12 Questions with Tod Harris, Church Translation Department — Part III

IMG_0360Today I am pleased to present the third and final part of our interview with Tod 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. In Part 2, he discussed the value of ambiguity and literal readings in scripture translation. Today, he talks about the close kinship between LDS scripture translation and translation of the Qur’an,  the profound influence of a midcentury evangelical missionary on contemporary Bible translation,  and a key memo from the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12 that governs the literal nature of LDS translations. It’s fascinating stuff.  Thank you, Tod Harris! 


9. Is there a role for members of the Church in translation? How can they be involved in the Church’s translation projects? Are there Church translation resources that could be made available to local members for some of the local translations needs?

The short answer is “yes.” We currently only use temple-recommend worthy members of the Church as scripture translators and reviewers, and those either currently serving in or having had earlier callings as local leaders as ecclesiastical reviewers. This groups tend to be fairly restrictive though, because of the sensitive nature of scripture translation and the specialization and length of training. There are, however, two less-formal way for members to be involved.

First, during the course of the translation of a given volume of scripture a project supervisor will regularly convene groups of member reviewers who are asked to read several chapters of draft translation and to give their input on the understandability and acceptability of the translation.

Next, we have only recently begun posting the electronic version of completed scriptures online before the printed versions are available on-shelf, and then waiting several weeks before we send the typeset proofs to the press. This allows a window in which members can read the new translations and then send in suggestions for any corrections they may find during this time. We can then incorporate valid suggestions, thus improving the overall quality of the translation. (As you might imagine, it’s very nearly impossible to produce an error-free translation, but we take every step possible to catch as many mistakes as we can so that the published work is as accurate as humanly possible.) Announcements of pending online publications are made through local media channels so members of the Church who closely follow such channels should be aware of the publication and can then send in suggestions as necessary.

There are more opportunities for local members to assist with non-scripture translation. My colleagues on that side of the Church’s translation efforts have developed a wide array of options for crowd-sourcing and other kinds of input. Some of these are explained on the Church’s website at https://www.lds.org/topics/service/create?lang=eng.

We are also looking at ways to facilitate local translation efforts, where possible. For example, for many years the key terms list has always been maintained strictly as an internal document, but lately councils have considering publishing this list for each language in which it exists on that language’s webpage so that more people can be aware of and access these lists. We are also considering and developing methods of coordinating terminology with other Church entities that have high translation demands, such as Family History and the MTC.

10. How does LDS scripture translation compare to translation of the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita, or other non-Christian scripture? 

We have in fact looked at other scriptures and versions of translations of these scriptures in our efforts to improve our techniques for translation, as well as to develop tools to help translators in their tasks. One advantage many of these other scriptures have is the presence of an original language source text which allows a more detailed look at terms, idioms, metaphors, and so on and how various translators have chosen to render those elements in English. And just as is the case with the Bible, there are translations of these works that run the full spectrum from painfully literal to laughably free as translators face the same basic problems LDS translators face—being loyal to the source text, maintaining meaning, and still making the text acceptable. The approach chosen can lead to extremely different results. A good example of this (though not strictly scriptural) is the famous Book of Five Rings by the 17th century Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi. Though ostensibly a manual describing a particular style of sword fighting, various translations have yielded very different end results, including guides for business tactics and esoteric philosophical treatises.

Perhaps the closest analogue for LDS scripture translation is the translation of the Qur’an. Islamic theology holds that Arabic is the only true and pure vehicle for the meaning of the Qur’an since that is the language of its original revelation. Yet there are millions of followers of Islam who do not speak Arabic and so require some kind of translation in order to approach the text. And again, there have been a wide range of translations over the years, though most stay relatively literal and don’t veer into the wildly interpretive terrain of some modern Bible translations.

I have attended various conferences on the Qur’an and Qur’anic translation over the years and have followed the arguments for and against its translation, or for and against a particular kind of translation, with great interest. Two years ago I was at one of these conferences and heard an Islamic scholar, A. J. Droge of the University of Toronto at Mississauga (and a native English speaker), lecture on a new translation of the Qur’an he had just completed. It was almost as if he had read the First Presidency policy as he argued for a scholarly, essentially literal translation and the benefits of such a translation. His presentation was so compelling that I bought a copy of his translation as soon as it was published. There is a terrific quote from his introduction that expresses well what I think the intent of our current approach to the translation of the Book of Mormon is:

“One of the many challenges of the Qur’an is that it is unpredictably complex, evocatively associative, and polysemous. For these reasons, as well as more demanding theological ones, most translations cut, compress, paraphrase, and invent freely. I have taken a different approach. My goal has been to make the translation literal to the point of transparency, as well as to maintain consistency in the rendering of words and phrases, and even to mimic word order wherever possible. The result is a kind of Arabicized (or Qur’anicized) English which strives to capture in translation something of the power and persuasive strangeness of the original. In other words, I try to give the reader not only a sense of what the Qur’an says, but how it says it.”

(A.  J. Droge, The Qur’an: A New Annotated Translation [Sheffield, UK: Equinox Publishing, Ltd., 2013], xxxv).

We have occasionally been criticized in various forums for our translation approach, so it is nice to have such a validation from what some might feel is an unlikely source.

11. How closely to do you follow the academic literature on scripture translation theory? Is current scholarly practice relevant to LDS translation, or do you find that the LDS context raises a unique set of imperatives?

I follow the academic literature on translation theory in general, and scripture translation specifically, very closely, for several reasons.

The debate about the primacy of one theory over the other as applied to Bible translation has been active from Origen to Jerome, from Luther to the KJV committee, and into our own century. This graphic  shows where some of the most common English Bible translations fall along a particular spectrum. It is significant to note that most translations done before the mid-twentieth century fall on the literal or “word-for-word” end of the spectrum, while most of those produced after this point cluster at the free or “though-for-thought” end.

The reason for this preponderance of such “thought-for-thought” translations in the modern era can be traced directly to the influence of one man: Eugene Nida. Starting in the 1940s, Nida, an evangelical missionary who became involved in Bible translation in Central America early in his career, began developing practical guidelines for missionary translators working among peoples who often did not have a written language. They found that in order to make their translations understandable, it was necessary to provide information needed for context tribal groups did not have. In so doing, translators often changed and even paraphrased whet the original said.

Nida eventually formalized this approach in his seminal 1969 work The Theory and Practice of Translation (coauthored with Charles Tabor) under the general descriptive phrase “dynamic equivalence.” Once Nida and his colleagues had developed and applied these practices for these emerging languages, others began to carry the same methods and principles over into the task of producing new translations of the Bible in English. Again, if you have read a Bible translated after about 1950, you have read one influenced by Eugene Nida.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that dynamic equivalence theories and practices would eventually effect the scripture translation being carried out by the Church. In the early 80s, a program called the “All Nations Program” was approved by presiding councils, the essence of which was to produce translations of basic Church materials, including the Book of Mormon, in a major language of every nation on earth. Just as many others were doing at the time, exegetes at Church headquarters began to develop tools and translation guides to help native speakers of these emerging languages produce dynamic equivalent or “meaning-based” translations.

As this early material began to be reviewed, though, red flags were raised by senior members of presiding councils. A key memo from this time argues persuasively against paraphrasing the scriptures or correcting or improving their language and instead petitions for a policy of near literal translation as the closest possible preservation of the pure and plain word of the Lord.

Not long after this memo appeared, the policy was approved that still governs scripture translation in the Church today, called “First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Policies Relative to Translation of the Standard Works” and which I mentioned earlier. In summary, the policy indicates that translations which follow, very closely, the words, phrases, and sentence structure, as well as the idiomatic expressions and literary style of the original authors, are the only translations that can convey accurately the true meaning of what the Lord revealed in the original language, and in so doing, help those who study these translations “come to understanding” (DC 1:24). The policy also recognizes that because it is not possible to translate all words and phrases in a literal way into every language, and that it is proper to use the sentence structure of the new language, there will be adjustments required which will result in what may be described as “modified-literal” translations.

It is felt that such “modified-literal” translations are the only ones that provide an experience for target language readers that is very similar to the one readers of the original English text have.

I would also like to point out, though, that the Church is not alone in advocating for more literal translations. Since the mid-80s there has been a movement away from Nida among some Bible translators. The reasons for this shift are varied, although one major influence has been the growing awareness that the language communities who are the recipients of these translations should have a major part in deciding what kind of translation they are to receive and increasingly, these communities often prefer more literal translations. This has been noted in our own work in the Church. In several languages with long approved Bibles, new translations have appeared in the last few years that we have re-evaluated and found to be more literal. Two examples are Dutch and Thai.

And just as the application of dynamic equivalence moved from languages to English, an increased desire for new, more literal translations is starting to slowly manifest itself among English Bible readers as well. As a representative example of this, here is an interesting note from one Bible scholar in an essay about this very idea:

“FE [“functional equivalent” or dynamic] translations often change the language, images, and metaphors of scripture to make understanding easier. But for serious study, readers need a translation that allows the Bible to say what it says, even if that seems strange and odd to readers at first glance” (Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation,” accessed at http://www.christianity.com/ct/2001/013/5.28.html).

This mirrors well some of the reasons behind the Church’s translation philosophy.

However, we continue to maintain contact with Bible societies and others engaged in similar work in order to benefit where we can from their amassed experience as well as to provide counsel and suggestions generated by our distinctive translation philosophy. The Church today faces many of the same translation challenges that Bible societies in general do, including meeting the demand for translated scriptures in an increasing number of languages, providing adequate support services to translation teams, as well as producing and distributing scripture translations in the myriad formats required by users in the modern world.

Some challenges are unique to the Church itself, as for example providing language Bibles to members of the Church when one does not exist that meets the Church’s preference for the KJV’s conservative standards (and related to this are problems attendant to our reliance on the KJV in the first place).

These are all challenges that we are eager to meet and to solve in our continuing efforts to fill the charge we feel LDS scripture translation has of assuring that “every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language” (D&C 90:11).



12. What projects are queued up for 2016? 

As I mentioned above, one of the really significant things coming up will be the publication of the Portuguese quad, the first non-English quad the Church has ever produced. I was visiting the Church’s press here in Salt Lake a couple of weeks ago and got to see one of the first copies of this to come off the press, and it is beautiful. The Spanish quad is probably not far behind…

We should also see the publication of some of the first revisions to include the 2013 updates, including Russian and Icelandic; the publication of a significant revision of the Chinese scriptures (both Traditional and Simplified); and the completion of the final ecclesiastical reviews of the Malay triple and Nepali Book of Mormon.

Keep an eye on the Church’s website for official announcements of these and other exciting translation projects.

12 comments for “12 Questions with Tod Harris, Church Translation Department — Part III

  1. There’s so much meaty material to chew on here. Things that caught my interest:

    –The possibility of making the “Key Terms” translation memo public — yes! Transparency is good, and it would be fascinating to see these documents.

    –I love this quote on the Qur’an translation: “My goal has been to make the translation literal to the point of transparency, as well as to maintain … something of the power and persuasive strangeness of the original.” Unfortunately, our teaching manuals seem to do their best to erase the “power and persuasive strangeness” of ancient scripture, in favor of making it as digestible as possible.

    –The review of Eugene Nida’s influence on translation theory was enlightening — thank you! While I see the value (artistic and pastoral) of scriptural paraphrase, I’m persuaded by van Leeuwen’s argument that near-literal translations are of more value for serious study. Frustratingly, though, serious study of scripture does not seem to be the goal of CES — my daughter, a serious reader of classic literature, started early morning seminary this year, and has been disappointed in the UNseriousness of the seminary lessons. So what we end up with in the Church is a difficult, literal-ish translation (the KJV), but lessons that teach on shallow, presentist assumptions. It’s a very frustrating mismatch.

    –“It is felt that such “modified-literal” translations are the only ones that provide an experience for target language readers that is very similar to the one readers of the original English text have.” Wow — so much to say here. Why should the English readership be the paradigmatic experience? Because of the KJV, most English-speaking members have only the shallowest understanding of the Old Testament or the Pauline epistles. I understand why in English we’re tied to the KJV (extensive intertextuality with the BoM), but let’s aim higher in other languages where we are freer!

    –The aborted program in “functional equivalence” translation in the Church — such a fascinating institutional detour! In the end, I am persuaded that it would be a mistake to canonize functional equivalence translations. But if we’re going to stick with the literal-ish KJV, we must have better teaching materials.

    –“The policy indicates that translations which follow, very closely, the words, phrases, and sentence structure, as well as the idiomatic expressions and literary style of the original authors, are the only translations that can convey accurately the true meaning of what the Lord revealed in the original language.” There is a whole volume to be written here on the embedded assumptions about scriptural authorship, the process of revelation in scripture writing, and the collaboration between the Lord and humans in producing scripture.

    Thank you, Tod, for giving me so much to chew on. It’s great to know that there is an informed, thoughtful mind at work on LDS scripture translation. Good luck with your continuing projects!

  2. I have followed the whole series, and while I have no brilliant comment to make, I thought I should at least thank you both for a fascinating interview.

  3. Rosalynde, how do you think they should deal in translation with the dependency of the Book of Mormon and D&C on the KJV? For instance, how would you translate the JST?

    I’ve come to like translations that are more interpretive to make the language flow better. Honestly, I think a compelling case can be made for the Book of Mormon being just such a translation given the idiom of the day. But translating that for a contemporary audience is pretty difficult at the best of times. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love a text that flows more like say the Jerusalem Bible but somehow kept the connections. I just don’t know how that could easily be done without the choice they’ve made.

  4. Great series — thanks for both Rosalynde and Tod for such a thorough discussion.

    Here is a question I did not see addressed: which English language text do translators use as a base text? The 1830 edition or a later edition? Has the critical work of Royal Skousen or anything from the Joseph Smith Papers Project amended the base English-language text that translators use to render text into a non-English language?

  5. Great series, and good to see Tod here. Also, great comments from Rosalynde.
    I think one of the main areas of difficulty, where this translation philosophy has to make hard decisions, is with imagery and idiom. If you translate literally, it will be confusing if the target language and culture does not share the meaning of that idiom or imagery. Worse, if they have their own usage of that imagery, it means they will import it into scripture when it doesn’t belong there. Some Bibles get around that by offering footnotes saying what the idiom meant in Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic.

    Do the LDS scriptures do that in foreign languages? Or do we simply leave the reader with the idiom?

    Also, if anyone wants to follow this topic further I talk about Old Testament and translation difficulty in some depth here. I’m not a professional translator like Tod, who has much more depth with the literature than I, but there’s still some good stuff there to chew on.

  6. A translation, instead of imitating the sense of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s way of meaning, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. For this very reason translation must in large measure refrain from wanting to communicate something, from rendering the sense, and in this the original is important to it only insofar as it has already relieved the translator and his translation of the effort of assembling and expressing what is to be conveyed. In the realm of translation, too, the words En archei en ho logos [“In the beginning was the word”] apply. On the other hand, as regards the meaning, the language of a translation can-in fact, must-let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intentio of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intentio. Therefore, it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic complementation. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original all the more fully. This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which proves words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator. For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade. . . . The interlinear version of the Scriptures is the prototype or ideal of all translation. (Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”; written in 1921)

  7. I’m jealous! Thank you for sharing this interview. I’ve always been interested in translation. Here are some questions I’d have loved to ask him, in case they came up. Warning, I haven’t read parts 1 and 2 yet.
    1) Often, when translating, there are two reasonable ways to render an English phrase in the target language. Example: the preposition in “the love of Christ” is ambiguous in that the phrase could mean Christ’s love (as in “brother of Jared”), or love directed at Christ (as in “the love of money”). I’m sure that, at times, church translators have approached General Authorities for guidance about which meaning is intended in a given verse. On the one hand, a compilation of those decisions could really be helpful not only to translators into another language but also to the general membership. On the other hand, it could become like a Mishnah, and I’m sure there is a reluctance to canonize the hundreds or thousands of such decisions, as opposed to leaving the door open for us to be convinced that a particular translation into, say, Portuguese, may just be wrong. What can he sat about that?
    2) About 30 years ago an LDS member translated part of the modern scriptures into Esperanto. It’s a first language for very few people, but it’s a second language for many more people than all speakers of some languages the BoM or Selections have already been translated into (so an Esperanto edition may reach more people faster). Furthermore, Esperanto is very flexible in terms of word order, allowing much more of a word-for-word translation than do many target languages. So why not? I imagine part of the answer may be “every man … in his own tongue,” but some languages the BoM already appears in already are second languages for many people who will read it, right? Like Ki-Swahili or Russian or Arabic in many places.
    3) Is there a general rule that he applies when the King James translation is obviously wrong, but it’s a phrasing that is mirrored in modern Scripture?

    Also, I don’t think most of the problem is the CES per se. My experience is that your mileage varies substantially with the teacher. Our ward’s current seminary teacher, and I’m guessing your mom, probably would teach rather differently than your daughter’s teacher. Then again, if one has to choose how to spend limited class time, talking about how the scriptures can inform our real life decisions is more important than reading Josephus.

  8. In the end, it seems to me, that it is the take up rate of the translated text which becomes an important benchmark of its merit in the household of faith. My own limited experience with this has been with the uneven acceptance of a translated version of the BoM based on a fledgling orthography of an oral language consisting of various dialects.
    So I wonder about the process of choosing among dialect varieties; the extent of bi-linguistic and bi-literacy knowledge required of lds native-speaker reviewers; and whether or not there is a revision process at the local level after a period of time, to better conform a translation to the linguistic sensibilities of the local lds population.
    The amount of work appears to be enormous and getting it right the first time, though a much hoped for goal, may not always be realised, particularly in linguistically diverse and orally based contexts such as the one I am referring to.

  9. “Perhaps the closest analogue for LDS scripture translation is the translation of the Qur’an. Islamic theology holds that Arabic is the only true and pure vehicle for the meaning of the Qur’an since that is the language of its original revelation. ”

    “A key memo from this time argues persuasively against paraphrasing the scriptures or correcting or improving their language and instead petitions for a policy of near literal translation as the closest possible preservation of the pure and plain word of the Lord.”

    “In summary, the policy indicates that translations which follow, very closely, the words, phrases, and sentence structure, as well as the idiomatic expressions and literary style of the original authors, are the only translations that can convey accurately the true meaning of what the Lord revealed in the original language, and in so doing, help those who study these translations “come to understanding” (DC 1:24).”

    — There are some fascinating assumptions behind these statements.
    — Joseph Smith didn’t hesitate to correct, improve, edit, rewrite, combine, etc. the revelations he received. This seems like a different approach to scripture than the one he had.
    — I find this installment of the interview a bit depressing because I don’t enjoy the KJV and I do like some of the modern translations. Now I know not to get my hopes up for a change in the church’s approach.
    — Could we please, at least, get modern formatting? Grant Hardy’s reader’s edition of The Book of Mormon is a wonderful contribution to the church, and in my opinion, the best way to read The Book of Mormon.

    Thanks to Rosalynde and Tod for sharing this.

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