The Lord has said “that every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language” [via]. We usually think of this promise in the context of missionary work; that is, that every person will hear the gospel preached in his or her native language. As a native English speaker, that box was checked for me a long time ago, right? But here’s the problem: I don’t speak, think in, or very well relate to the archaic and cumbersome language that comprises the Book of Mormon. That is not my “own language.”
I have the goal to read the New Testament from beginning to end by the end of January. I’ve read it several times before, but this is the first time I’m reading the whole thing in a translation other than the King James Version (KJV). I’ve chosen to read the New Living Translation (NLT). In 2012, it was the best-selling Bible in the US (based on unit sales). It’s wonderful. Reading it after having lived with the King James Version all my life is like switching from listening to music on a tiny, tinny, handheld radio to getting front row seats in Carnegie Hall.
Even in Joseph Smith’s time, the language of the King James Bible was hard to read, as stated in a part of a chapter by Kent P Jackson, professor of ancient scripture at BYU, in the book The King James Bible and the Restoration:
That the language of the King James Version was already dated by the time of Joseph Smith was the natural result of changes that had taken place in English since the translation first came about. By the early nineteenth century, many had come to see the archaic language as problematic. The Bible was no longer in the spoken tongue of living people, and thus it had become in many instances difficult to read. Because that was not the intent of the original writers or of the King James translators themselves, some felt that the translation had unintentionally become a misrepresentation of the originals and hence needed to be modernized. Indeed, the prose of the Hebrew Old Testament was in the language of everyday speech of ancient Israelites, in plain vocabulary and style. To people in Jeremiah’s day, there was nothing “old” or “scriptural”-sounding about it. The same can be said of the Greek prose of the New Testament, written in the common vocabulary and style of ordinary literate people.
OK, so the Bible sounds old. So what? Well, consider this passage from the New Testament:
Matthew 6:27 (KJV) – Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
That’s from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. We’ve all probably read it a bunch. Now here’s the NLT version:
Matthew 6:27 (NLT) – Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
Despite the fact that I’ve read this verse dozens of times in the KJV and never thought twice about it, I was immediately struck by this verse in the NLT. Its meaning is crystal clear, beautiful, and poignant. That meaning can still be excavated from the KJV passage if you stick with it long enough to dig it out, but it’s sitting right there on the surface in the NLT version.
Also consider this verse, in which God the Father speaks after Jesus has been baptized:
Matthew 3:17 (KJV) – And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Again, it’s a perfectly nice verse, right? No doubt. Now let’s look at the NLT version:
Matthew 3:17 (NLT) – And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”
The KJV version seems robotic in comparison, doesn’t it? Its words sound like the words of a father who shakes his son’s hand instead of hugging him, whereas the NLT version is the statement of a father beaming with pride and happiness. Objectively, the difference between the two is minimal. Subjectively, it’s night and day. The NLT is, for me at least, infinitely more understandable and enjoyable to read. I can immerse myself in the doctrines and stories laid out without getting bogged down in a quagmire of unfamiliar words and awkward phraseology.
Could the same modernization of language be done for the Book of Mormon? Should it be done?
If written in modern English, the Book of Mormon’s truths, stories, and insights would be much more accessible to wider swaths of people both in and out of the Church. To be honest, I don’t enjoy reading the Book of Mormon. It’s not enjoyable for me because reading it feels like work. It is mentally exhausting. (And that’s not Enos-wrestling-with-God-in-mighty-prayer exhausting, but it’s-midnight-and-I-need-to-read-these-200-pages-by-Shakespeare-before-the-exam-tomorrow-morning exhausting.) I desperately want the book to be more accessible, to speak to me and not at me. As I said when I talked about the need to get rid of Mormonspeak, just as we don’t endorse suffering for suffering’s sake, we shouldn’t treat linguistic obscurity or ambiguity as some sort of trial that needs to be overcome by the aspiring faithful masses. The exact words in the Book of Mormon aren’t what will save us or make our lives better—it’s the message that those words convey.
Think about all of the non-native English speakers who have to struggle through the English Book of Mormon or the King James Bible. Can you imagine how difficult (not to mention boring) that must be? You may not have encountered many people like this where you live, but there are many, many of them out there in the world. I live in a large Asian city, and there is an English ward here. I’d say that at least half of the people at church are not native English speakers. Nearly 30 countries are represented. The Church bills itself as a worldwide church [via], and this ward is about as international as it gets. We all use the regular English Book of Mormon throughout our meetings. “So what’s the problem?” you might say. “People can still read the Book of Mormon in their native languages when they’re at home, right?” First, that’s assuming that they even have a copy of the Book of Mormon in their native language. Because a lot of these people were baptized here or some other place that is not their home country, it can be hard to get them the book in their native language. They read the English instead. And second, learning is one of the main reasons we go to church. If you can’t fully understand what you and others are reading in the class, there is a limit to how much learning can actually be done.
I am a linguist by training and have read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover in four languages, plus significant chunks of the book in a couple other languages. The English version is by far the most difficult to read. When I can understand the book better in a relatively obscure Eastern European language that I’m not even completely fluent in than in my native tongue, something is wrong.
I do have some good news. There are, in fact, already versions of the Book of Mormon in modern English. The Easy-to-Read Book of Mormon is one such version, and you can buy it on Amazon (though there is no digital version available). A great review of the book by Marvin Folsom of the Maxwell Institute goes a bit into the history of a more accessible Book of Mormon, but I also love these words:
We confuse the text with the message. We do not differentiate between man’s language and God’s word. We fail to recognize that God’s word can be expressed even in modern English. The nature of God’s message to people on the earth is such that the essentials of salvation can be learned from any translation that is read prayerfully so that the reader can be influenced by the spirit.
There is also apparently a plain English Book of Mormon that is used as the text from which the Book of Mormon in other languages is translated. You can learn more about that here.
Moreover, something called The Plain English Book of Mormon exists for free online. The author/translator has this to say about the document:
“It is not an attempt to reinterpret doctrine, rather an attempt to simplify the language somewhat so that it does not distract the reader from the meaning in the words” [via].
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
The problem is that no one knows about these. The average member of the Church who isn’t reading the Book of Mormon but should be does not know that these versions exist. That’s why I believe the Church should put out an official version of the Book of Mormon in modern English. Only then it would be widely known about and read.
Why hasn’t that happened? What’s the Church’s stance on all of this? Will the Church release a modern English Book of Mormon at some point? Well, the prognosis doesn’t look good. In the April 1993 issue of the Ensign is an article titled Modern-Language Editions of the Book of Mormon Discouraged. Here are a couple paragraphs from that article that explain the Church’s stance:
From time to time there are those who wish to rewrite the Book of Mormon into familiar or modern English. We discourage this type of publication and call attention to the fact that the Book of Mormon was translated “by the gift and power of God,” who has declared that “it is true.” (Book of Mormon title page; D&C 17:6.) The Prophet Joseph Smith said that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth.” (History of the Church, 4:461.) It contains “the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (D&C 20:9.)
When a sacred text is translated into another language or rewritten into more familiar language, there are substantial risks that this process may introduce doctrinal errors or obscure evidence of its ancient origin. To guard against these risks, the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve give close personal supervision to the translation of scriptures from English into other languages and have not authorized efforts to express the doctrinal content of the Book of Mormon in familiar or modern English. (These concerns do not pertain to publications by the Church for children, such as the Book of Mormon Reader.)
So if the Church has essentially put its foot down on the issue, why am I still in favor of it? Because while that statement says that the Church discourages unauthorized translations of the Book of Mormon, it doesn’t say anything about why the Church itself shouldn’t make an authorized one. I don’t necessarily want to rewrite the Book of Mormon into modern English myself. I want the Church to do it. If it was translated by the power of God nearly two hundred years ago, why couldn’t it be done again today into modern English? I see no reason why not, especially since it would likely result in so many more people reading the thing, which would absolutely go a long way toward making us better as individuals and as a church.
Reading the King James Bible is like driving a Model T with all of its original parts. It’s certainly an experience, but it’s not comfortable or easy to do. Reading the New Living Translation is like driving a Cadillac. It’s a smooth ride, and you can cover a lot of ground without too much discomfort. Unfortunately, the Book of Mormon is still a Model T. It’s a beautiful car that changed the world, but I’m afraid that too many of us end up just leaving it in the garage to collect dust.
Image source: Flickr user CEGImagery.com