“How does one pray in French?” one of my BYU students, visiting in my office, asked. The question took me by surprise. She was a junior taking my Introduction to French linguistics. I gave a somewhat confused answer and referred her to the French section of lds.org, where conference talks about prayer can easily be found. The description of the purpose and content of praying, embedded in French terms, would certainly offer ideas and content.
Later I realized that, contrary to most students in my class, she had never been on a French-speaking mission or she would have known how to pray in French. Her question was only meant to translate in French a few key words, like Father in heaven and In the name of Jesus Christ. For it was obvious that as a Mormon this student was familiar with the structure of our four-step-prayer: address yourself to Heavenly Father, thank him for what you are grateful for, ask him what you need, and end in the name of Jesus Christ. And that structure is identical for all languages.
But there are a number of pragmatic aspects to praying in another language (pragmatic in its linguistic sense). For example, how does the old and deferential Thee, Thou, Thy transfer into other languages? In French, one would expect the polite vous and votre to prevail, but tradition uses Tu, Te, Toi, Ton. However, few people know that this is actually an old deferential form, with capital, with the same value as the English Thee, Thou, Thy. It’s interesting to note that modern French Scriptures dropped the capital, thus lowering the form to the colloquial register of tu, te, toi, ton, which was never meant to be. Of course, in oral form, the difference between capital or not is not heard. In English thee, thou, thy keep their deferential value, even with a minuscule.
Thanking and asking are two functions or “speech acts” that can be realized in dozens of lexical structures. The basic structures we thank for and we ask for can no doubt be translated with exactly the same connotation in nearby languages, like most European languages. But what kind of semantic challenges do distant languages pose? To express gratitude or to pose a question may draw from an array of possibilities with differing values in terms of interpersonal relations. For example, in certain cultures an ill-mannered asking must be avoided by using values such as suggesting, proposing, implying or intimating, simply because asking borders a harsh requesting or demanding. Could such intercultural variations make a fundamental change in our ways of approaching God?
Another aspect is the influence our Anglo missionaries have on religious language in remote Mormonia. When investigators and converts hear faulty structures used in prayer by missionaries, there is a chance for contamination. I’ve heard more than once Dutch natives get to the conclusion of their prayer with deze dingen bidden wij voor, the literal transposition of these things we pray for, picked up from the missionaries, but impossible in correct Dutch. Even so, such typical Mormon idioms acquire the charm of an own liturgy.
Finally, can the end formula In the name of be translated with the same value in other languages? What is, after all, the precise semantic and theological value of In the name of? A needed intercession? A powerful order invoking the authority of Christ to get God to respond? A simple recognition of the place of Christ in our relation with God? In other languages those nuances may be significant according to how In the name of is translated – or can be translated at all.
We know, of course, that the language of the Spirit supersedes the limitations of natural languages. Still, when we pray, words are only words. And when one has to pray in a foreign language in public, one often gives more attention to processing the language than to the actual content. Therefore, when I am asked to say a prayer in a meeting in my Provo ward or at BYU, I say it in Dutch, my mother tongue (with the distinct impression that people, surprised, listen more intently, trying to figure out what I’m saying…).
We have among our readers many returned missionaries who have learned to pray in another language, and who taught how to pray across cultures. What are your experiences?