Following on Chad’s recent discussions, I’m happy to share another offering in what has become a T&S mini–series on the recent volume Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity (Salt Lake City, UT: The University of Utah Press, 2020). Editors Mark Ashurst-McGee and Mike MacKay here respond to my questions on the genesis of the volume and its implications. The intriguing question of “what we talk about when we talk about Joseph Smith’s translation activities” has enjoyed extraordinary scholarly attention in 2020. Producing Ancient Scripture offers an embarrassment of riches, with twenty authors approaching the question from historical, textual, psychological, and theological perspectives. It is the most comprehensive volume on the topic to date, and the avenues it marks now define the groundwork of the field.
- This is a landmark book. It brings together 20 scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds for a deep dive into what it means when we talk about Joseph Smith’s work as a translator. How did the volume originate, and why is it a necessary contribution at this moment?
Mike: In 2013, the translation of the Book of Mormon was a hotly debated topic at the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the Church’s new Gospel Topics essay on the subject was being discussed. I had worked on the topic for the Papers and was working on a book for Latter-day Saints about the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon. Knowing that there was a deeper level of analysis beyond the mechanics of translation that could be explored further, I began compiling a list of scholars who might contribute to a workshop to develop further research about the Book of Mormon translation and all of Smith’s other translation projects. I reached out to the Maxwell Institute for support and guidance and once I took a job at the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, the Religious Studies Center also helped support the workshop. In the summer of 2014 about twenty scholars met together at BYU to discuss their pre-circulated essays. For two days we presented and debated each of the topics before returning to our individual essays that would be edited and reviewed for Producing Ancient Scripture. At the end of the workshop Brian, Mark, and I began working together to edit and publish the volume.
Mark: As to why the book is “a necessary contribution at this moment,” I’m not quite sure. But now does indeed seem be its moment. In 2017, there was the “New Perspectives on Joseph Smith and Translation” conference held at Utah State University. Last year saw the publication of The Pearl of Greatest Price, by Terryl Givens, with Brian Hauglid. And now this year we have had the publication of Visions in a Seer Stone, by William L. Davis; Joseph Smith’s Translation, by Samuel Morris Brown, and Producing Ancient Scripture, which we had the honor to edit.
- Most of the contributors come from history and religious studies backgrounds, but a few literary and scripture scholars are also represented. Is the meaning of Joseph Smith’s translations primarily a historical question, a textual question, or a theological question?
Mark: I would say it is primarily a religious question. The translation texts ultimately create in the religious reader the lived experience of connecting with the sacred past. If this is true for Mormon readers, it was probably even more true for Joseph Smith and those who helped him to produce these amazing texts. The book takes several approaches, primarily historical, to get at this experience of producing a connection to the sacred past.
Mike: While this volume leans heavily upon the historical approach, it demands that the meaning of Joseph Smith’s translation project be a multi-disciplinary question. The authors do the spade work of the archives, but the details of performance and practice emerge, the linguistic turn to the text is prevalent, other languages are not ignored, cultural context is established, and transcendent phenomenon are re-examined. Demarcation among the disciplines will always create leverage for one argument over the next, but this volume, as a whole, enables overlap and comparison rather than just disciplinary arguments. To avoid reductionism altogether may be impossible, but scholars of religion push for a kind of anti-reductionism that individual disciplines inevitably perpetuate without the pressures of other disciplines examining the same topic. Even if there are only a few chapters in Producing Ancient Scripture that are truly inter-disciplinary, the multi-disciplinary nature of the volume opens our view to include more than just the voice of a historian, text critic, or theologian.
- Joseph Smith’s translation—both the textual products and the social-spiritual processes—is extraordinary by almost any account. Still, our understanding can be deepened by considering translation in its historical moment. What are the most salient historical contexts and currents for 21st-century readers to make sense of Joseph Smith’s translation of scripture?
Mike: Even before Joseph Smith began his full translation of the Book of Mormon, he copied characters, arranged them in a transcript, and sent the transcript to language experts. So, from the very beginning, Smith’s idea of translation was rooted in the most conventional understanding of that word. Recently, several scholars have been emphasizing the metaphysical nature of Smith’s translation. It certainly was metaphysical. After all, he stated clearly that he translated by the “gift and power of God.” However, this translation mode was still inextricably tethered to the most conventional concept of translation. The meta-physical is that which is after or beyond—but not necessarily completely separated from—the physical. As I argue in chapter 3, Smith began his career as a translator within a social and intellectual environment that placed limits on what a translation could be. Smith pushed against the walls of this structure of constraint but never escaped it—at least not entirely.
Mark: Later, in the winter of 1835–1836, Joseph Smith undertook a formal study of the Hebrew language and participated in class exercises that included traditional translation (of Hebrew into English). Later, he incorporated Hebrew words into his translation of the Book of Abraham (see Chapter 16). His final translation project, an attempt at translating the Kinderhook plates, was apparently an entirely secular effort (as shown in Chapter 17). It’s as if Joseph Smith, by developing his own linguistic expertise, had replaced the need of going to a Charles Anthon. Things had come full circle. The products of supernatural translation found along the path of the circle are what makes the circuit special, yet they are ironically bound within this path.
- This book attempts to make sense of the physical, social, psychological, and spiritual processes that resulted in the sacred texts Joseph Smith called translations. Yet Smith himself was famously reticent about the processes and the experience of translating. Why do you think he was so reticent on this matter, and why are scholars so curious to discover its nature?
Mark: Joseph Smith seems to have been aware of the ridicule that could be (and was) heaped upon him for having started his career as a seer with a seer stone. At the same time, he believed in the scripture he had produced and in the spiritual gift he had used to do it. I think that he was reticent to provide the details because he knew that those details would be used against him, against the new scripture that he brought forth, and against the work of salvation he was attempting to accomplish.
Mike: Historians sometimes ache when this kind of question emerges, many of whom have demanded that when the historical record is silent, then so is the historian. Yet, once the documentation is established this is where many of the scholars in this volume pick up the torch, recognizing that even documentation is a kind of interpretation. New perspectives emerge all the time and disciplinary approaches produce unforeseen avenues of inquiry.
This matters because Joseph Smith himself may not have been able to fully articulate his experience or to piece together the larger forces at play that had positioned him to translate. Sociologically speaking, for example, societal structures are often experienced as a largely unconscious reality shaping the lives of those individuals within the society. Yet, things like language and society in Smith’s cultural environment can be examined historically to ascertain those forces that may have been present but unconscious. For example, the impact of early American gender roles, or appropriate practices of religious devotion in upstate New York, or even the style of Hebrew pedagogy in antebellum academe.
It’s a fact that socio-cultural forces framed Joseph Smith’s translations—some conscious and some unconscious—which makes identifying exactly how he translated difficult to pinpoint even for himself. I think he was sincere when he stated that he translated by the “gift and power of God.” What he produced was remarkable and he was reticent to give himself credit for these new scriptural productions. What strikes me about this volume is the fact that scholars are able to draw together data to see how Smith himself worked toward perpetuating the scripture and to uncover some of his conscious and unconscious moments in the translation process.
- Because there is limited direct description of the translation process, scholars look to other sources for comparable insights. Ann Taves, for instance, compares Joseph Smith’s process to the experience of Helen Schucman, who produced a sacred text through an unconventional spiritual process–and then described the experience. Other scholars look to internal evidence in the Book of Mormon and other Smith-produced translations, focusing on passages that describe the act of translation itself or other forms of inspired writing. What light can the Book of Mormon shine on Joseph Smith’s translation?
Mark: This is the subject of the chapter contributed by Samuel Morris Brown. He digs deep into the text of the Book of Mormon, looking not only at passages that bear strictly on translation, but more widely at the production of other inspired words or texts. His findings, as well as those shared by Ann Taves, argue for a looser model of translation than that described by those who were around Joseph Smith when he translated the Book of Mormon by looking at a seer stone.
Mike: I think the text of the Book of Mormon is an essential resource to understand the translation. Nick Frederick’s intertextual work is a prime example of what can be done with very careful Book of Mormon research. That being said, Grant Hardy’s work is some of the finest work ever to be produced in Book of Mormon Studies, including his chapter in this volume. And, though Samuel Brown’s chapter is an important challenge to Royal Skousen’s textual/historical argument about words appearing on seer stones, Skousen’s work on the Book of Mormon is a foundation that will always be essential.
- The nature of Joseph Smith’s translations has long been a flashpoint in debates between apologists and debunkers. This volume attempts to go beyond that entrenched paradigm, and one way it does so is by focusing on Smith’s “internal experience” during the process–was he seeing something, hearing something, receiving direct intuition? Different scholars in the volume suggest different mechanisms. Regardless of the precise mechanism, what is the benefit of approaching the question through Joseph Smith’s internal experience?
Mike: Just to name two of the chapters that break from the mechanistic descriptions of the translation, I’d like to highlight Chris Blythe’s examination of spiritual gifts, which is truly original, and Jared Hickman’s challenge to the linguistic model, by offering a metaphysical model.
In many ways, cultural analysis or literary analysis reveal the “internal experience” by identifying external forces and Joseph Smith’s cultural construction. This is done by identifying broader political, social, and cultural trends, but access to them is also important in this volume. Jared Hickman’s chapter is so important because of its analysis of the word “translation” and how it shapes Smith’s worldview and experience. The word itself seems to reveal something about the internal workings of Smith’s translations. This kind of research reveals what the mechanics of translation cannot identify. Many of the other textual studies in the volume also reveal further details from which historical descriptions fail, such as the chapter on the new account of John (now D&C 7) by David W. Grua and William V. Smith, in which source criticism of textual variants combines with historical documentation to reveal much about the translation and its process(es).
I personally have problems with accessing the “internal experience” of Joseph Smith and have never been fully satisfied with the psychological studies that have emerged about him. I am delighted, however, by the kind of access and the methods used by the scholars in this volume to look closer at the translation projects. That being said, I think the phenomenology of Smith’s translations has yet to fully play itself out. The linguistic turn has moved scholarly interest away from phenomenology in religious studies since the late 1970s. Still, I would love to see the likes of Mark Wrathall and James Faulconer pick up pen and ink to do a full examination of Smith’s translations.
- In recent years, some excellent scholarship has introduced more Latter-day Saints to Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to produce his translations and revelations. In the past, there may have been a sense of embarrassment around the role of seer stones in early LDS history, but now many approach the question with openness and sincere curiosity. Does this volume contain new insight on the meaning, function, and role of the seer stone?
Mark: As mentioned above, some of the chapters argue for a looser model of translation—looser than reading the words seen in a seer stone. If they are right, this would imply that the seer stone would be for more than seeing—whether Joseph Smith understood that or not. For the most part, the exact function of the seer stone and therefore its role and broader meaning remain a very speculative subject. I hope that scholars can utilize some of the studies in this book to further pursue questions like this.