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.
- Information was also drawn from https://bahai-library.com/compilation_provisional_translations.
This article was originally published on Baha’i Blog.