"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
January 21, 2010
We all face translation problems
by Orson Scott Card

I once tried my hand at translating a story by one of the best Brazilian writers, Braulio Tavares. I got to the first sentence and was stopped cold. It was a bit of dialogue in which the main character's father used a Brazilian idiom that simply had no translation.

The literal translation would have meant nothing. And English has no equivalent -- to get to the meaning, I would lose the tone and attitude.

No matter what I did, I was not going to come up with an English version of the story that would convey the brilliance of Tavares's voice. I even had doubts about getting the plain sense of the tale down on paper.

I knew starting out that translation was hard, and real translators know that they have to make a thousand compromises like the one that stopped me. And the Church is well-served by teams of outstanding translators who do as good a job as possible when they create versions of scriptures and other Church writings in other languages.

The Portuguese of Brazil is a romance language that shares many words and structural features with English. I was reasonably fluent in the language, and I think of myself as well-acquainted with all the tools of English.

Imagine now if I were trying to translate from a language much farther removed from any other spoken on Earth -- as Joseph Smith did, when he translated the Book of Mormon.

And now imagine how much harder it would be to translate from a communication that did not rely on language at all, but rather involved pure knowledge flooding into your mind.

This is what Moses faced when, having been shown all of God's creations, perceiving them with a mind that had been changed so it could comprehend a part of the glory of God, he then endeavored to describe the experience and recount -- in the language he spoke, and to the people he knew -- what he had seen and heard.

Moroni told us that the Lord had shown us, in our day, to him, "and I know your doing" (Mormon 8:35).

Moroni didn't have to understand our economy, our history, our civil organization. He was shown our "doing," and then he wrote about what the Lord regarded as most important -- what we do. The basic human traits and misbehaviors that his people and ours (and all human societies) have in common.

So even if Moroni was shown airplanes and automobiles, or General Conference being broadcast on satellite television, or computers, or any other of our modern "wonders," God required him to write only of the things we do.

It didn't matter that his language had no words for airplanes or computers.

But sometimes it does matter. Joseph Smith, endeavoring to explain the new (or long lost) concepts of our eternal identity and the nature of all creation, there was no word for one of the key ideas. So, reaching for the best available word, he wrote "intelligence" and "intelligences," and then struggled to make clear to us what he meant through the context of several passages.

In his time, "intelligence" had to do with information and knowledge. The IQ test had not been invented; the way we use "intelligent" and "intelligence" today has specialized in a very different direction from what it meant in the Prophet's time.

The result is that in the Book of Abraham and the Doctrine and Covenants, the word "intelligence" is used in ways that sometimes seem to refer to spirits, and sometimes to individuals before being clothed in spirit, and sometimes to a general substance of some kind.

These are not contradictions, they are the efforts of a prophet who has been shown things that he did not have the language to express, to communicate them to people who did not have the cultural background to comprehend them.

We all face the same translation problem, when we follow the admonitions in D&C 9, placing our best judgment before the Lord and asking him for confirmation.

What do we offer the Lord? Not just the specific question we think we're asking, but also all of the assumptions that we are unaware of. If he then tells us "yes," are we not likely to assume he is saying yes to the whole package, to our entire understanding?

It is as if we inadvertently ask him nothing but trick questions which cannot be answered with "yes" or "no." "Is this doctrine true?" we ask, but there is so much ignorance interwoven with the parts of we understanding correctly, how can he answer us without misleading us?

The key comes to us in those words of Moroni's: "I know your doing."

The Lord is most concerned with what we do. What does it matter if we understand how worlds are created, or the deep underpinnings of matter, or any number of other concepts that continue to be difficult to us? No harm comes from our having many different opinions about meanings, as long as we understand what the Lord expects us to do.

Even in the midst of the extraordinary, paradigm-shifted discourse on the nature of being in D&C 88 (vv. 35-45), the Lord is explaining to us why it is vital to obey his law and be subject to the order he has established. He tells us these things only to encourage us to do what is right.

"The Lord is expanding the saints' understanding," the hymn tells us, and the ninth Article of Faith says, "we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God."

The translation problem will solve itself when we are able to understand all things spiritually, and communicate without the limitations of our languages. Meanwhile, what needs to be clear is clear.

Humans comprehend little of what our cultures have not prepared us to recognize, or what our languages have no tools to express. In such cases, the Lord can only lead us step by step toward greater knowledge.

But there is always language enough to tell us what the Lord wants us to do, and the better we obey, the more fit we come to be able to understand more and more.

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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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