PROVO — The names of two of the most sacred ordinances in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have no adequate equivalents in the Japanese language, an illustration of the problems sometimes inherent in teaching religion across cultures, a BYU professor said Friday.
Van C. Gessel, a professor of Japanese at BYU, spoke at the 50th BYU Studies symposium and said in Japan, members of the LDS faith use the created words, "baputesma" and "endaumento" for the ordinances of baptism and endowment, along with the words "sute-ku" and "wa-do" for stake and ward.
Missionaries and priests have struggled for centuries to teach Christian concepts to a polytheistic society that has no underlying concept of Jesus Christ, Gessel explained.
Despite no direct translation for God, Gessel said, Japanese members of the LDS church use the commonly accepted term Kami sama, which means, "the honorable Mr. Spirit, essence that resides in the trees, the streams and our deceased ancestors."
Translation problems are not unique to the Japanese language. Gessel quoted Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset regarding the Basque language's lack of a word for deity.
"Lacking a name for God made it very difficult for the Basques to think about God," according to Ortega. Consequently, the Basque people were very slow to be converted to Christianity.
In Japan, missionaries either tried to borrow existing Japanese words and redefine them, or to introduce words from their own languages.
Both created problems, as Gessel pointed out that some Japanese Christians proudly proclaim that their God is the greatest of all the gods, and that when they talk about faith, the word they use can also refer to the Buddhist law.
Translations are also easily misinterpreted, he said, referencing Mosiah 3:19 in the Book of Mormon and the "natural man."
That could be read in Japanese to mean "natural man," or "a man who is in the condition in which he was born," rendering that scripture to imply that man, in the condition in which he was born, is an enemy to God.
"Can we say 'original sin?' " Gessel said, cringing.
And using terms foreign to the listener to describe something as personal and intimate as religion imposes barriers to greater teaching, Gessel said.
"Christianity is to many Japanese what raw fish is to many Americans," he said. "Alien, slippery, a bit hard to swallow and not something they want to make a part of their daily diet."
He said the difficulty for translators and scholars is coming up with a palatable vocabulary that can be "delicious unto them."
Thankfully, he said, an imperfect language system is not the only teaching tool available.
"It is by the grace of God," Gessel said, "and the convincing power of his Spirit that the teaching process can and will succeed."
For more information about the symposium's Saturday schedule, visit byustudies.byu.edu on the Web.
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