Coming to Terms: The Challenge of Creating Christian Vocabulary in a Non-Christian Land

Because words, in any language, are not actual concrete objects but simply “sounds,” “symbols,” or “signifiers” that at best can only be a shadowy approximation of reality and truth, we must regard language as one of the slipperiest of the slippery treasures of mortality. If language itself produces, at best, a shadowy approximation of reality and truth, then translating that shadowy approximation from one language to another significantly compounds the slipperiness. The difficulty increases when translating Christian terms into a historically non-Christian language and culture such as Japanese. Thus, as Christian translators have attempted to borrow words from other languages or invent Japanese terms that somehow summon up the same kinds of spiritual associations that words in the Indo-European languages do, their success has been somewhat underwhelming. Recognizing these linguistic and cultural challenges, Professor Gessel addresses the following questions: What are the challenges inherent in attempting to translate Christian doctrine and, specifically, Latter-day Saint vocabulary into Japanese, a traditionally non-Christian language? What approaches have been employed in this effort? How effective have these efforts been? And what, if anything, can translators do to increase their effectiveness?

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 50:4
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