One of the recurring irritations of reading apologetic, polemic, or scholarly work in Mormon Studies addressing Joseph Smith’s translations of ancient scripture is that the authors nearly always ignore the perspective of practicing translators and the field of translation studies, instead basing their analyses in simple notions of linguistic equivalence that may still prevail in graduate language exams, but that the field of translation studies abandoned as unworkable several decades ago.
Some recent contributions on the translation of the Book of Abraham have stood out as welcome exceptions. Terryl Givens and Brian Hauglid’s Pearl of Greatest Price (2019) draws on ideas presented in an influential 1813 essay by Friedrich Schleiermacher for one potential “catalyst” theory of translation, which Dan Vogel counters in his 2021 Book of Abraham Apologetics by appealing to the work of Lawrence Venuti. As I’ve written previously, Schleiermacher is still influential but two centuries out of date, and offers better theoretical options than the one Givens and Hauglid draw on in any case, while Vogel’s use of Venuti is clumsy and hardly relevant to his argument.
But the truth of the matter is that while contemporary currents in translation studies can certainly be applied to Joseph Smith’s translations, doing so will not answer the question of whether or not the Book of Abraham or Book of Mormon are “real” translations in the sense of linguistic equivalence because translation studies itself has come to be entirely uninterested in that distinction.
As Susan Bassnett writes: “The development of translation studies as an independent field has not been a linear process, and today there are a number of different approaches to the study of translation and to the training of translators. The two most significant lines of development, however, have been what have come to be termed descriptive translation studies and Skopos theory respectively.”
Kevin Windle and Anthony Pym, summarizing the various contemporary approaches in translation studies, describe descriptivism as the attempt to find out “what translations actually do as pieces of language in context, as opposed to what countless generations had opined about ideal translation.” In Gideon Toury’s view the “descriptive approach should accept as axiomatic that all translations are equivalent to their sources, so that research can then discover the modes of that equivalence,” and so, as Windle and Pym note, “at the same time as Skopos theory made equivalence a special case, descriptivism made it a banal presupposition.”
As for Skopos theories, they focus on the “aim or purpose that a translation is designed to carry out in the situation of reception.” In this sense, “translations are generally seen as fulfilling functions quite different from those of source texts, since they are for a fundamentally different audience, in a new cultural situation. The same text can therefore be translated in different ways, to suit different purposes. The translator must first decide, in consultation with the client, what the purpose is to be, then act accordingly.”
In other words: If you think God commissioned Joseph Smith to translate the Book of Mormon and other ancient scripture, then Skopos theory would suggest inquiring as to whether God was satisfied with the product, and if the translations fulfilled His purposes. If you see a more human client behind these projects, the question of purpose is more easily answerable by traditional scholarly methods, but linguistic equivalence hardly enters the picture.
A descriptivist approach, for its part, would try to describe what Joseph Smith was doing when he translated ancient scripture. (My series on the GAEL was my own attempt to describe the process for the Book of Abraham.) As Chad’s recent co-post mentioned, there have been a number of different approaches to describing the process of translating the Book of Mormon.
There are of course other contemporary approaches to translation theory, but the prospects of these approaches settling polemic arguments are no better: “Parallel to the development of Skopos theory and descriptive studies, a tradition of critical thought has radically questioned the very possibility of equivalence.”
Now it’s quite possible to respond that translation theory seems like a quite useless field, especially for translators (largely true, but I do find that Skopos theory offers some useful things to think about), and that paying clients still care tremendously about linguistic equivalence (also true, but they tend to waver unpredictably between calling translations too literal and too loose). But any discussion of whether the Book of Abraham or other scripture is or isn’t a translation will necessarily imply some theory of translation, and pounding on your Merriam-Webster definition is not going to impress anyone. The field of translation studies offers some useful ways to think about the process of translation, and they can even be applied, more or less, to Joseph Smith’s translations of ancient scripture. They just won’t answer the question you want them to.
 Susan Bassnett, “The Translator as Cross-Cultural Mediator,” in The Oxford Handbook of Translation Studies, ed. Kirsten Malmkjær and Kevin Windle, Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 104.
 Kevin Windle and Anthony Pym, “European Thinking on Secular Translation,” in The Oxford Handbook of Translation Studies, ed. Kirsten Malmkjær and Kevin Windle, Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 18.
 Windle and Pym, “European Thinking on Secular Translation,” 17.
 Windle and Pym, “European Thinking on Secular Translation,” 19.