Translation theory won’t decide your polemic argument

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 As I’ve written previously, Schleiermacher is still influential but two centuries out of date, and offers better theoretical options than the one Givens and Hauglid draw on in any case, while Vogel’s use of Venuti is clumsy and hardly relevant to his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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.”[4]

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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Windle and Pym, “European Thinking on Secular Translation,” 17.

[4] Windle and Pym, “European Thinking on Secular Translation,” 19.

12 comments for “Translation theory won’t decide your polemic argument

  1. Not exactly on topic, but “equivalence” is what allows people and corporations to think Google Translate or some AI translators will be just fine. I still recall my brother, who was a professional translator until his employers decided Google Translate was “good enough” pointing out all the issues with translations on products on store shelves – such as “for heavy duty work” being translated into something like “for work [that is] obligated to weigh a lot” (instead of the less word for word but more accurate “for work that’s really dirty”).

  2. I wonder if we might learn one day that the translation of the plates may have been raised a notch or two above the language used by Mormon and Moroni. Moroni, especially, seems concerned that we moderns will mock at his writings. And that makes me wonder if he feared that a translated version of the Egyptian script they used (to conserve space on metal plates) would come across as disjointed, choppy, and even a bit wild.

    And if so, the translation that Joseph Smith produced might go a step beyond the question of equivalency in that it might look more like a translation from Hebrew than Reformed Egyptian–which is what the editors wished for in their hearts.

    Of course, all of this is a bit fanciful. But even so, it could very well be that the translation of the Book of Mormon has a whole other layer in it–something wherein all of the key mortal players do their best to bring it off and then the Lord steps in and says, “good. Now let’s take it a step further and turn it into something that’ll resonate as scripture with 19th century saints.”

  3. Ivan, maybe it’s off topic, but it’s a tangent I’m happy to follow. AI translation is good! It’s really useful, especially for translators. I use it to make sense of texts in languages I don’t know well (or at all) pretty frequently, and low-cost aids to international communication are good. And as one input in a translation toolchain, it can be used to increase accuracy and productivity.

    But it also has some serious limits. It will often fail when confronted with specialized vocabulary or defective source texts, and its style tends to range from bland to cringeworthy, occasionally veering toward dully incomprehensible. Most serious of all, you really, really need a human being to make sure your translation says what you think it says. Like, are you sure you meant to say you would compensate your users for their negligent use of their personal computer systems? (A slightly altered but real life example.)

    Jack, you’re right that it’s speculative, but none of those things would be at all unusual in purely human translation.

  4. JG –

    Oh, AI is a great tool. But it’s just a tool (the hammer can’t build a table by itself, but it sure makes building one easier). But since the “equivalency” mindset dominates among non-specialists, too many people think just plugging something into an AI translator is enough.

    I am sure corporations will (and the smart ones already are) wise up and have some sort of actual human translator to check the output, but until then we’re still getting lots of oddness in the translations because equivalency is – not that great.

  5. “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.”

    I don’t know much about languages or translation or what-have-you–but it seems to me that this is at the crux of what a lot of people are arguing about. Because when God is involved in the process–then the whole thing is kind of a no-brainer. But when he is excluded from the process–then folks are forever trying to explain how we got the text in–conventional terms–without being able to account for everything that’s there.

    But then again, I think the Book of Mormon is designed that way–that is, it doesn’t let the reader off easily. Either God must be involved in the book’s production or he cannot be–there’s not a lot of grey area in between.

  6. Serious question – did God tell JS to translate the papyri they bought from Chandler? Or was it JS idea to do so?

  7. Jonathan Green, If you are a member that believes presidents of the church are always acting as prophets 100% of the time then I understand why you asked the question. There is just a clear pattern for the BOM and D&C being directed/commanded by God. I dont think/know if there ever was direction from God for the papyri. If I recall, the entire matter started out as a business transaction to sell the translation and open a museum to pay to see the mummies like Chandler had been doing. The church needed $ and it looked like a way to get it. I would not call this God directed if in fact this is how it came about. Again, I am not certain.

    Members today, and I am one, really dont know when the president is speaking for himself or God. By default, it seems most members think its every time his lips move. I do not believe that way, so, was the papyri a JS or God project?

  8. REC911,

    I think that’s a good a question. IMO, often there’s a sort of collaboration between the Lord and his people. We may ask whose idea it was to place shining stones in the Jaredite barges. Or to what degree was the establishment of Israel based on Abraham’s desire to be a father of nations. Or if the coming forth of the Book of Mormon was based solely on the desires of Enos and his fathers to preserve a record for the descendants of Lehi.

    And so its possible (IMO) that the same sort of thing happened with the Book of Abraham. I can imagine Joseph’s interest in ancient texts and languages opening the door to a worthy project that has become a great blessing to the entire church.

    All of that said, there remains the question of whether or not those relics finding there way to Joseph Smith was just a fluke.

  9. Jack, Nobody talks about Michael Chandler and his motive. If God left JS hanging on this pet project, then the hot mess parts could simply be a failed attempt of doing something JS thought he could, understandably so, and this could explain why its so different. Different meaning…
    – Time BoA took to translate comparable to BoM and D&C (instant revelation or sear stone)
    – I believe no back story of God telling JS to actually translate the papyri
    – Came to JS not by heavenly messenger but a traveling mummy museum owner who wanted to stop traveling
    – JS trying to figure out an alphabet for the papyri instead or using the sear stone
    – Wasn’t part of the standard works until John Taylor was pres. (canonized on the day he was sustained as pres I believe)

    BoA just feels different compared to what we know about the BOM and D&C. Like it could be a JS pet project.

    The question to ask is if it was a pet project and a failed attempt, meaning the translation was not accurate like scholars claim, does this change everything else he did? Those who left the church over the BoA issue think so. Since I dont think presidents are acting as prophets 100% of the time I am fine with the idea this could be a failed pet project. It doesn’t have to be scripture for me. The whole thing makes more sense to me as a failed pet project.

    If the scholars are right about the translation being wrong, then failed pet project or “catalyst theory” are the choices. My mind wont let me believe the catalyst theory so pet project for me…until I change my mind. :)

  10. REC911: You’ll have to point to a source about the original purpose being a business proposition. The first act of translation was very rapid – Joseph Smith identified a record of Abraham from the papyri almost immediately.

    In any case, your answer shows pretty clearly the pitfalls of your approach. There’s an unstated assumption that Joseph Smith couldn’t reliably tell the difference between revelation and his own imagination. Once you introduce that assumption, the whole project falls apart. I’m skeptical of attempts to excise pieces from the D&C or other scripture for the same reason.

    Also, what I’ve been arguing for for some time now is that translating was one of Joseph Smith’s ways of seeking revelation. That’s why I think “translation being wrong” is the wrong way to look at it. If you read this post, then you’ll see it’s not even the right way to evaluate the Book of Abraham as a translation.

    A few additional specifics. Like the Book of Abraham, the translation of the Book of Mormon also started with copying and studying characters before the textual translation started. The D&C also took shape over a longer time, and it contains a broad range of material – some visions, some epistles, and other material as well. The D&C also has a complicated canonization history. So it’s hard to argue that the Book of Abraham was entirely separate from other scripture.

  11. Jonathan Green:
    Biz transaction…
    – Chandler is in the biz of a traveling museum and decides to stop traveling and needs to sell his “business” to someone.
    – Chandler knows of a guy, JS, that is known to translate ancient languages.
    – Chandler travels to church HQ for the very purpose to sell his mummies and scrolls to said translator.
    – Church members, not the church, buy the mummies and scrolls so JS can translate them and sell the translation for $ (I believe I read this in a Bushman book. Not sure of where Bushman got his info) and do a museum like Chandler did to charge to see the mummies for $ to pay off those who bought the stuff. (hence the business deal)

    So the members buy the scrolls and tell JS to translate them. I am just pointing out that this is very different than how other scripture was brought about. Was God a part of this is a legitimate question I think needs to be asked since JS without tools could not translate the BoM. Revelation is not translation. The D&C is revelations. I think a couple sections were from the seer stone, but I could be wrong about that.

    The church is saying JS could not reliably tell the difference between translation and his own imagination by accepting the catalyst theory. JS clearly thought he was translating the papyri. Even did an alphabet showing the translation (not correctly as you know) which he would not have needed if it was revelation. (like D&C)

    For God to allow JS to think he was translating the actual papyri when it was just a means to get revelation and nothing to do with the papyri seems a huge stretch to me. I think those two had a decent relationship on how things worked by now.

    Since nobody knows how JS actually did the translation, meaning seer stone or ? and add that the known papyri and the known JS translation of it does not match, means that the papyri was not translated.

    This leaves imagination of JS or God allowing JS to think he was doing something he was not.

    JS getting this one wrong because God/Jesus didn’t tell him to do this is a valid explanation…at least to me.

    I realize most members would have a hard time with this as they feel “prophets” are right 100% of the time.

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