Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Why do provisional translations?

Question: Why bother to work on provisional translations when the World Centre already has a plan for translating the writings of Baha'u'llah?

To answer this question, let's begin with an estimate of how many tablets Baha'u'llah wrote. "Bahá'u'lláh revealed over 15,000 tablets. Some are long (several hundred pages) but most are a page or two, written to a specific individual to answer a question or convey encouragement."[1] Of these, the World Centre has archived just under half: "Bahá'u'lláh, 7,160 tablets archived".[2]

Taking into account the number of translations done by the Guardian and by the World Centre, up to the point when the Kitab-i Aqdas was translated, the following is an estimate of authorised translations, including partial translations:

"It appears that less than 500 of the 15,000 tablets — a relatively small percentage of the total revelation — have been partially translated and published in English."[3]

And to give a little more context, "Taherzadeh's four-volume Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh provides historical information on and summaries of only about 86 tablets."[4]

Now, if we think about the sheer size of the revelation and the speed at which the World Centre is able to release authorised translations, we begin to see that, if we wait for the World Centre to translate the revelation, we will not see very much of it in our lifetimes. The task is simply enormous. As many believers have pointed out to me, the World Centre has to work very hard to ensure that the translations it produces are as accurate as possible and this involves much time, a lot of resources and the minds of many people. So while it may be true that the World Centre does a better job of translating the writings, this does not mean that it is pointless to do provisional translations. Provisional translations may not be quite as good, but they are still extremely valuable. The argument against doing provisional translations seems to take the position that a thing is not worth doing unless it is perfect. I think it is an excuse for inaction - an excuse never to take up a challenge and sail on the ark of faith. Surely, any worthy attempt to translate the revelation for the benefit of all will be blessed by Baha'u'llah? Why would he not wish to see his words spread throughout the English-speaking world? Isn't that why he came?

Another argument for not bothering with provisional translations is the one that says that the translations we already have cover the most important tablets Baha'u'llah wrote. Therefore, we should be content with what we have, for it is the most important portion of the revelation anyway. In fact, I've even heard someone say something like, 'Well, how many read what we've already got!?' To which I say, 'Who cares what others do? I read what we've got and I want to read more! Do we simply adjust to the lowest common denominator? Why not cater to those who faithfully read the writings and can't get enough of them? Aren't they the people that matter?'

As to the argument that what we have constitutes the important portion of the revelation, in fact, there are still significant tablets - like Kitab-i Badi, which is longer than the Kitab-i Iqan - that have yet to be translated. There are many, many important tablets published in Persian and Arabic that have yet to be translated into English. We are in the ridiculous position where a sizeable proportion of the global Baha'i population - that is, the section who read Persian and Arabic - are familiar with writings that English speakers do not even know exist! If it is good enough for Persian and Arabic speakers to read those tablets - they have been published, after all - why not make them available to English speakers? Why should English speakers have to settle for less than what Persian and Arabic speakers read? Shall we take away the tablets published in Persian and Arabic and tell those who read them that, hey, it's all right because they already have the bit of the revelation that matters? It's patronising. There are books of daily readings published in Persian and Arabic that contain passages from tablets English speakers have never even heard of.



[1] Notes by Rob Stockman. http://bahai-library.com/number_tablets_bahaullah
[2] Ibid, Resource Guide for the Scholarly Study of the Bahá'í Faith
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid

Forthcoming book about Baha'u'llah's mystical teachings

  Paradise of Presence: Conversations in the Mindscape of Eternity by Alison Elizabeth Marshall