Non-English translations and By the Hand of Mormon

I recently read By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion, Terryl Givens’ groundbreaking, fascinating look at the reception and uses and abuses of Joseph Smith’s “gold bible.” I highly recommend it. And, yes, many of AMV’s readers have probably already read it. I’m behind on my Mormon Studies reading (but I’m ahead of some of you when it comes to Mormon literature ““ so there).

For those of you who haven’t read the book, this excerpt from the Oxford University Press promo copy accurately summarizes what I want to address:

“Finally, in exploring the Book of Mormon’s ‘revelatory appeal,’ Givens finds the key to the Book’s role as the engine behind what may become the next world religion. The Book of Mormon describes and enacts a model of revelation that Givens calls ‘dialogic.’ Ultimately, Givens argues, the Book of Mormon has exerted its influence primarily by virtue of what it points to, represents, and claims to be, rather than by virtue of any particular content.”

That is to say, that the book’s role as a new scripture, as evidence of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, has been more important historically than the doctrine it contains*. I found myself convinced by his claims about the reception of the Book of Mormon. However, I think that Givens missed the opportunity to point two a piece of evidence that backs his argument. I’m not talking about anything major, here. It warrants anything from a paragraph to a couple of pages. I’m talking about, of course, the non-English translations of the Book of Mormon. Specifically:

1. When I served a mission in Romania (1992-1994), the Book of Mormon had not been fully translated into Romanian. We only had a slim volume of selections from the book. I believe that this was (and still is) the case for quite a few other of the more than 100 languages the Church is supporting with at least some translated materials. On the other hand, we had complete translations of Gospel Principles and basic Priesthood and Relief Society manuals. Granted, it’s much easier to translate correlated prose than the language of the Book of Mormon, but this reliance on selections further backs Givens main point ““ that book itself rather than the content is what’s most important. You can still ask an investigator to pray about selections to find out if they are true. And, indeed, true to Givens point about dialogic revelation and the use of the Book of Mormon as a missionary tool, Moroni 10 is one of the chapters included in the selections. This is a minor point of evidence, perhaps, but one worth mentioning. It would also be interesting to take a look at which chapters from the Book of Mormon are included in the selections version.

2. Non-English translations of the Book of Mormon also bring up questions about the Joseph Smith translation. I’m quite sure that this has received some scholarly treatment somewhere, but I’d like to bring it up in the context of By the Hand of Mormon. Givens discusses the issues surrounding translating the Book of Mormon and how that carries over in to questions of authenticity, especially, attempts by apologists to show that certain patterns in the text related. So how does that come in to play when doing non-English translations? What do you carry over? And what are the difficulties in trying to carry over any of the syntactical and other textual elements that are unique to Joseph’s translation. And what role does inspiration play in non-English translations? To my knowledge, translations must be done by believers (or at least that’s the preference).

Related to, and complicating these issues, are the fact that the Book of Mormon mimics (with variation) passages from the King James Version of the Bible. Do you translate the King James language, use the most accepted biblical translation of the language you are working in**, or do something else entirely? And if you go with an existent translation, does that mean that’s the version of the Bible that you endorse in that language? What are the repercussions of that? And how does that impact the particular vernacular and register of the rest of the Book of Mormon translation you are doing? How contemporary or old-fashioned does the Book of Mormon end up coming across in comparison to whichever Bible is used> My understanding is that how these issues are solved varies for the various languages, but I may be wrong on that point.

Whatever the case, things get a bit messy because you can’t really present the nuances of the portions of the KJV that are found in the Book of Mormon. And so, to bring us back to Givens, what does that mean for the reception of Book of Mormon in a particular language community? I’d love to hear examples of how this has been handled or be pointed to existent work on this subject.

Neither of these two points are really necessary to the argument that Givens constructs in By the Hand of Mormon. But they occurred to me while reading the book, and I think they’re worth exploring.

*Givens doesn’t ignore the content of the Book of Mormon and also discusses in length the newfound emphasis on its doctrines and messages that came in the wake of Pres. Ezra Taft Benson’s 1984 talk calling the Church to repentance for ignoring the Book of Mormon.

**And accepted by whom? There are various Romanian translations of the Bible. Do you go with the Romanian Orthodox one (which means also including the Apocrypha) or a Protestant one? And which Protestant one? I’m not sure what the situation is now, but when I served, I’m pretty sure that the Bible we used was a version translated in Germany for use by Protestant/Evangelical Christians proselyting in Romania.

3 thoughts on “Non-English translations and By the Hand of Mormon”

  1. My experience with the Japanese BoM, D&C and PoGP is that they have been translated without reference to any particular translation of the Bible. I was there about 12 years ago, when these scriptures were re-translated from a 1950s translation that used stilted, archaic language to a modern and very readable version.

    I can only guess that the 1950s translation was purposely written to emulate KJV English. The Bible used by members in Japan is a Greek->German->Japanese one that is modern, extremely clear and easy to read. In fact, since I don’t have a modern English bible translation at home, I still use the Japanese to clear up certain passages of my LDS KJV.

    So Japan is one example, I think, where the church has abandoned any pretense of sticking to the KJV language and has adopted translations with a modern sound that pairs well with the vernacular bible.

  2. I have experience in Thailand. Served a mission there 2002-04. The first translation of the Thai BoM was published in 1976 and is still used. It’s pretty stilted in its language, with a combination of specialized high religious vocabulary, and archaic word choice. Much of it is decently readable, though.

    From what I know, at the time they didn’t try to match the bible too much, including not using the same pronunciations of the names of such biblical characters as Isaiah and Joseph. This has resulted in some confusion among members, but most people can pretty easily grasp that Joseph is Yoseph and Isaiah is Issaya.

    The archaic style of language pretty much matches the Thai bible. (As with most places, there are several translations of bible, but the one most commonly used was finished in 1971 and was a joint effort between Protestants and Catholics, and served to standardize a lot of terminology between all Christian sects in the country–a mere 0.5% of the population.)

    A new translation of the whole triple is under way (similar to the Chinese article you linked), and they’ve only got the Guide to the Scriptures left. As a missionary I was on a six-person team to review the new BoM in its entirety before recommending it for ecclesiastical review (it took two weeks of all-day reading and discussion). Nowadays the church translators try very hard to use as much bible language as possible. Everything from a special term for “the lamb of God”, to making all the names the same, etc.

    There is also a lot of improvement to some ambiguities. There was half a verse missing from Alma 32, and in 1 Nephi 8 the phrase (referring to the iron rod) “it extended along” caused amusement and confusion because it used to read as if it said “long French fry”. There will be plenty of changes to basic vocab, too.

    So Thai is a counterexample to Japanese, it sounds. The bible is rather archaic (though “easy to read” versions exist), and so the church follows suit. Thai has a specialized register of language for royalty and deity anyway, so the church sort of goes all-out to use it wherever possible (for better or worse).

    Great link to the Chinese article, by the way.

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