Why Do the English Translations of the Baha’i Writings Use Elevated Language? 

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a renowned professor of communication arts. He posed this question to me: “Why do the English translations of Baha’i Writings use such elevated language? Does it pose an obstacle to understanding for some people?”

It was a question I hadn’t really considered before. I’d been reading Baha’i Writings since childhood, so their style seemed perfectly natural to me. I was habituated to their four-plus-syllable words that seldom surface in routine interactions: have you ever used “omnipotent,” “untrammeled,” or “beneficent” in everyday conversation? Or should I ask “hath thou ever said”? Yes, I was also accustomed to “thou” in place of “you” and correspondingly old-time conjugations (“Thou knowest,” “God sufficeth”). My familiarity with this style certainly came in handy during the inevitable Shakespeare units in middle school English!

But it is a question that deserves an answer. In researching it, I came across an illuminating scholarly article, “Translating the Baha’i Writings” by Craig A. Volker. I draw the following points primarily from Volker’s article, which I encourage you to peruse for additional information.1

Reason 1: The original Persian and Arabic Writings use an elevated style

In their Writings, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha weren’t employing the everyday language of Persia—they used a formal, poetic style. Using a similarly elevated style for translations is therefore true to the originals. With a style evoking that of the King James Bible—which, though produced over four hundred years ago, has stood the test of time—Shoghi Effendi set the standard for English translations of the Baha’i Writings. Subsequent translations, guided and overseen by the Universal House of Justice or other Institutions of the Faith, have followed his lead, using a high literary style.

Reason 2: Elevated language is more stable than colloquial forms

Speaking of the test of time, let’s say we translated the Writings into the kind of language you and I use, prioritizing understandability over preserving their poetic qualities. Now anyone with basic literacy could grasp them with ease. But what about in fifty years? Popular usage changes quickly, even from one generation to the next. (I see differences in usage even between my students and me, though I was born a mere decade before them—for instance, they call “#” a “hashtag” whereas I say “pound sign,” not to mention all the new slang I can’t keep up with.) Plus, with English being a world language, its colloquial forms differ vastly between regions. So, to stay accessible, the Writings would need to be re-translated into the latest version(s) of English frequently and would need to vary from region to region. That’s not a feasible approach; we need translations that will endure across the centuries and across borders.

Reason 3: The Writings should linguistically educate as well as spiritually edify

It’s actually not a bad thing if the Writings lead you to a dictionary! (If you haven’t already watched it, you might be interested in Baha’i Blog’s video series, “What’s That Word?”, which explains some of the words found in the Baha’i Writings in a light-hearted manner.) Speaking as a writing teacher, I believe that puzzling out unfamiliar words and complex sentences is a great way to enhance linguistic comprehension skills. Besides lining up with what I teach in my classes, the idea of reading difficult texts to enhance one’s powers of expression also aligns with the Baha’i emphasis on universal education. If you don’t immediately understand a given passage, that doesn’t mean you’re unqualified and you should give up—it means you have an opportunity to learn. Moreover, I think it gives us a signal to slow down, encouraging an appropriately contemplative approach to the Writings.

It might be true that some of the Baha’i Writings are not immediately comprehensible—but, through individual and collective effort, everyone can make strides toward understanding. Every reader is capable of learning, and literacy can always be improved—especially when propelled by the desire to swim in an ocean of spiritual guidance.


 

  1. Information was also drawn from https://bahai-library.com/compilation_provisional_translations. []

About the Author

Layli Miron

Layli invites you to read more of her essays on https://layli.net. She lives with her husband, Sergey, in central Pennsylvania, where she recently completed a PhD in rhetoric and composition. In moments when she’s not writing, she most enjoys taking strolls with Sergey, during which they admire the region's natural beauty, from its dense woodlands to its abundant groundhogs.

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Discussion 24 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. Useful references and clearly made points. Translation can indeed be a contentious issue and a source of tests for emerging Baha’i communities especially where good translators with a deep knowledge of the Sacred Texts are often in short supply. Thankfully this is now less common and tremendous progress in raiising the standards and scale of translations has been made. Two other points however may also be worth mentioning.

    1) A universal and accessible template.
    The Guardian did indeed adopt the King James version of the Bible as a style guide and I believe praised its elevated language. My understanding is that one reason for doing this was that by the mid 19th Century this version had become established as a universal template for translation into most other languages all around the world and was widely available. *( For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.) This meant it was also readily accessible by Baha’is who were attempting to translate the English texts into their native tongue. The King James version has often been used as a reference text for this purpose and I believe it still is.

    2) When working with the Baha’i Publishing Trust in the UK we received many comments about the difficulties in understanding the language and style of the Writings. This too could be a source of frustration and anxiety for many friends and enquirers.This is a complex and challenging issue which can be approached from many viewpoints but readers may be interested to know that permission was given by the UHJ for simplified versions of the teachings to be produced to promote greater dissemination about the teachings and meet the needs of specific groups. As far as I know this was never actually pursued strategically but the changing nature of media has already recast this question upon us in new ways. Of course several translations of prayers / writings have been translated into pidgin English and local patois. I used to have a small collection but sadly they did not survive my house moves between continents.

    1. Gordon, it’s very useful to hear the insights you gained during your time with the UK Bahá’í Publishing Trust. Your second point reminds me of this passage from Craig Volker’s article (https://bahaistudies.ca/uploads/2014/05/2.3-Volker.pdf):

      “Thus, the Universal House of Justice has authorized simplified English translations for use in Papua New Guinea (Universal House of Justice, letter of 20 September 1973) and translations of parts of Arabic prayers into Persian (Universal House of Justice, letter of 7 August 1984). In both cases care is made to ensure that these translations are not labelled as, or used instead of, the authorized translation. Indeed, it is required that the original appear on the same page so as to avoid any confusion about the role of the translation-commentary.” (pp. 3-4)

      1. Thanks Layli, it is a big topic and can be approached from a number of perspectives. A point of reflection for me is how to cultivate the capacity for everyone to read the sacred writings for themselves as part of their spiritual practice. International comparisons are difficult but in the UK it is reckoned that only around 30-40% of adults actually read serious literature. This then begs the question about the other 60-70%.

  2. “If you don’t immediately understand a given passage, that doesn’t mean you’re unqualified and you should give up—it means you have an opportunity to learn.” …Love this!

  3. While I agree with several points made in the article, I respectfully disagree with the main premise that future present and future english translations of Bahai sacred scriptures should continue to be made in the King James style as it has “stood the test of time” and is “elevated”. The King James Version (KJV) stopped being used as the gold standard Bible version decades ago due to the discovery it contained many translation errors and because much more accurate and servicable translations such as the New King James Translation, the New American Standard, and the New International Version were released much to the joy and relief of new and old Christians alike. Additionally, the article seems to confuse elevated with antiquated by using the two interchangeably. They are not the same. I agree with retaining the elevated style of the Bahai scriptures in translation, as that is how they were written and meant to be read, understood, and internalized. By elevated I of course mean complex sentence structure and words many may need to look up. What I don’t agree with is retaining the antiquated language, the Thees and Thous, which fell out of fashion long ago and frankly will not ever return. This language and some of the sentence structure that goes with it creates an unecassary stumbling block for many who are first exposed to the scriptures.

    Having read the majority of the Bahai scriptures available in print myself, some of them several times over, I find myself substituting the archaic language for a much more natural, conversational, “from the heart”, modern tongue (ex. “Erelong” becomes “Soon”). Ultimately, however, I believe it should be about what will attract the most hearts to the Cause. And I can’t help but believe clear and effective communication of Gods Word to man for today is what will bring that about.

    1. Robert, thank you for expressing your thoughts about the distinction between elevated and what we could call Shakespeare-era English. I found a few passages from Craig Volker’s article relevant to your points (https://bahaistudies.ca/uploads/2014/05/2.3-Volker.pdf):

      “While Shoghi Effendi himself wrote that his translations were not final and would be subject to review in future (Shoghi Effendi, letter of 14 August 1930), his position as Guardian allowed him to make decisions about the authorized interpretation of a potentially ambiguous text at the same time that he was translating it into English.” (p. 3)

      “Shoghi Effendi’s style reflects his love of the language of the King James Bible and his conscious attempt to set a high cultural standard for the Bahá’í community. His literary style was the result of an attempt to create a style that could act as a bridge between the conventions of modern English and the rich and very figurative style of the originals. The Universal House of Justice (Research Dept., Memorandum 1985) has contrasted this style to that of modem translations of the Bible, noting that while a colloquial or straightforward translation might be an adequate reflection of the koine Greek or ancient Hebrew style of the Bible, to have made a similar colloquial translation from the highly literary styles of the Persian and Arabic Bahá’í writings would have been unfaithful to the original.” (p. 3)

  4. Excellent, beautifully written article! As a linguist and translator (French–Russian—English) and diction coach, I struggle with the low language standards that abound in our world today, now that the “spoken arts” and excellence of elocution are no longer taught in the schools. Your point about the changeability of the “common tongue” is a good one. You will, no doubt be amused by the fact that in the 1980s, when the Peace Message came out, a public relations advisor–although himself a highly educated former Cabinet Minister!–told a National Assembly that “it should be simplified”!

    1. Nan, I appreciate you sharing your experience as a translator and coach. Interesting anecdote about the PR advisor’s stance on simplifying—was that in regard to the “Promise of World Peace” by the Universal House of Justice?

  5. Beautiful article! I just thought to mention, the link to the “Translating the Baha’i Writings” article seems to be broken. I would love to access it if it is still available!

    1. Thanks so much Nadeem, and thanks for letting us know about the broken link! ABS just updated their site so we lost it but it fixed now. Thanks again for letting us know, we really appreciate that!

  6. Ganz wunderbar, schön wie immer! Herzlichen Dank Team Blog. Shoghi Effendi hat einmal darüber etwas den Pilgern in Haifa etwas geraten; die Schriften gut zu verstehen

  7. Leyli, you summarised my article pretty well. And for me, the link you gave for my article at the beginning of the post, DID work. That article was written ages ago. Let me share a few thoughts and concerns that I have developed in the intervening decades, some of which mirror other people’s comments.

    I agree very much with Robert Harte’s comment that there is a vast difference between elevated language and archaic language. If they were the same thing, we should be using translations in old Anglo-Saxon. I also feel he is correct is saying that for many centuries the King James Bible was, together with Shakespearean English, the gold standard, but that this is no longer the case. In fact, if a student today gave me an essay written in that style, s/he would get it back with a note to write in a more genuine style. I have read English translations of the Writings of Bahā’u’llāh in an elevated style without the “thee” and “thou” or archaic verb conjugations and have found them very inspiring and dignified. The day will have to come when we make translations that are both elevated and in the English used by educated people of the 21st, not 19th, century.

    Shoghi Effendi was a linguistic product of the education of his time and place. And while he correctly laid claim to interpretation in the sense of explaining items that were unclear, he never claimed to be an authority on English style or usage. He specifically prefaced his translations as “inadequate” and relied on suggestions from George Townshend and other educated native speakers of English to improve his translations. A belief has grown up in many Iranian communities that, just as the existence of the Holy Qur’ān is a proof of the divine station of Muhammad, the style of the translations of Shoghi Effendi is a proof of his divine inspiration. This can be unfortunate. An English professor friend of mine had his first contact with the Bahāʻī Faith when travelling in North Africa. An Iranian Bahāʻī he met there told him about Shoghi Effendi’s wonderful English as a proof of the Guardian’s divine inspiration and of the divine foundation of the Bahāʻī Faith. My friend took a book, looking only at the English style, and was unimpressed, saying the Book of Mormon was also a good imitation of King James style. We should not make claims for Shoghi Effendi that he himself did not make.

    There are two quirks in modern Bahāʻī publications in English that bother me. One is the idiosyncratic use of transliteration of Arabic and Persian into the Latin alphabet that was used by some scholars in the early 20th century, but is no longer commonly used in academic publishing. The other is the practice in the United States of using the pseudo King James style of English but with American spelling. Writing something like “thou shalt have the honor” gives the translation an anachronistic style that does not exist in the original.

    Gordon Kerr confuses the use of simplified “translations” (actually explanations) with translations into “pidgins and patois”. Simplified explanations to be used together with the actual translation are explanations in an English style that is simple, but still English. I am currently working on such a Basic English explanation to accompany the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. That is different from translations into pidgin-creole languages, because those languages are actual separate languages , as different from English as Italian or Spanish are from Latin. Translations that I am involved with into Tok Pisin, the pidgin-creole national language of Papua New Guinea, are made into an style of oratory used in that language and are not simplified explanation.

    One last point that concerns me is the lack of academic scholarship looking into the translation of the Writings into languages other than English. While Bible translators have good theoretical and exegesis material to help them, there is very little for translators of the Bahāʻī Writings. The excellent annotated academic translation of The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf into German by Armin Eschraghi is an important step in this direction, but his notes are, of course, only accessible to those who know German. I hope that your discussion in this blog will inspire others to look at this fruitful field for academic research.

    1. Craig, thank you so much for reading this post (which is really a digest of your 1990 article). Your reply brings far more nuance to the issue of translation style than I was able to convey in my necessarily superficial overview. I hope Baha’i Blog readers will engage with your points—and, as you suggest, research the many questions raised by this subject. Clearly, much work remains to be done in elucidating the Bahá’í approach to translation.

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