Today I am pleased to present Part II of our interview with Tod Harris (the third great-grandson of Martin Harris!), manager of scripture translation support for the LDS Church. In Part 1, Tod walked us through the stages of producing a new edition of LDS scriptures in a target language. Today, he discusses the value of ambiguity as a feature, not a bug, in scripture translation, the role of the translation process itself in planting new LDS communities around the world, and the priority of literal readings in scripture translation.
5. How do you handle ambiguity in the English text, when there’s not a straightforward way to convey the ambiguity in the target language? How do you ensure that translation choices remain consistent across languages where the original text is ambiguous?
One of the key features of scripture text that sets it apart from most other kinds of text is its multivalency—its ability to mean different things at different times to different people. Some of this multivalency arises from the ambiguities that exist in the text, so of course it is important to maintain this where possible. This is one of the main functions of the translation guides—they point out these ambiguities, define the different possibilities, and instruct translators to maintain the ambiguity where possible. The guides also list a preference for which meaning to maintain as the prime one if the ambiguity cannot be maintained so that if a choice has to be made, all translators are making the same choice. Again, all such instructions in the translation guide have been reviewed and approved by presiding councils.
6. “Latter-day Saints” is a difficult phrase to translate elegantly and conceptually without conveying a sense of imminent apocalypse. Has the phrase been amended in any languages, and how so?
The name of the Church is actually the very first item to be translated into any new language, and is always reviewed first when new scripture projects or revisions are approved. We have a specialized translation guide—a set of worksheets—specifically for the name of the Church, and which leads the translation team and review committees through each element of the name of the Church to be sure each element has the required meaning. “Latter-day Saints” is one of these elements, and the worksheets are designed to generate what we hope is an elegant but meaningful phrase but one that avoids any doomsday associations. The most difficult aspect of this is trying to find an equivalent that differentiates between “last days” and “latter days.” In my experience, it’s not possible to do this very often, but by the same token, the phrase “last days” in most languages is ambiguous enough to be able to accommodate the idea of “latter-days” without any specific apocalypticism. Having said that, though, we have had to adjust translations of “last days” in several translations of the name of the Church in the last 7-10 years that were formulated early and which were acceptable at the time but which have come to take on a negative meaning because of shifting connotations. Korean and Chinese are two examples.
7. Much of Joseph Smith’s life work was “translation,” whether spiritual or linguistic translation of scripture or a more broadly conceived notion of relating across boundaries. Do you see your work as tied to the founding of our dispensation, which occurred in large part via translation? What role does inspiration play in the translation process?
If Joseph’s life is considered based on the largest-scale timeline, he received the first vision in 1820, organized the Church in 1830, and was martyred in 1844. Considered as two roughly equal halves, from one perspective Joseph spent the first half translating and publishing the Book of Mormon, and the second half doing all the rest of the remarkable things he did—receiving the majority of the revelations that make up the Doctrine and Covenants, refining the organization of the Church, establishing the Relief Society, and restoring the foundations of temple worship. He also worked on his translation of the Bible and the Egyptian papyri during that time, so again, from a particular standpoint Joseph spent a majority of his time translating, and the process of translation had a significant effect on the restoration. From 1823 to 1830, when he was most involved with the Book of Mormon, he was being instructed by divine messengers, learning to pray and receive revelation, acting on that revelation, working in counsel with other early members, and learning to govern the Church according to those revelations and counsel. The act of translation informed and drove much of those efforts and effects.
In many ways Joseph’s experiences established the pattern for the restoration work everywhere on earth, much of it based on translation, and I firmly believe the Lord set things up this way for a reason. I have seen this same process play out time and time again as the Church moves into new areas and begins working with new languages, and feel our work today is very much a continuation of processes set in place in Joseph’s day. (As an aside, I might mention that I have always felt a particularly personal connection to Joseph and translation—I am the third-great grandson of Martin Harris, and believe that in some ways I am carrying out a family obligation.)
As soon as a language is approved for translation, a set list of prioritized materials is automatically approved so that the establishment of the Church can proceed in an orderly and efficient manner. We start with the name of the Church (as mentioned above), then work on a set list of key doctrinal and administrative terms, then fundamental materials such as the “Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith” and the Gospel Fundamentals manual (which includes the sacrament prayers and some basic hymns and children’s songs), and then the Book of Mormon (the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price follow on, when appropriate). We begin early to identify and train a core group of translators, reviewers, and ecclesiastical committee members and get them started working on this material. Following this trajectory allows us to establish critical terminology and key concepts, start these early members along a path of prayer and helping them recognize and access the influence of the Spirit, and get them working together in councils. Finishing the translation of these introductory materials in this way has two main effects—a core group of translators and reviewers is established who not only proceed to work on other translations but also turn out in many cases to be the early leaders and stalwarts of the Church in their areas, and a core list of materials is available that allows missionaries to proselyte and members to study, worship, and participate in basic ordinances.
Though we have terrific translation tools such as lexicons, translation guides, and many computer-based applications, we continually stress the necessity of the Spirit in the work and seek to maintain in ourselves and encourage the translators and reviewers to maintain the necessary level of personal worthiness and ability to court and rely on the Spirit’s inspiration. We continually remind translators of the Lord’s injunction in Doctrine and Covenants 9:9—“You cannot write that which is sacred save it be give you from me.”
8. In translating scripture, how would you rank (potentially conflicting) goals like (a) maintaining literal meaning, (b) maintaining the “feel” of the language (e.g. through poetic or archaic language), (c) maximizing comprehension for the modern lay reader, (d) maintaining consistency with commonly used (and/or best available) translations of quoted biblical passages, and (e) any other goals? Based on your observations, in what ways do you think these priorities may have changed over time?
The scriptures of the Church are translated according to a much higher standard than are other materials.
Since the time of Joseph Smith, the Church has followed a very conservative scripture translation philosophy, striving to be as literal to source texts as possible. Though the Church reveres the Bible, it recognizes that it has gone through many iterations, some more faithful to source texts than others; hence the qualifier in Article of Faith 8 “as far as it is translated correctly.” The Book of Mormon has only been translated from its source language to English once, and since the original plates are no longer available, Joseph Smith’s English translation has become the de facto source text for all subsequent translations.
To facilitate the preservation of this relatively literal and therefore very accurate translation, the Book of Mormon and other scriptures are translated in accordance with a policy statement issued by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve which requires translations of the standard works to be literal translations, insofar as possible. Recognizing that it is not possible to translate all words and phrases in a literal way into every language, we strive to produce “modified-literal” translations of scriptures in order to provide an experience for target language readers that is very similar to the one readers of the original English text have.
As mentioned earlier, we use teams of native-speaking members residing in their respective countries to perform scripture translation. The work is overseen by scripture translation supervisors working out of the Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. These supervisors train translation teams to preserve the meaning of the scriptures (including key terms) as their first priority, but also assist translators to be as literal as possible within the constraints of the target language’s structure. This difficult balance is achieved by using the lexicons, translation guides and other materials I’ve talked about earlier. The supervisors work constantly with the teams to assure that the proper balance between literalness and language acceptability and understandability is maintained.
And again, as an added measure to ensure readability to the extent possible, when each translation of scripture is completed it also undergoes an ecclesiastical review by a committee of native-speaking local leaders who provide a final certification that the translation is doctrinally accurate as well as acceptable to the intended audience.
As far as the Bible goes, the Church does not usually (usually) translate the Bible but instead relies on the tremendous work already done by Bible societies and affiliated organizations. Whenever the Church moves into a new language, one of the first tasks we perform is determining which Bibles are available in that language and then using a system we have developed, analyzing those Bibles and eventually selecting the one that best meets the Church’s criteria for language formality and doctrinal accuracy. We then use this Bible to the extent possible as a source for terminology (where concepts are the same) and as the basis for the Bible passages quoted in restoration scripture (such as the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon). As a general guideline, translators are trained not to quote such passages verbatim but to produce their own translations, employing where possible terminology and style cues so that links both linguistic and intertextual can be maintained between volumes of scripture. There are numerous notes and instructions in the translation guides that also facilitate this.
Because translation style for scriptures (particularly the ones we produce) is specified by the First Presidency policy, and because that policy has not changed in the 30 years I have been in Translation, the primacy of adherence to the policy to the extent possible and attendant translation priorities have not changed. I believe, though, that we have gotten quite good at applying the policy while still producing translations that are meaningful and acceptable. I’ll say more about this below.