History records that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by 'the gift and power of God' and that he produced a 'more perfect' translation of the Bible by that means as well.
In the Church today, translators do not have use of the Urim and Thummim that aided the Prophet in his translation of the scriptures. Nevertheless, spiritual gifts and divine inspiration definitely do play a role in their work, according to David Frischknecht, managing director of the Translation Department of the Church.
"The instruction given to the Prophet Joseph Smith and to Oliver Cowdery in Sections 8 and 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants are fundamental to the translation process, with or without the Urim and Thummim," Brother Frischknecht asserted, citing in particular the portion of verse 9 of Section 9 that states, "Therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me."
"And that's the basis for all of our translation work throughout the world," Brother Frischknecht added. "Our translators need to be in tune with our Heavenly Father through the Spirit so that the words are not the words of the translator; rather, the word of the Lord in English stays the word of the Lord when it goes to another language. For that to happen, the translator has to be inspired, has to have operative the gift of tongues, interpretation of tongues and the other gifts of the Spirit."
Such inspiration comes to bear in the selection of people to do the work of translation as well as in the work itself, Brother Frischknecht affirmed.
"Our experience is that in every approved language, we find people that have been prepared to do the work," he said. "Their motives have to be pure, just as Joseph Smith was told that he could have no other motive in mind than to build up the Kingdom."
As the first resource in finding people to do the work, the department draws upon the recommendations of local ecclesiastical leaders, who are able to assess the spiritual worthiness and gospel understanding of prospective translators.
"In the early phases [in a given language] we don't establish offices with full-time translators," Brother Frischknecht explained. "We work with contractual, or 'on-call,' translators."
Their work is carefully monitored in the earlier projects. Outstanding workers eventually might be employed as full-time translators when it comes time to set up an office in a given language.
Currently, 55 persons are employed in the Translation Department at Church headquarters, where the Spanish-language translation is done. All other languages are done in language offices abroad, with a total of 137 full-time translators. About 2,200 individuals who help as contractual employees and volunteer workers are also involved with the work worldwide
Many attest to divine guidance in their work. Brother Frischknecht shared two accounts.
In one, a female contractual translator in the Philippines wrote: "I can no longer count how many times I've been moved to tears in translating the accounts of people both past and present. There was even a time when I felt I wasn't actually translating their account, but they were dictating to me plainly in my language what transpired before them. Moreover, I've been reminded of what to feel and do. When I've felt very weary of my Church callings, the words of Alma brightened me up. When I was beset with burden, the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith gave me hope. President [Gordon B.] Hinckley's messages inspire me to rear my children in a manner that pleases the Lord.
"Truly, the Lord takes every opportunity to teach His children. When He was on the earth He taught them in the streets and the mountains and the marketplace, under a tree or even in the middle of the sea. In my case, He teaches me in that little corner of my room on a makeshift table at dawn with pen in hand and a pile of translation materials. I love this work so much. It is more of a calling to me than a job. I'm overwhelmed by it. One day I was translating the words of the Savior. I felt so overwhelmed that I cried and asked the Lord, 'Am I really worthy of it?'"
A male translator in Fiji wrote: "It is my testimony that translation can only be done well with the Lord's help. I have to be in tune with the Spirit of the Lord and be a personal example to all the staff in the office and to my own family. Each assignment is a learning curve for me and has to be done within the framework of spiritual confidence. Each file brings its own blessings when one remembers that the prophet has spoken, the leaders are speaking for the Lord and, with the right attitude, one has to ask for inspiration to find the right words in Fijian to convey the impact to the readers."
In general conference of April 1990, then-Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve spoke of the translation of the scriptures into another language. When such a translation is undertaken, he said, "years of tedious work lie ahead, for each translation must be done as though it alone is important."
"And that little sentence frames the weight that a translator feels," Brother Frischknecht said." If the word of the Lord doesn't come through this veil of translation, as it were, clearly and understandably, then people don't receive the full message."