Editor's note: This is one in a series on the Book of Mormon translations and translators.
Literary Japanese was at a crossroads when four missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in Tokyo Bay in August of 1901.
Over the next eight years, one of those missionaries, young Alma O. Taylor, helped navigate the first Japanese translation of the Book of Mormon across a landscape of changing literary styles. Initially overwhelmed by the language, Elder Taylor played a major role in producing a translation that scholar Shinji Takagi calls "a great literary achievement."
Elder Taylor was with Elder Heber J. Grant when the future president of the church dedicated Japan for the preaching of the gospel.
Two months after his arrival in Japan, a 19-year-old Elder Taylor wrote in his journal that learning Japanese "seems at present an almost insurmountable task, most discouraging to the mind of its young student." But by July 1904, Elder Taylor had been assigned by then-President Horace S. Ensign to direct the translation efforts of the Book of Mormon, about which Taylor wrote, "To say that my heart leaped with joy at being called to devote my time to the Book of Mormon does not express my feelings by far."
In his essay about the 1909 translation of the Book of Mormon called "Proclaiming the Way in Japanese," Takagi argues that translations must balance the need to sound natural, or transparent, in the target language with being faithful to the original text. Elder Taylor faced the additional challenge of choosing which style to use in his translation — classical or colloquial Japanese.
According to Takagi, "the difference between spoken and written Japanese by the middle of the nineteenth century was so great that an illiterate person would have hardly understood a sentence if it was read to him."
Takagi explains that the choice facing Elder Taylor was between making the translation accessible to more readers through the colloquial, or spoken, style, or giving the sacred text the grace and dignity that came through the classical style of literary Japanese. A contemporary writing style, Takagi notes, was "just being established" and an effort to unite the spoken and written language was gaining momentum.
Elder Taylor felt that the more conversational contemporary style, called "gembunitchi," should be used in the translation. He also knew his "Japanese was all too imperfect to produce a translation worthy of the approval and respectful consideration of the public." Elder Taylor therefore sought a native speaker to review his translation.
According to Takagi, Taylor left portions of his translations with two reviewers, Zenshiro Noguchi and Genta Suzuki, and both came back with changes from contemporary to classical style. Elder Taylor's written history says he was told that "all efforts at putting force and dignity into the translation as it stood in 'gembunitchi' had proved unsuccessful." A decision to make a change to the modern classical style, called "futsuban," was made through "consultation, prayer, inquiry and thought anew."
Takagi details how Elder Taylor then sought critique from some of the best authors in Japan, an effort that led him to a partnership with Choko Ikuta, "a prolific literary critic, novelist, playwright and translator of pre-World War II Japan," Takagi writes. Ikuta, who was familiar with biblical language, "held a special feeling for the language of the Bible in the classical style." Ikuta was contracted to revise Elder Taylor's translation into classical Japanese, though, as Takagi notes, "the final language was much friendlier to the average reader than Ikuta perhaps would have produced on his own."
Takagi points out that contemporary written Japanese was not fully embraced until after World War II, and that "writing in the contemporary style with grace and dignity would have been a difficult task even in the 1950s." It wasn't until the third edition of the Japanese Book of Mormon, published in 1995, that a "full colloquial style translation" was made available.
A second translation, published in 1957, was made by Tatsui Sato, whose family was the first to be baptized in the country following the 1924 closure of the Japanese mission.
Sources: "Proclaiming the Way in Japanese," Shinji Takagi, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, Maxwell Institute; "Alma O. Taylor," Jeffrey S. Hardy, Mormon Missionary Diaries, BYU Harold B. Lee Library; "A Priceless Pearl: Alma O. Taylor's Mission to Japan," Reid L. Neilson, Ensign, June 2002; "Boyd K. Packer: A Watchman on the Tower," Lucile C. Tate, Bookcraft
Aaron Shill is the editor of Features and Mormon Times at the Deseret News.