grammatical formal. I would defer to local pray-ers outside English. Some Russians I know vastly prefer “Vy” because they feel “Ty” trivializes God, the same way they would use Vy to refer to their earthly parent. Others, often the more Westernized, prefer to invoke the more Evangelical “ty” as an equivalent to the informality of “Abba.”
    I say use the version that to you maximizes sacred communion, and I am sympathetic to the desire to encourage the poetic variant in American English. I have been known to use poetic archaisms in prayers and to feel quite energized by the experience.

  34. Sam, your comments aren’t uniform for all English speakers, are they? Some Quakers retain the “thee” as an explicitly informal mode, don’t they?

  35. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Steve (#25): Well MY teacher’s a New Testement Scholar. What are YOUR teacher’s credentials, hmm? ;)

  36. Sam,
    You are forgetting about the vocative case that still exists in several slavic languages–and is often used in prayer-“Otche”. The older church slavonic varies vastly than the often used english translation into Russian, yet members still use the vocative case in prayer, as do theolder version of the scriptures.

    You might be interested in the work of Dr. Stepehn Batalden at ASU. He has written extensively on the politics of Russian bible traslation, and all it’s forms and waht is used now.

  37. Barlow says that KJV phrases were the bricks with which Joseph built new structures. Perhaps we could say that KJV isn’t best for understanding the Bible, but it is important for understanding Joseph.

  38. JNS, there are a few holdouts, but by and large American English no longer maintains thee as a grammatical informal.

    mami, I’m familiar with the vocative case, though this is a separate issue from grammatical formal/plurals. I actually think that the vocative plays into my argument–for some the use of the now largely obsolete vocative gives a feeling of poetic/sacred formality. I have seen some Russian LDS use the vocative in precisely this way (if memory serves, this did not necessarily predict ty vs vy). Some dislike its associations with Orthodox services, which do use the vocative extensively.

    Incidentally, I have observed the use of a resurgent vocative in certain very limited environments, the ellision of the terminal “a” in “mama” or “papa,” for instance. I doubt this is relevant to the use of Otche or Bozhe. I am curious about Batalden’s writings. The history of Christianity in Russia I think is quite fascinating. Thanks for the tip.
    Jared: i agree

  39. I agree with the one poster (Matt W.) who said Bible bashing is pure idiocy, but I have to have a reservation when it comes to Bible teaching. Teaching is not bashing.

    Joseph the Prophet paved the way for our learning on how to learn and teach with the Bible, I can’t imagine not following his example. I also agree with the church to bring in the other scriptures, but of course.

    But the Bible is not a secondary manual to go to after all else has failed as if some sort of a stop gap measure. That is missing the whole point of the Torah, Ketuvim, and Nevi’im, not to mention the New Testament.

    And I can sympathize with another of the posters that time is one of the elements determining our own scripture study. Not to disparage this at all, but, um, no one had less time than Joseph Smith, yet he *made* time to study the scruptures rightly. It is a matter of perspective and priority. We all are given 24 hours a day…… what we prioritize largely shows us where our hearts really are. Yes?


  40. My husband uses NRSV and ESV, even at church. Also,
    TEV for dynamic equivalence.

    Yes, if the Church switched to a different version, English speakers would lose lots of important PHRASES that appear in Mormon scripture and discourse, but we would gain a translation with more accurate IDEAS and readability. For example, 1 John 5:7-8 in KJV props up the Trinity. Many modern translations remain true to the Greek and leave that part out.

  41. Brad Kramer says:

    I heard Bozhe and Gospodi often in Russian prayers (lds). I never once in two years heard vy.

  42. Brad, It depends on what part of the Russian speaking wrold you served in. In parts of Ukraine, children address their won parents in Vy. Also, there were discrepancies from mission presidents about how to address deity–some said to use Ty, others Vy.

  43. Brad Kramer says:

    “Also, there were discrepancies from mission presidents about how to address deity–some said to use Ty, others Vy.”

    I find that nothing short of scandalous. And both the discussions and the flipcharts (now, I realize, obsolete) taught “Ty.”

  44. Kathleen Petty says:

    Thanks for all of you who filled me in on what Bible you used while speaking a second language. Comment #37, about how Joseph’s use of the Bible tells us more about Joseph than it does about the Bible, and Kevin Barney’s comment that certain phrases have become so weighted with doctrine they can never go away, lead to some interesting and potentially subversive questions. They are also unanswerable. What if, for example, Joseph has used a different Bible, or had been born in a different country? What would our church’s doctrine have been? And if phrases provoked doctrine, rather than containing it, how useful is the Bible for a Mormon anyway, when it comes to things exclusively Mormon?

  45. Paul Wright says:

    Off topic, but Apostle (Dr.) Nelson did this PDA kid one better by employing an ear device that relayed his talk word-for-word so that he could appear to be delivering a rather demanding scriptural exegesis off-the-cuff. Doubtful that, say, Henry Ward Beecher would have needed such an oratorical prop.

  46. Ardis Parshall says:

    Doubtful that, say, Henry Ward Beecher would have needed such an oratorical prop.

    … but doubtless he would have used it had he thought it would improve his performance. Beecher was a showman who stooped to any tactic — railing on the Mormons, about whom he understood nothing, for instance — to win popular approval.

  47. Yeah Paul, and I hear they, gasp!, use teleprompters and read their talks during conference! Scandal!

  48. Paul Wright says:

    Beecher had his warts, but passing the plate to buy men and women out of slavery was not a popular act even in New York.

    And Matt, the difference is that we know they’re reading from teleprompters.

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