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Mormon Scholars Testify: Marcel Kahne

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Marcel Kahne
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsKahne, Marcel
Access Date30 March 2018
Last Update DateNovember 2010
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsConversion; French Book of Mormon; Missionary Work; Testimony

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Marcel Kahne

I come from a non-practising Jewish family. My parents and almost all my extended family were deported and murdered at the Auschwitz (Poland) concentration camp. Having been taken in by a non-Jewish Belgian family right before the great 1942 roundups by the Germans in Antwerp, Belgium, I escaped their fate. I was six at the time, and the loss of my parents—I became aware very early of the final nature of their disappearance—affected me deeply. Looking back on my childhood, I am impressed by how deeply being uprooted (having to adjust to another family, another environment, learning another language—I spoke Flemish and had to learn French) can mature even a six-year-old child. In time, I started searching for a meaning to life. Did it have any? Did it make any sense at all? Was it, as Shakespeare bitterly puts it in Macbeth, “a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” or was there a God, like the one I was being told about in the Catholic religion class in elementary school? And if so, what did He want from us?

In my teenage years, I started studying the religion of my ancestors, thanks to an aunt who lived in Israel and who sent me books and put me in touch with a rabbi. But Judaism had no answer for me. During this same period, I took Catholic religion classes at school and became fascinated with Jesus Christ, but the remainder of the teaching did not answer any of my questions. Far from it. One year, the Catholic priest who taught us religion found a way to eliminate the problems of unruly classes, which usually plague teachers of religion, by compelling us to write under his dictation during the fifty minutes of each class period. The subject was the traditional Christian concept of God: His nature, the Trinity and the matter of the existence of evil. Such a concept of God, seen as an immaterial whole without any parts; who could be entirely in each particle of matter while at the same time being only one; who was one but also three; an element of whom (which was not an element since God is a whole without parts) had left God to come to earth and save us (to satisfy whose justice?) and then return into him; who had created everything out of nothing; who, while located out of time, had at a given time (of a time that did not exist?) created (for what purpose?) an imperfect universe (why imperfect?) and allowed/wanted/been unable to prevent evil—such a concept that defies all logic and which, in addition, was in contradiction with the Bible and was not the product of revelation but of the wild imaginings of fourth-century theologians, was nothing more than balderdash to me. How could I love this almighty Nothing, who is the Totally Other, with all my heart, might, mind, and strength, as Jesus commands, and consider Him to be “my Father which is in Heaven”? How could I accept that this Being, who had created me out of nothing and to whom I therefore owed that I was as I was, could make me responsible for imperfections He Himself had placed in me? And especially, that did not answer my basic question: Does life have meaning?

Actually, I had already received my answer. By the age of twelve, I had made up my mind I would become an English teacher. One day my foster father met a couple of missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who were holding a street meeting in the city where we lived, and, having noticed that they were English speakers, invited them to his house. He wasn’t interested in their message at all, but he thought that they could talk English with me and thus help me learn the language. I was then in my fifteenth year and right in the middle of my spiritual quest. I asked them about their religion and discovered that Joseph Smith had seen God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and that his description of Them was that of an eyewitness and not that of a religious theoretician. His revelations taught me that men, in their primeval state, and matter, in its unorganized state, existed by themselves and did not need to be created ex nihilo. God had taken charge of us as primal intelligences, had endowed us with a spirit body, thus making us His literal children, and had conceived a Plan of Salvation through which we would be able to go through an evolution that would eventually bring us to that condition of divine perfection and happiness reached by God Himself. All the problems encountered by traditional Christian theology were solved: God was our guide, not our cause, and the organizer of the universe, not a magician extracting everything from nothingness. He was not the Totally Other, but our loving Father endeavoring to lead us to the fulfillment and happiness of perfection. As far as evil was concerned, it was inherent in our nature just as the back of a sheet is inseparable from its front and was to be neutralized so that we could reach perfect happiness. Access to this ideal was subordinated to a covenant with Jesus Christ through baptism and keeping His commandments, which were those whose observation was essential to bringing us to our perfect fulfillment and happiness. And in this process, those dead who had not had any opportunity to come to know the Gospel and decide for or against it were not forgotten, the Gospel being declared to them in the postmortal spirit world and the necessary covenants being made for them in the temples. I not only had my answers, but I knew I would see my parents again and they would still be my parents.

But all of this might just be a beautiful theory, cleverly conceived by a particularly skillful mind. Was it just a matter of logic or conviction? Wasn’t there some anchoring in real life somewhere? It wouldn’t be long until I found one in the Book of Mormon. While I was studying with the missionaries, one of them gave me a copy of a book by BYU professor Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert and The World of the Jaredites. This book clinched my brand new testimony. It showed that the Book of Mormon was entirely at home in the historical framework it claimed for itself, excluding any possibility that it was contrived either by Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries. Moreover, it taught me something that was going to play a significant role in my coming study of the sacred writings: the fact that each word, phrase, or intriguing pattern in the scriptures can conceal an important historical or doctrinal feature and that the scriptures therefore need to be studied minutely. The Book of Mormon was obviously an authentic historical record and the people, places, and facts it records were real. I did not know it yet, but this discovery was just the beginning of a long love story between me and the Book of Mormon.

I was baptized when I came of age at twenty-one and served a mission in France. At the time (1960-62), everything by way of handbooks and lesson manuals was translated and printed at the mission office in Paris. I had already completed translations for the church for about two years and, after I had been on my mission for a couple of weeks, the mission president called me to the mission office to translate. This work gave me an opportunity to compare quotations from the English Book of Mormon with their French translation of the time. It did not take long for me to notice that there were mistranslations and other inaccuracies in the French version, which was the original translation made in 1851 under the direction of Curtis E. Bolton. I prepared a report and discussed it with the mission president. It was submitted to the First Presidency, whereupon I was invited to revise the French text of the Book of Mormon (and, while I was at it, to retranslate the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price). The revision, however, was to be strictly limited to the most obvious errors. My work led to the 1962 French edition of the scriptures.

This work left me dissatisfied. There were too many inaccuracies in the original French translation which I had not been allowed to correct. Curiously, however, I felt sure a full revision of this translation would take place one day and I would be the one to do it. There was not any doubt in my mind about this. I therefore needed to prepare by studying the book thoroughly. Other works of Hugh Nibley such as An Approach to the Book of Mormon and Since Cumorah kept strengthening my conviction of the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon and the need for the translator to follow the English text as closely as possible because it deliberately betrayed forms and structures of the source language.

The long awaited time occurred twenty-three years after the publication of the 1962 edition. After an extensive preliminary work carried out by Brigham Young University to provide translators with a Translation Guide and a Lexicon giving the meaning of each word in each of its occurrences and, as luck (?) would have it, a republication of the American Dictionary of the English Language, the original 1828 edition of the Webster Dictionary, making it possible to check the meaning of English words at the time of Joseph Smith, the Church launched in 1985 a vast translation program of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price in many languages and, at the same time, a revision of the existing translations. I was appointed to be the main translator for the French language, assisted by a swarm of reviewers whose duty was to check the accuracy of my work. At that very time I was requested to translate an article by ethnologist John Sorenson entitled “Digging into the Book of Mormon.” Being very interested by its contents, I looked up the footnotes and discovered the address of a foundation called FARMS, made up of LDS researchers and university professors. I procured their catalog and bought all the booklets that had already been published. Sorenson had also just published his seminal work An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, the reading of which strengthened my conviction even more that the Book of Mormon was dealing with real people within an actual geographical and cultural framework and that the English text concealed treasures of historical authenticity which required my translation to be as close to the English original as possible. Professor John Welch’s articles on chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and on the difference between the terms theft and robbery, articles by John Tvedtnes and others on Hebraisms, Donald W. Parry’s treatise on parallelisms in the book, and still others shed a new light on some features of the book and showed that translators, including myself, sometimes did not know what they were translating.

The translator’s mission was defined by a First Presidency statement requiring that the translation should be as close as possible to the English original, an injunction I all the more agreed with since I did not want my translation to be an obstacle to a communication of future discoveries to French-speaking readers. A translator who tries to render the Book of Mormon in his own language while rendering at the same time as much as possible all the nuances and subtleties of the English and, in the case of the Book of Mormon, a rather peculiar English, a product of a tight translation showing all kinds of semitisms—such a translator discovers the book as few other people will. Its internal consistency, and the rigor of its terminology and patterns, are obvious. It appears clearly that whoever wrote the text was not somebody who would have made it up as he went, but somebody who wrote carefully with a great consistency in the choice of words and formulation, a characteristic which makes translation even more arduous than in the case of an ordinary text. When I reached the end of 1 Nephi, after a meticulous, prayerful work and after reviewing the text five times, I was proud of myself, convinced that my translation was the very best that could humanly be done. By the time I had reached Mosiah, I was not sure of anything any more and I was ready to delete all I had done. I am convinced that, if the book had been that of an impostor, I would not have had such a problem. The work of retranslating the Book of Mormon and the other Latter-day scriptures into French, which lasted from late 1985 to mid-1998 (with the input of successive revision committees created by the General Authorities who wanted to make sure the job had been done appropriately), was also a period during which a string of discoveries was made concerning the Book of Mormon by FARMS researchers, some of which had an impact on the translation. I went away from the experience being more convinced than ever that the Book of Mormon was an authentic historical document and that the only way its existence could be explained was to admit the authenticity of the Joseph Smith story.

Let there be no misunderstanding me. I did not say the authenticity of the book in the scientific sense of the term has been “proved”. Those who have piled up the historical and literary confirmations of the Book of Mormon have denied doing so. In this they are right, since the concept of proof is eminently personal. That which convinces the one does not convince the other. One thing is nevertheless clear: Henceforth it is not possible any more—at least if one considers oneself intellectually honest—to judge the Book of Mormon fairly without taking into account those evidences research has brought forth.

But my testimony is anchored in yet something else that is far more fundamental. It is not a mere matter of reasoning about religion nor a matter of discoveries made possible by scientific inquiry, although these two types of considerations play a significant role in reinforcing one’s testimony. My testimony rests with the certainty of the objective existence of God based on a concept introduced by Joseph Smith as a result of his own personal experience: that of personal revelation. Joseph Smith had his questions answered as he did what James 1:5 in the New Testament suggested (“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him”) and made the experiment of going to a secluded place and praying to God there. His prayer led to the First Vision. On the strength of that he taught his followers that they were not required to believe blindly what he was telling them. They could know for themselves whether it was true by asking God and receiving an answer for themselves. This is the principle of personal revelation. It is the challenge issued by the Book of Mormon itself: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:4-5).

I made this experiment and I received my answer. But that is not all. Like every newly baptized individual, I received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the right to His company and, through Him, personal revelation when needed. This manifestation of the “still small voice,” as it is called in 1 Kings 19:12, I have experienced many times over the years and I can testify that it actually exists. Those who do not believe may fall back on their usual arsenal of explanations, psychological or otherwise, but if they do not apply the principle in their lives and do not make this experiment, they miss a basic element of evaluation. Personal revelation does not make me a crank. It is something too subtle for that. Very often, it is only in hindsight that I become aware of this small nudge in the right direction received from the Holy Ghost. But whenever it occurs, it reinforces what I know already: that God exists, that he is our Creator and our Father and that he is concerned with each one of us.


Marcel Kahne has an MA in Germanic languages from the Université libre de Bruxelles and is a retired teacher of English, Dutch, and German. He has also been a part-time translator for the Church for over fifty years. He served a full-time mission in the French Mission from 1960 to 1962 and has served in many positions in the church, among others as a branch and district president, a high councillor, and a counselor in three stake presidencies. He is currently a member of his ward bishopric. He and his first wife (now deceased) have four children and eight grandchildren.

Posted November 2010