Last week I received a message from a friend containing a link to a YouTube presentation about words. The presentation was given by a young man, Steven Phelps, who grew up in a Baha'i family and attended Stanford University, where he studied philosophy and physics. While in college he questioned his Baha'i beliefs, as was done by students at Stanford, who questioned everything. He discovered that his views did have a strong theoretical and philosophical foundation. While at Stanford, he studied Arabic and Persian, and he went on to Princeton University, where he received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.

Shortly after graduating, he went to Haifa, Israel, for a teaching job at a university and worked in the translation department at the Baha'i World Center. When working in Israel, he continued his language studies and learned Hebrew.

His YouTube presentation is about words and their influence based on his experience working at the translation department.

He begins with this quote from Carl Sagan that deals with the power and influence of words:

"What an astonishing thing a book is. It's a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you're inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic."

Steven continues to talk about the special words that are used by God given to us through his revelation. He illustrates this point with this quote from the Bible: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

Steven explained the special nature of the revelation and its power to influence in ways beyond the power of ordinary words. We have seen evidence of this power in the development of all world religions. Language creates a worldview and it is difficult to make accurate translations. He also talks about techniques of translating, like staying strictly with the literal translation using a dictionary. Much of the difficulty of the literal translation is conveying the beauty and poetic influence of the original. It's a difficulty particularly felt in translating poetry and mystical writings.

He decribed techniques used in translating the Baha'i writings from the original Arabic and Persian to English. This is done with a team of four translators, two native speakers of Arabic and Persian and two English-speaking scholars. He also gives examples of previous translations done by teams of scholars which are now used as a standard for translations. Steven explains that the translations are reviewed by many scholars before being considered as approved translations. All translations, even the ones approved, are considered provisional and subject to future review.

Steven's YouTube presentation is found at

To Illustrate the importance of translation, I found an article published in World Religion News, "The Baha'i's Kitab-i-Aqdas Is No 'Mere Code of Laws.' "

The Kitab-i-Aqdas, The Most Holy Book, is the central book of the Baha'i Revelation and could be referred to as the Bible of the Baha'i faith. The author considers the book to be like a constitution for a future world civilization. The goal of the Baha'i teachings is the transformation of society, the establishment of a new civilization which exemplifies the Baha'i teachings of the oneness of mankind and establishes justice in the world.

The article continues this description:

"The Most Holy Book, when described as a structure, could be explained as a tapestry of multiple colors into which Baha'u' llah has threaded in his radical global civilization vision. The latter turns out to be a magnificent and world-encompassing one with images of a refined individual, who is a product of a well ordered and harmonious family, the latter an integral component of a spiritually centric worldwide community. Baha'u' llah has sprinkled laws into this fabric, making them shine like jewels. A few of them appear at random, seemingly for shock value, and pushing the reader into deep thought. Other laws come at the end of a moral commentary, punctuating the themes."


Phil Wood, a Baha'i, originally from New England, resided for 12 years in Barbados, four years in China, and 30 years in Hutchinson. He can be reached at