“Latter-day”: time to reconsider some translations?

The requirement to use the official name of the Church is meeting with much willingness to comply. One of the challenges is the length of the words, in particular for online references. If that is the case in English, it is all the more so in many non-English languages.

What about the translation of latter-day? I recognize that this topic has certainly been discussed at length in the Translation Department and I assume the option taken has been to leave well-established translations, even if inaccurate, unchanged. However, as names of websites and twitter accounts and the like are now being reconsidered, and given the challenge of the length of words, perhaps this is a good time to also adjust and standardize the translation of latter-day in some languages?

The five syllables in “of Latter-day Saints” are rendered in many other languages by much longer expressions such as van de Heiligen der Laatste Dagen (Dutch), des Saints des Derniers Jours (French), a Sfintilor din Zilele din Urma (Romanian), de los Santos de los Últimos Días (Spanish), and more. All these mean literally of the Saints of the Last Days or of the Saints of the Ultimate Days. Each forms a group of consecutive prepositional phrases, also adding definite articles, while in English of latter-day Saints is just one short prepositional phrase with one adjective and one noun.

What does latter-day mean?

The OED — Oxford English Dictionary —, which is the most detailed historically, gives two meanings for the adjective latter-day:

1 – Belonging to the latter days; of or relating to the end of the world.

2 – Belonging to (more) recent times; modern. Frequently designating a person, event, etc., regarded as the contemporary equivalent of a historical counterpart.

Which of the two meanings would predominate in the revelation that gave the name of the Church? Joseph Smith’s time knew a fair amount of apocalyptic rhetoric but not to the extent that the prophet expected the end of the world to come any day. More pertinent seems the understanding of dispensations and restoration: the Saints believed they were entering a new period coming after the previous one and that work was to be done to preach the Gospel to the world and gather the elect to Zion, to be achieved over a longer period. Perhaps religious zeal made the two meanings overlap: this present period, “the contemporary equivalent of a historical counterpart”, was also the beginning of the end.

The American Webster of 1828 — of Joseph Smith’s time — gives these meanings for latter (no separate entry for latter-day):

  1. Coming or happening after something else; opposed to former; as the former and latter rain; former or latter harvest.
  2. Mentioned the last of two. The difference between reason and revelation – and in what sense the latter is superior.
  3. Modern; lately done or past; as in these latter ages.

It seems fair to conclude that for Joseph Smith and his contemporaries latter-day was basically a temporal indication for their own time, coming after a previous time. The  restoration of the Gospel implied that this previous time was Christ’s ministry on earth and the period of the Saints of the New Testament.

In that case, latter-day could best be translated in other languages as one single adjective with the meaning of present, contemporary, in case there is no perfect equivalent for latter-day. It seems that some of the early translators of the name of the Church in the nineteenth century did not fully comprehend the different meanings of latter-day, or that latter-day was a missing or ambiguous word in the native lexicon, or that they were influenced by the apocalyptic connotation in the religious realm and thus ended up with the last days.

Do more recently introduced languages in the Church reflect this understanding of latter-day as present, contemporary, recent, latter? As far as I can see, this would be the case with pastaryjy dieny (Lithuanian). Any others?

Would a standardization for all languages not be recommended at this time with a rendering as short or nearly as short as the English latter-day saints (which is still challenging for online referencing)? In Dutch, for example, “of Latter-day Saints” could be translated by “van Huidige Heiligen”. The adjective huidig (= present, contemporary) implies a contrast with a former period. In German it would be “von Heutige Heiligen”. 

Any comments or suggestions for other languages were we now have a group of consecutive prepositional phrases pointing to the last days?


17 comments for ““Latter-day”: time to reconsider some translations?

  1. Given that every functioning organization is contemporary, it seems odd the use the phrase contemporary in the orgs name (unless the org is a group of time travelers).
    I think that people use the phrase “modern”. I personally don’t like that because what happens when what was titled modern is now old? That might not apply to the church though. The Church of Jesus Christ of Modern Saints doesn’t sound too bad.

  2. Wilfried, I suspect that a study of historical usage would find that “latter-day” does in fact have strong apocalyptic connotations, including in early LDS usage. The example that first comes to mind is the hymn “The Spirit of God,” written before 1835: “The latter-day glory begins to come forth.” The hymn strongly couples the current day with ancient times (OED meaning 2; “The visions and blessings of old are returning,” “Restoring their judges and all as at first”), but also has an overwhelming sense of the end of history: “the day when the lamb and the lion / Shall lie down together…As Jesus descends with his chariot of fire” (OED meaning 1). This kind of absolute blending of both senses is all but inevitable, I suspect, for a religious movement that is both restorationist and millennarian. So changing the translation from “the last days” to “today” would represent a significant shift of aims and outlook, rather than a mere linguistic correction.

  3. jader3rd, thanks. True, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Modern Saints” doesn’t sound too bad. It’s all a question of habit.

    Jonathan, I agree. There is a blending of restorationist and millenarian connotations in latter-day. Excellent to point to the 1835 hymn “The latter-day glory begins to come forth”. It expresses that the Saints felt a new period was ushering in. Interesting: there is no mention of preceding doom and destruction, though plenty of other texts confirm this would be part of the change. The early Saints, however, in this latter-day, could already be safe in their Zion. That’s why they gathered.

    But a translation of latter-day by “last days” in other languages puts the emphasis on the end of the world. For people not knowing much of the church, the name “saints of the last days” conjures up the image of the apocalypse — a gloomy perspective. That doesn’t square with the positive and hopeful “The latter-day glory begins…” They probably would not have sung “The glory of the last days begins…”

    I agree that translations simply saying modern or contemporary miss something of the polysemy of latter-day. But moving to “The Church of Jesus Christ of Apocalyptic Saints” is not possible either.

    Also, we are not only considering semantics here, but in particular the challenge of the length of words now that we have been asked to avoid Mormon and LDS.

  4. Wilfried, is “last days” in English the same as “latter-days”? I guess we need to do a search in history to see what the saints in in Joseph Smith’s surroundings were actually thinking when they used the term “latter-day”. It has always been my understanding that “latter-day” was to mean the opposite to “previous day” (time of Christ). If that is the case the translation should be something like “the Church of Jesus Christ of later-day Saints”.

  5. To speak to languages other than English would take a depth of knowledge and experience far beyond me.
    Speaking to the English, I have understood and emphasized in my own writing and thinking the “restoration” flavor of “latter-day.” I think that bias would be consistent with the new style guide:
    “The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged.”

  6. When I was a missionary in Hong Kong ca. 1980, the Chinese name of the Church had the literal meaning, “The Jesus Christ End-of-the-World Saints Church.” A couple of decades later, it was changed to be “Later-Period-of-Time Saints.” I’m told that this is because the PRC government (which very much does *not* like apocalyptic cults); and the old name was making it difficult for the Church in its relationship with Mainland China.

  7. Thanks for previous comments. I’ll respond in separate comments. Thanks for your patience.

    Hans, as mentioned in the post, one of the meanings of the adjective “latter-day” is “of or relating to the end of the world” (OED 1). So yes, pending context, it can have the meaning of apocalyptic “last days”. But in its most frequent occurrences, “latter-day” means “belonging to (more) recent times; modern … (and) the contemporary equivalent of a historical counterpart” (OED 2). So yes, you are right, “latter-day” has its former counterpart in Christ’s time. I am confident that a study of occurrences in early Mormon texts would show that latter-day is seldom used in the sole apocalyptic sense, but nearly always in a positive sense to indicate the new dispensation in which the Gospel is being preached to the world.

    I did a quick search for occurrences in the Journal of Discourses. There are 5719 occurrences of “latter-day(s)”, most in combination with the name of the Church of to speak of members as Latter-day Saints. Others are latter-day work, latter-day mission, latter-day message, latter-day Kingdom, latter-day prophets, latter-day purposes, and the like. It would be difficult to substitute “latter-day” by “last-day” of “of the last days”.

    As a noun phrase, “the latter-days” clearly points to a period preceding the Apocalypse. You’ll find plenty of them in JD: “the gathering of the people in the latter-days”, “he organized his Kingdom in the latter-days”, “the great work that God has brought forth in the latter-days in restoring the Priesthood”, and so on.

    Of course, the whole, present “latter-day” period, which has been going on for 188 years, is, doctrinally speaking, part of the preparation for the last days, i.e. the Apocalypse. All the present wars and catastrophes could also be seen as preparatory signs of more to come and would thus be part of the latter-day period.

  8. Hi, everyone! I’m one of the Church’s scripture translation supervisors. We have supervision of these introductory phase items, which are the first to be translated for new languages and are reviewed each time a new scripture project is approved in an existing language. The methodologies were all over the place for many years, but we’ve been trying for the last few years to get things cleaned up.

    “Latter-day” is always a difficult phrase to translate because of a lot of the extra semantic load and history that the term carries specifically within English usage, combined with the numerous different, complex, and constantly shifting socioreligious contexts within which the translations will circulate. With several well-established languages with lengthy literary histories that have a lot of engagement with the Bible and the Reformation and things like that, there are generally already terms in circulation that carry much of the same sense, but apart from those languages, we’re not infrequently introducing the concept to the target lexicon.

    Our Translation Guide highlights the eschatological interpretation, distinguishing Hebrew Bible from New Testament eschatology, but ultimately decides that because the New Testament authors consistently reflect the understanding that they were living in the “last days,” and the name of the Church is intended to distinguish it from the organization established during and immediately following Christ’s mortal ministry, that’s not an appropriate rendering of “latter-day” (we would also like a separate rendering for “last days”). The “latter days” are better understood, according to the Translation Guide, to reflect the period following the Restoration, as well as the notion that that Restoration is the final major ecclesiastical event preceding the Second Coming. So the job of the translator is to take that conceptual package and try to approximate as much of the content as possible as succinctly as possible while navigating the contemporary and likely future socioreligious terrain.

    Even more difficult, of course, is “dispensation of the fullness of times.”

  9. I recall somewhere in Nibley a statement that a Catholic translator of the dead sea scrolls was reluctant to translate a name the Qumran community used for itself was Latter-day Saints, which usage had an unfortunate association with us ( from his perspective).

  10. christiankimball, yes, indeed, the ‘restoration flavor’ is definitely the preponderant connotation attached to latter-day in the [ Mormon ] texts since the early days Excellent reference to the alternate acceptable name “The “restored Church of Jesus Christ”, which confirms it.

    John Jenkins, so happy to get input from Oriental languages. You make a valuable remark by pointing at the change in the Chinese translation of Latter-day Saints, from “End-of-the-World Saints” to “Later-Period-of-Time Saints” to avoid the “apocalyptic cult” impression. That is exactly the problem with a number of older translations of the name of the Church in West-European languages: “saints of the last days”. We got so used to it that it is internalized, but for many outsiders the name would evoke a weird doomsday cult. Since in some languages the option was taken to translate latter-day by an equivalent of “later period”, it seems defensible to suggest a correction of the “cult name” and standardize “later period” (or as close as possible) in all languages. Again, with the aim to also come up with a shorter adjective.

  11. Hi Wilfried, in Polish, the name for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Ko?ció? Jezusa Chrystusa ?wi?tych w Dniach Ostatnich. In stricter word order, this would read something like The Church of Jesus Christ’s Saints of the Latter-Days (with Days preceding Latter.

    If you’re interested in the common LDS language that I heard in the Warsaw LDS, field, I often heard phrases repeated like “Juzef Smyth jest prorok” (Joseph Smith is a prophet); “Ewangelia Jezusa Chrystusa” (the Gospel of Jesus Christ); Jezus jest zabawiecela” (Jesus is the Saviour”; “Ksi?ga Mormona jest bardzo fajne” (The Book of Mormon is really fine) etc. My general understanding of Polish in a Mormon context is not too bad, but my grammar won’t be strictly great here. I’ve always taken a more lexical approach to Polish, as the grammatical system isn’t easy to grasp.

  12. Can see that it’s not accepting unique Polish letters onto your site, Wilfried (it’s not me going crazy with question marks).

  13. Daniel O. McLellan, thanks for joining the discussion with your expertise.

    So we need to make a distinction between “latter days” and “last days”. In [Mormon] perspective, the noun phrase “latter-days” pertains, as you mention, to the period “following the Restoration, as well as the notion that that Restoration is the final major ecclesiastical event preceding the Second Coming”. In other words, our present time since 1830.

    “The last days” can pertain to different periods, pending the perspective of the writer in his own time. One is the period when the apostles of the primitive church were preaching. Indeed, the apostle Peter considered the Joel prophecy of the “last days” as applicable to his own time (Acts 2:15-17). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of living in the “last days”. There are a few other occurrences in the NT. However, as Buchanan notes, the Greek equivalents of the Hebrew beaharit hayyamim are varied, not evidently eschatological and probably have only a temporal meaning (George Wesley Buchanan, “Eschatology and the ‘End of Days’,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 20, no. 3 (1961): 188-193). That matches the Mormon concept of dispensations.

    The main point then is that, for our time, the English “latter-day saints” is not rendered accurately by “saints of the last days”, as is now the case in many languages. Moreover, it substitutes the adjective latter-day by a complex noun phrase. So, the question remains: in view of the obligation to use the official terms, would this not be the time to reconsider the translation of latter-day and come up with a (hopefully short) adjective, which at the same would free us from our apocalyptic identity?

  14. Eric B., thanks! Your comment confirms the other input: any zealous religious group, convinced of its unique standing in history, could refer to its living in the last days. It remains part of church rhetoric today as it was for the Qumran community.

    Patrick Harrison, thanks for the Polish input and sorry that WordPress does not support some foreign fonts. I wonder though if Dniach Ostatnich means “days latter” or “days last”. Can Polish make the difference, in a single adjective, between “last” and “latter”? “Latter” should carry the meaning of “the next after a preceding”. Or is Polish indeed saying, like most other European languages, “Saints of the last days”?

    Faenrandir Turion, indeed, it is certainly correct to say that the early Saints expected the second coming to occur in their generation, but not to the extent that they would stop all activity and stare into heaven. Actually, this conviction of expecting the Second Coming within a lifetime seems to have lingered on well into the twentieth century, as some in each new age group believed it would happen in their lifetime. A study of patriarchal blessings may reveal this. I know that still in the 1960s some patriarchs promised to members that they would live to see Christ coming. This sense of nearness seems to have been dying out.

  15. Wilfried

    Your thread is very interesting. These actual statements are very welcome. Thanks. I am still in the process of pondering…! I spontaneously remember these historical stations – they aren’t new – refering to this topic:

    The God-given name of the church does not seem to change in the original.

    King Benjamin told his people at the time of the Book of Mormon how important the name of a covenant people would be (Mosiah 5, 8 and 11).

    We are educated, that the name of the Redeemer is the only name under heaven by which man can be saved (2 Nephi 31, 21).

    Modern scriptural references like D&C 115, 4 (given 180 years ago), and talks of George Albert Smith (1948), Russell M. Nelson (April 1990 already), Boyd K. Packer (April 2011), M. Russell Ballard (Oct 2011), and words of other apostles in connection with the instructions of the First Presidency of the Church in letters of 1982, 2001 and 2018 follow the Savior’s directive about the name of His church.

    “The Latter Day” declares that this is the same church that Jesus Christ established during His earthly ministry.

    “The term “latter-day” is an expression especially difficult for translators who labor in languages in which there is not a good equivalent term. Some translations may suggest “last” day.” (Nelson, 1990.)

    It is obvious: The church belongs to the “last days”. The Church of Jesus Christ is a worldwide operating Church already. As church members we are part of the divine destiny of His church.

    To adjust the definition as a present universal church we are called to act as His Witnesses “at all times and in everything and everywhere” (Mosiah 18, 9). We must be ready to share with others whom we are following and whose church we belong to.
    I am not referring to the discussion about clarifying the name of the church.

    As the President of the Church explains, it is about correcting established concepts (removal of nicknames, etc.), not a change in the name of the Church of Jesus Christ, which derives its identity in one of several additions through a long established fixed apocalyptic term .

    My post answers the question of a German version of this name at an undefined time. The period of abbreviations – also in the German-speaking world – is over.

    I am sure that changing the name of the Church of Jesus Christ will not be possible in the short term. In any case, it causes a significant loss of identity.

    The ecclesiastical administration, in particular the German translation department, may consider calling the name of the church in the future with:

    “Kirche Jesu Christi der Heiligen der heutigen Tage”.



  16. Very interesting suggestions and comments. In addition to solving the riddle about how to render (if possible) the exact meaning of “latter” (rather than “last”, i.e. “not former”, as “latter” seems to introduce a term of comparison with a former time; “subsequent times”, “later times” etc.) in languages far different from English, isn’t the issue of “The” as integral part of the name of the Church hard as well?

    What explanation could you give for or against including it in your language (it seems like it’s not part of the official name of the Church in many languages) and how would it change the way we use it in Church manuals, talks and other publications?

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