Motivation and Translation: The rest of the story of the Book of Mormon in Portuguese

O_livro_de_mormonI have recently been reading Mark Grover’s Ph.D. thesis, a history of the LDS Church in Brazil, which discusses over several pages the translation of the Book of Mormon into Portuguese. So when the Deseret News launched a series of articles about the translation of the Book of Mormon into other languages, I was interested to see what they would say about the translation into Portuguese.

Unfortunately, the Deseret News’ series hasn’t impressed me at all. Both in the article on the French translation and in the article on the Portuguese translation, details were left out or obscured that give color to and background information that are important to the story. In the case of the French translation, the newspaper Le Populaire, called an “Icarian newsletter” in the DN article, is probably misrepresented, since few readers will know who the Icarians were. As I understand it, these radical Catholics were trying to create a utopian society, and their views are probably closest to socialists or communists today. This led academic RD McClellan to write a biographical article about Louis Bertrand, the convert (and later French Mission President) who worked for Le Populaire while assisting in the translation of the Book of Mormon, entitled Not Your Average French Communist Mormon. Surely this information would give readers a more complete idea of the environment in which this translation was made.

The article on the Portuguese translation left out so much context in comparison with Grover’s history that I must try to give a more complete account:

After Melvin J. Ballard opened the South American Mission in 1925, the first mission president assigned was a German convert, Reinhold Stoof. Stoof believed that he had been called specifically to reach the German-speaking immigrants in South America, most of whom were in Argentina and Brazil. In Argentina Stoof found that the German-speaking population was too dispersed to reach effectively, and so he had missionaries learn Spanish. But in Brazil, Stoof found German towns, colonies of immigrants who had created whole communities that used German in their every day lives. So the missionaries he sent to Brazil spoke German.

Stoof’s successor, Rulon S. Howells, also spoke German, not Portuguese, but towards the end of his service as mission president in 1938, Howells decided that the mission would have to switch to Portuguese. Two factors influenced this decision. First, Howells realized that the missionaries were having little success among the German-speakers who, Grover suggests, were tied culturally to the Lutheran Church. Converting to Mormonism was therefore akin to denying your culture, a step that the Germans in Brazil were generally not ready to take.

The second factor was the Brazilian government’s views of groups that didn’t use Portuguese. In 1930 Getúlio Vargas was elected president of Brazil, and over time his populist and nationalistic government became increasingly concerned with “the immigrant population whose culture was not Brazilian, whose language was not Portuguese,and whose political allegiance was suspect.” Those concerns had some basis in fact, for Adolf Hitler had significant support among the German population in Brazil–so much so that Howells’ predecessor, Reinhold Stoof, refused to allow his children to attend any German schools because, “nearly all the German schools”¦ bowed to the Swastika.” As a result, the Vargas administration began to place restrictions on foreign influences in the immigrant population, beginning in 1938 with the closure of German schools and the prohibition of the use of any language other than Portuguese in any public meeting.

While Howells started the translation process a year before these government moves, I suspect that he was aware of the government’s discomfort and may have foreseen the possibility of government action. In any case, Howells contacted an American LDS Church member and returned missionary who worked for the U.S. State Department in Rio de Janeiro, Daniel Schup. Schup had married a Brazilian school teacher, Agda Soares, a combination that Howells thought perfect for the job. They accepted the challenge and began to work evenings on the translation. Meanwhile, without telling Schup initially, Howells also asked an American friend in São Paulo, William Lane, to make a simultaneous translation because he was concerned about dialect differences between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The decision to translate the Book of Mormon into Portuguese was anything but too soon. By the fall of 1938, just as new mission president John Bowers arrived, the Brazilian government began to crack down on the use of German in public meetings. Before long, Bowers was forced to essentially shut down the mission while the missionaries learned Portuguese and the 4 missionaries who did speak the language translated a the minimum amount of material into the official language. The Joseph Smith Story was quickly available in Portuguese, along with the Book of Mormon early in 1939. Other tracts, hymnals and manuals followed quickly.

Unfortunately, the change was devastating to the German-speaking members, who often could no longer understand what was happening in meetings. Often, they blamed Bowers for the change. Although Bowers struggled to find a compromise position that would give members time to make the change, his attempts satisfied no one. But the final cut to German-speaking members in Brazil was left to Bowers’ successor, William Seegmiller, who, after German submarines sank three Brazilian ships, leading to riots against Germans in Brazil, ordered that the remaining Mormon literature in German in the country be burned.

Regardless of which version of the story of the translation is better or more accurate, I think the above story raises a few interesting questions and issues. I think this story makes clear how important the author or translator’s environment is. I wonder if, without the pressure from the Brazilian government, if the shift in the mission language to Portuguese would have happened as quickly. And given that this environment may have been the primary motivation behind the shift and perhaps even behind the translation itself, I wonder what effect it may have had on the translation. I’ve never tried to compare the earlier translation (the one I read on my mission), with the more recent, 1995 revision. But this environment, and a host of other things that have changed since then, could explain some of the changes.

[Source: Grover, Mark L., Mormonism in Brazil: Religion and Dependency in Latin America. Bloomington, Indiana, Indiana University Ph.D. Thesis, 1985. Available from University Microfilms (UMI).]

4 thoughts on “Motivation and Translation: The rest of the story of the Book of Mormon in Portuguese”

  1. Unfortunately, the Deseret News’ series hasn’t impressed me at all.

    Ditto.

    I could say the same for the Deseret “News” as a whole, especially since their big reorganization. The Mormon Times section where this series has appeared is particularly embarrassing.

  2. Orwell, I don’t really want to go there, but I tend to agree.

    While this may be tooting my own horn to a degree, I think, had the reporter known, a version of the above could have fit in the space available in the newspaper.

  3. Interesting story. Thanks for sharing it, Kent. I served in Brazil from ’95-’97. Incidentally, my second mission president was a lifelong church member from Sao Paolo of German descent whose first language was German. So it seems they were not completely devastated.

    Also, I remember starting with the old translation and changing to the new. My view: the new one was better. It is much more clear, less cumbersome, eliminated lots of archaic terms and constructions. etc.

  4. S. P. Bailey: “It is much more clear, less cumbersome, eliminated lots of archaic terms and constructions. etc.”

    Perhaps the same should be done with English? [GRIN]

    I do agree that the German saints were not completely decimated. A few of the families survived the transition, and other German families even joined after the change of language. But many didn’t return, and some went inactive for a while.

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