The Church reached a milestone in its international progress this month as the number of members speaking other languages surpassed for the first time the number of members speaking English.
At the same time, the Church reached another milestone: that of 11 million members, according to Church statistics.
Both milestones are indicators of the rapid acceptance of the Church by people in other countries. In the past few decades, the Church has grown almost twice as fast outside the United States as it has inside this nation, with the greatest growth in countries where Spanish and Portuguese are spoken.
However, many nations are represented in the Church, which currently translates its full program into 27 languages and a partial program into another 75 languages, for a total of 102. Church materials have been translated into 175 languages.
Just as one of a dozen major languages are spoken by the bulk of the world's population, 86 percent of the Church members speak at least one of three languages: English, Spanish or Portuguese. The remaining 14 percent of Church membership is divided into some 170-plus languages, some of which are spoken only by a handful of members. Worldwide, hundreds of local languages are spoken by groups with populations as small as tens of thousands.
The milestone of fewer than half the members who speak English comes about three-and-a-half years after another major milestone of Church internationalization, that of having fewer than half of the members living in the United States, reached in February 1996.
Although English drops below 50 percent, it remains the major language of the Church, with about 5.5 million English-speaking members, compared with the next language, Spanish, which has about 3.2 million. Much of the Church's growth has come in the last half century in such Spanish-speaking nations as Mexico, Chile, Peru and Argentina. Growth has also come in Brazil, which is home to the majority of the Church's 780,000 Portuguese speaking members. Three languages of the Philippines are in the top ten languages of the Church: Tagalog with 146,000 speakers; Cebuano with 100,000 speakers and Ilokano with 86,000 speakers.
Most of the Church growth comes through missionary work. The Church has 60,000 missionaries teaching in more than 160 nations. A specially developed language training system, assisted by computer, is used to train missionaries to speak other languages. (See Church News, Aug. 12, 2000.)
The development of the Church in non-English-speaking areas requires significant efforts in translation and interpretation. At any given time, the Church has from 1,000 to 1,500 translators working around the world. Many are volunteers.
The search for qualified translators is ongoing because every bilingual person is not automatically a qualified translator or oral interpreter, said David L. Frischknecht, managing director of the Translation Department.
"Our key objective is to present the message accurately so there is no deviation in what is heard from language to language," he said. "The gospel must be presented in its purity."
He said that authorization for all translation projects is given under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. These Brethren also give direct oversight to the translation and publication of the scriptures. The translation work is essential in meeting the scriptural mandate in Matthew 28:19, which states "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations." A modern scripture confirms this directive: "For it shall come to pass in that day, that every man shall hear the fulness of gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language, through those who are ordained unto this power, by the administration of the Comforter, shed forth upon them for the revelation of Jesus Christ." (Doctrine and Covenants 90:11.)
Brother Frischknecht noted that the Book of Mormon was first translated into English "by the gift and power of God."
"We expect all Church translations to be done through similar inspiration," he said.
Translation of the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon, is one of the largest translation efforts of the Church. It is common for work to be in progress on more than 50 scripture projects at any given time. The Book of Mormon, or Selections from the Book of Mormon, is now available in 94 languages.
Curriculum manuals and Church magazines also carry the gospel message from one language into another and require translation. Working with the printed word, translators complete a total of about 155,000 pages a year, or 45 million words.
Oral interpretation from one language into another is also a major effort. Each year, oral interpretation at Church Headquarters is provided for 40 events, such as general conference, BYU Campus Education Week, Church Educational System programs, and various seminars. The largest of these is general conference, which will be interpreted into 49 languages when it convenes in October.
A new area of translation has developed in recent years. This is the translation of computer software, a service much in demand as the Church continually enhances its website and provides such software as Personal Ancestral File, now available in five languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and German.
And while computers can and do assist in translation, the work is done mostly with human brainpower. Translators face a tremendous volume and tight publication deadlines, while struggling with complicated language structures.
The department, which is under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric, "uses Church members who are native speakers, who stay current on terminology, grammar and spelling," he said. And the department is constantly seeking qualified people to volunteer in translating and interpreting for the Church.
A single factor lies behind the entire effort: "Sharing the gospel in all the world," said Brother Frischknecht.