BYU’s Religious Studies Center recently announced that it had begun publishing books in Spanish, Portuguese, and German, an encouraging development, given how little is being produced outside of English. In his blog post about the news, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel writes:
Today, it is estimated that there are nearly 7,000 spoken languages in the world, of which some 2,600 have a writing system.
He goes on to say:
Equally impressive is the effort to provide translations of the Book of Mormon to the world. Today, the complete Book of Mormon has been translated into seventy-nine languages, and selections are available in another twenty-three languages. This represents 99 percent of the languages spoken by Latter-day Saints. Efforts continue to translate this book into more languages to fulfill the Lord’s command.
What he doesn’t say is that, in terms of the work still to be done to fill the directive in D&C 90:11, that “Every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language.”
There are several ways to look at this, several different levels at which language is a significant factor in how the Church operates, or in the experience of LDS Church members. First, language is a crucial factor in missionary work–in how we reach out to others. Second, language is an important part of how the Church is run day-to-day. And third, language is an important part of the culture that surrounds the Church.
In each of these cases, the amount of resources and how well Mormonism is doing in meeting the needs of the World and of members differs greatly. Take these 7,000 languages, for example. As Holzapfel notes, just 2,600 of these languages have an associated written language. But, even more importantly, they vary widely in number of speakers. Just ten languages are spoken by more than 100 million native speakers, and at least 266 (per Wikipedia) and possibly as many as 347 languages (per Ethnologue) that have at least 1 million native speakers. While on the other end of the scale, more than 500 languages have less than 10 speakers and nearly 2,000 are spoken by less than 1,000 people. These latter languages will, of course, require the most resources.
But if we are to teach every man the fulness of the gospel “in his own tongue, and in his own language,” then somehow we must figure out how to reach those that speak even small languages. Unless I’m reading the scriptures wrong, it doesn’t say “in a language he can speak.”
For members of the Church, once they have heard the gospel and joined, the need for materials in their language only increases. Under the current model, where virtually everything in all languages is translated from English, the amount of translation resources needed is substantial. Translating the scriptures and missionary materials is more or less a one-time process, while General Conference and the Liahona require an ongoing effort. We’re fortunate that only 75+ languages (those that have full Book of Mormon translations) are needed to cover 99% of the Church population. Even so, lds.org has the pdfs of the Liahona in just 12 languages, and the majority of the 75+ languages with full Books of Mormon available also have only General Conference available (no Liahona, no manuals, no proclamation on the family, etc.) I don’t know how many translators and interpreters are needed to provide everything the Church provides in English (or even what is provided in Spanish), but I’ll bet its several translators and interpreters per language (just think what this would require for the 3,000 languages with more than 10,000 speakers).
In addition to materials, the distribution of language use among Church members can also be a significant concern. Here in the U.S., we have more than 600 Spanish-language units alone, often in English-speaking stakes, and many other congregations have sizable populations that speak other languages. But this doesn’t exist just in the U.S.–many other countries also have these language problems, and many areas of the world (especially parts of Africa) will have these problems as the Church grows there. In all these cases, the local units have to expend the resources to translate material and interpret what is said in meetings for those that speak minority languages.
Beyond the Church itself, the culture among members of the Church can also require some additional resources due to multiple languages. Culture is built on commonalities, and translating allows different languages to have the same items in common. But unlike what the Church provides, there isn’t a clear source of funding for translating other items. Fortunately, in an ideal world, each language would develop its own culture around the Church, and only the most useful items would be translated from one language to another.
I’m not sure where this leaves us. If you can’t tell, it looks like quite a lot of work. And the resource demands will only get worse as the number of languages grow, probably with smaller and smaller audiences benefiting from these resources. Unfortunately, language use in the world follows a fat-head and long-tail distribution, with the largest languages accounting for most speakers and the smallest accounting for very few. Its relatively easy to serve the largest languages, and stunningly time-consuming to serve the smallest. I wonder if some kind of analog to the long tail model that Chris Anderson has written about will be necessary to really serve the smallest languages.
It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few decades as we work towards every child of God hearing “the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language.”