Why Not an LDS Bible in Spanish?

Bible's title-page traced to the Bavarian printer Mattias Apiarius,

When the LDS Church published its own edition of the King James version of the Bible in 1980, Church leaders claimed that it was a significant achievement. The edition included extensive and better organized footnotes than those in other editions of the Bible. It also featured a lengthy Bible Dictionary and a Topical Guide (originally published as a standalone volume). At least LDS Church members (and other, non-members, if my memory is correct) hailed its publication as a valuable study tool. [Obviously, its inclusion of citations to other LDS scriptural works and the LDS concepts included in the Bible Dictionary and Topical guide prevented others from adopting this edition or showing much interest.]

At the time, it seemed obvious, at least to me, that similar LDS editions of the Bible in other languages would eventually follow. But more than 25 years later, we still have yet to see an LDS edition of the Bible in any other language.

To the casual observer, an LDS edition of the Bible in Spanish and in Portuguese would seem like a no brainer. The Church uses old, well-known protestant translations simiar to the King James translation used in English. By their age, both should be in the public domain (the Reina Valera translation, used in Spanish, was completed in 1602, while the João Ferreira de Almeida translation, the Portuguese version used in the Church, was complete by 1711, but only published in 1748). Theoretically, the Church could take these translations, add its footnotes and translate the Bible Dictionary and Topical Guide.

Its a big project, but less complex than the original LDS edition in English because most of the footnotes and topical selections have been made already in English. And such an edition makes sense when you realize that the current number of LDS Church members in Spanish-speaking countries exceeds the number of English-speaking Church members on the rolls in 1980, when the LDS edition was released, by at least 35%, or more than 1 million members.

So why hasn’t the Church produced its own editions?

As might be expected, the situation is more complicated than it appears.

For a while I assumed there was some copyright exception that kept these editions in copyright. When I finally got around to looking at the issue a few months ago, the problem became clear. Both the Reina Valera and the Ferreira de Almeida translations have undergone multiple revisions over the years, and these revisions are generally necessary for most LDS Church members to understand the text. It is the revisions that LDS Church members purchase and use.

The most recent versions of the Reina Valera date from 1960 and 1995, and are still covered by copyright. The Ferreira de Almeida translation has undergone revisions by three different groups, resulting in three different versions available, all of which are currently covered by copyright.

On a practical basis, this leaves the Church with just four options:

  • License the translation and pay a royalty to the copyright owner. Since the copyright owners in both Spanish and in Portuguese are evangelical bible societies, I wonder if getting a license is even possible. [Financially, the royalty is likely to be less that what these societies are earning from selling their editions to LDS Church members. And they may object to dealing with Mormons regardless of the finances.]
  • Use an older, public domain version of these translations. Both the Reina Valera and the Ferreira de Almeida have revisions published in 1909, which are in the public domain in the US, and possibly elsewhere also. Unfortunately, the 1909 versions would likely require significant work to eliminate words that have since become incomprehensible to the average Church member. In addition, the change would mean that members would have to become accustomed to a new edition.
  • Continue the current situation, having Church members purchase the bible editions sold by others, in spite of the lack of footnotes, Bible dictionary, etc.
  • Publish a stand alone Bible Dictionary and Topical Guide for Church members, and let them use it along side their current bibles.

I suppose it is also possible for the Church to create its own translations of the Bible in these languages, but since a translation can take decades and often requires a team of translators fluent in the Biblical texts, that kind of commitment is probably beyond the Church’s resources.

This situation is also hampered by the real distribution issues that the Church could face. Without a network of LDS stores to serve the market or some other system for distributing Church materials, distribution would have to go through local wards and branches. Priesthood and Relief Society manuals and similar materials already do this, so perhaps it would not be too difficult.

Other than maintaining the status quo, for now, I have no idea what the Church will do. I think, as a publisher in the LDS market, I would probably choose to revise older translations and produce an LDS edition of the Bible that way, were I to decide to publish a bible.

But, and this is one of the real issues facing LDS publishers and authors, it somehow doesn’t seem like its my place to publish the bible independently of the Church. Like publishing doctrinal works, the risk is that you will either get the doctrine wrong, or step on the toes of some general authority.

Regardless, I believe that such an edition could be a significant benefit to Spanish and Portuguese-speaking LDS Church members, as well as for members that speak other languages.

What do you think should happen?

11 thoughts on “Why Not an LDS Bible in Spanish?”

  1. Kent, you probably do know this, but it isn’t clear from your post so readers might not know — the Spanish triple does include an edition of the Topical Guide, dictionary, maps, chronology, etc., with references to all scriptures including the Bible (see ldscatalog.com). If I read the sales blurbs correctly, though, the Biblical citations are to the KJV, so where the Spanish Bible breaks text differently these citations would be only approximate, and if there are significant differences in meaning due to language choices, some references might be puzzling to users.

    So in effect the church has for the time being adopted your fourth option of a stand-alone Bible reference, bound with the triple and used with a separate Bible.

    If it were anything but scripture, it does seem like a perfect project for a publisher. But as skittish as we are about authority for something as basic as scripture, I wonder how much acceptance an outside publication could possibly win.

  2. As Ardis mentioned all of the newer language translations of the Book of Mormon, D&C and Pearl of Great Price all have a “Scripture Study Guide” (Guia para Estudo das Escrituras in Portuguese, for example) that is basically a TG+BD+JST+Gazetteer-on-a-diet.

    The Church’s website makes the GEE available online (see, e.g., GEE em Portugues).

    Most (if not all?) Bible e-texts in Portuguese that you can find online are for one of the revisions still under copyright. (See, for example, this discussion on the SWORD mailing list, and this Portuguese Wikipedia discussion.)

    For the past couple of months I’ve been working on re-typing a João Ferreira de Almeida edition published by the American Bible Society in 1914 which is in the . I’m starting with the New Testament and am now midway through it.

    There are definitely a number of orthographic changes that have transpired that would need to be updated (elle -> ele being one of the most simple examples). Even worse there are plenty of anachronistic terms that would need to be updated as well to make the text equally usable to the average reader.

    Recently I’ve gone back and have begun tagging the verses with comparable footnotes based on the English version of the Bible, substituting GEE references for TG/BD/JST when a comparable GEE entry exists. So far I’ve completed this work only for the book of Matthew, but haven’t yet found a satisfactory means of typesetting the verses and footnotes (in TeX/ConTeXt).

    It’s been an enjoyable way of studying the scriptures. Whether or not it would some day be publishable… I don’t know. I’m inclined to think Ardis is right that people would be quite skittish re: authority. Also, are the English footnotes subject to copyright? Does a cross reference count as a sufficiently creative endeavor to warrant copyright protection or is it more of an uncopyrightable fact? I don’t know. (Standard disclaimer: IANAL.)

  3. Michael:

    You may be, at least in part, reinventing the wheel. Have you searched for other public domain editions already available? I think I’ve seen these available already.

    You should also know that Distributed Proofreaders is working on the 1909 Ferreira de Almeida. They have a very good track record at producing accurate transcriptions — I recommend that you look at what they are doing.

    While both the 1914 edition you are working on, and the 1909 edition are in the public domain in the US, I’m not at all sure about elsewhere. I haven’t researched it yet, but it is possible that these editions are still under copyright in Brazil or Portugal.

  4. Reinventing the wheel can be fun. 🙂


    I’ve searched repeatedly over the years for an electronic version of JFA with a clear provenance that is in the Public Domain but I’ve never found one. All the online ones I’ve seen are the versions of Sociedade Biblica do Brasil, Sociedade Bíblica Trinitariana, and ImprenÅ¿a Bíblica Brasileira posted without permission.

    I wasn’t aware of Distributed Proofreaders; I’ll definitely check out what they are doing and see what I could contribute there. Thanks for the tip.

  5. The recent Japanese triple combinations also include a Topical Guide, dictionary, maps, etc.

  6. I am a big fan of the Scripture Guide (the Portuguese version to which Michael referred and also the Japanese version Andrew mentions). Its biggest virtue is its conciseness – it eliminates the need for a separate search in the Bible Dictionary and Topical Guide. Each entry has a short True to the Faith-style definition, followed by references in the Topical Guide format. As it is a totally original product of the Church, there are no complicating issues in producing it in any language. I found this reference invaluable as a missionary in Japan -when we’d introduce the Book of Mormon, we’d point out that the Scripture Guide is “like a dictionary” to help with unfamiliar terms, names and place names. I couldn’t read it very well myself since it wasn’t futteru like the actual Book of Mormon text (superscripted with phonetic characters), but I discovered that it was identical to the Scripture Guide in my French triple combination, and could read entries in French during lesson preparation and know what to recommend to my Japanese investigators.

    I imagine that the main reason the Church isn’t pursuing translations of the Bible in other languages is simply because there are so many languages in which the Church operates and the Scripture Guide is a much more effective way to provide consistent, effective study aids without having to struggle through years of international copyright issues.

    I don’t think this decreases the effectiveness of the Bible in other languages – I find that Japanese members have a curiously intense fondness for the Old Testament and study it pretty faithfully. It strengthens their understanding of what it means to study with the Spirit and seek personal revelation.

  7. You might be interested to know that the Church plans to publish its own translation of the Bible in Spanish sometime in the fall of 2009. Just go to your local distribution center and ask. Elder Scott announced this to us also while I was serving a mission in Argentina about 5 years ago.

  8. A sister in our stake worked on the LDS Bible project. They have finished the translation and are proofreading it now. It will be published next year. It has taken many years of work by many people to get to this point.

  9. Bob, that is indeed good news.

    I wonder if they are doing something in other languages (such as Portuguese, which faces almost exactly the same problem as Spanish).

    I do wonder what the implications of this move might be. In English, LDS book publishers don’t have to worry about copyright issues for the scriptures. But in almost every other language, it is an issue.

    The Mormon Translation project, for example, is working on translating the “History of the Church,” which includes full sections from the Doctrine and Covenants throughout the text. Retranslating those sections into Spanish, Portuguese or another language seems like a waste of time, and would cause confusion because the text would be different from the scriptures. SO, the project will have to seek permission from the Church to publish these sections as part of the translation.

    Will the Church give that permission? Will we have to pay for it? I don’t know. I worry most of all that the project will be completed, and the Church will insist on some kind of control over the publication, or else it won’t give permission.

    I’m sure once we start thinking about this situation, other issues will arise too.

  10. Hi
    I was wondering if the LDS will make a KJV into a deaf bible for people like me and my friends to help us understand the bible better!? Me and friends are not good when it comes to old english written back inthose days are hard for us to understand! Translated in a lauguage that we can understand more clearly and nothing fancy! Let me know if that can happen for real?? Cuz I cannot understand the Revelations at all and including the Old Testament. Just basic normal language is easy to read and not compilicated! Please me get a bible Please??

  11. Nancy, I’m afraid you are asking something beyond our ability to answer very well. I have no idea if the Church will make such a translation. I’m not sure that it even recognizes that such a translation is needed. ASL and other sign languages around the world are indeed separate languages, and it does seem to me like such a translation would be useful. But I also don’t know the extent of the need.

    Do you by chance know how many LDS congregations or members use ASL to some extent?

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