The Pacific Islands span multiple languages and a variety of translation stories. From Tongan to Maori, from as early as the 1840s through today, translating the Book of Mormon for faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on these hundreds of islands has been a constant work in progress.
According to the Deseret News’ 2011 Church Almanac, the first missionaries to venture into the Pacific were called in 1843 for the first non-English proselytizing in the history of the church — only 13 years after the LDS Church was organized. Aiming for the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), they wound up in Tubuai, part of French Polynesia.
In “Translation and Transculturation in the Pacific,” an article by Lowell Bishop and Bruce Van Orden part of a collection in the book “Pioneers in the Pacific,” Bishop and Van Orden called one of the Tubuai missionaries, Addison Pratt, a hero among early missionaries. Pratt learned and adopted the cultural ways of the Polynesian people, but was unable to translate the Book of Mormon into Tahitian due to a lack of printing facilities in Tubuai. However, Pratt had a Tahitian Bible thanks to a translation by the London Missionary Society.
The first major stride in translation, the article says, came from another missionary hero, then-Elder George Quayle Cannon, as he served in Hawaii. Cannon began translating the Book of Mormon when he was 25 years old and it was officially published in 1855 — the sixth non-English translation behind Danish, French, Welsh, German and Italian.
The next large push for Book of Mormon translation in the Pacific Islands was for a Maori edition in the 1880s. Because of the church’s fast growth in New Zealand, a makeshift translation was published in 1889.
An Ensign article in October 2004 details the story of Matthew Cowley, a young missionary with an immense love of the people of New Zealand and a particular knack for the language. Cowley provided a cleaner translation that was published in 1917. He was asked soon after to translate the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, too.
Other landmark translations included the Samoan edition in 1903, Tahitian in 1904, Tongan in 1946 and Fijian in 1980.
“It has never been easy for church missionaries and leaders to make appropriate adjustments to new languages and cultures,” Bishop and Van Orden wrote. The Pacific Islands were no exception.
Most of these languages, for example, do not have a word to distinguish between hills and mountains, nor do they have a word for snow thanks to the terrain and weather of the islands.
The First Presidency approved a policy of very literal translation — not word-for-word, but maintaining the basic characteristics of the original text. The resulting translations, Bishop and Van Orden explain, are only as difficult for islanders to understand as the English Book of Mormon is for English-speakers not accustomed to scriptural language.