The Church recently announced that is going to be publishing an LDS “translation” of the Bible in Portuguese. I put “translation” in scare quotes because this is not a new Portuguese version of the Bible translated from the original Greek and Hebrew. Rather, it takes a previous Portuguese translation now in the public domain and updates its archaic language for modern Portuguese readers, adding LDS study aids. This is not the first time that the Church has issued new versions of the scriptures to make their language more digestible for members. For example, the original translation of the Book of Mormon into Korean used a very elevated and archaic form of the language that was difficult for modern Korean speakers to understand. My understanding is that the Church produced a new translation that was easier to read, and that it has done similar things in other languages.
These efforts on behalf of non-English-speaking Latter-day Saints raise the question, why not for English speakers as well?
The language of the scriptures for English-speaking Mormons is Jacobean English, because that is the language of the KJV, which then influenced the language of the Book of Mormon translation, the Doctrine & Covenants, the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and the JST. In the past some Mormons, such as J. Reuben Clark, have tried to defend the use of the KJV on grounds of accuracy, but this argument simply isn’t sustainable. The best reason for sticking with the KJV is the intertextuality of the KJV with the language of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine & Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. It is worth noting, however, that non-English speakers already deal with a Mormon canon in which the intertextuality is somewhat shrouded by alternative translations.
The problem is that the Jacobean English of the scriptures is difficult to understand and can alienate readers. Indeed, the language is often an impediment to understanding the message of the scriptures rather than an aid. Increasingly, Bible-literate potential converts to Mormonism in English are familiar not with the KJV but with a modern translation. The insistence on Jacobean English thus tends to reinforce the perception of Mormons as exotic, pseudo-Christians. Over time this problem will only become more acute, as modern English drifts farther and farther from the Jacobean of the KJV and ever fewer English-speaking Bible readers read the KJV. How might we give to English-speaking Mormons what non-English-speaking Mormons already have, namely an edition of the scriptures in clear and easily understandable language?
Let me imagine how that might work. First, there are already many fine modern translations of the Bible in English. The real problem would be getting copyright and lisencing rights to publish an LDS edition. I vote for the NRSV, but only because that is the modern translation that sits on my desk at work and that I most often read. Of course, the Church could produce its own English translation from the original sources, but this would be a huge undertaking and it’s not clear what benefit the Church would get from such a thing. Indeed, because individual biblical interpretation in Mormonism is far less influential than institutional and prophetic interpretation, it’s not clear to me that Mormons need to get heavily invested in the kind of heated micro-disputes over translations that drive the proliferation of new Protestant version of the Bible. If it wished to give a light theological gloss to its translation, the Church could also take an somewhat modern English translation in the public domain and then update it, as was done in this new Portuguese edition.
Once the Church picks a modern English version of the Bible, it could then produce a modern-English paraphrase of the Restoration scriptures based on this English text, striving as much as possible to preserve intertextuality between them by adopting in the paraphrase verbal formulations from the modern translations that parallel the allusions to the KJV language that exist in the current English. The final result would be a Mormon canon in modern English. The KJV and the original English-language edition of the scriptures could still be used as a kind of widely accessible, scholarly ur text, much the way that the Greek New Testament is an ur text available to those who read Koine or understand how to use the tools of an interlinear translation or a Strong’s Concordance.
I am assuming that the leading councils of the Church are a very, very long way away from being comfortable with this idea, if they ever would be. (Although, who knows? I’ve been wrong about so many things in the past.) One of the striking things about the publication of the Joseph Smith Papers, however, has been that the earliest manuscript versions of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants are now available to members from the Church. This suggests that the Church is now comfortable with the idea that its scriptures have a textual history, and in a sense the Church has already published English ur-texts of the scriptures that are different than the versions we use for ordinary instruction and devotion. Given this fact and the situation of non-English-speaking Latter-day Saints, a modern language edition of the scriptures in English might not be such a huge step