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


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.

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

  1. Rosalynde Welch
    February 23, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    Points of interest from this chunk:
    — the tricky task of the translation guides in *defining* the precise contours of *ambiguity,* and trying to replicate that as closely as possible in the target language. Precisely-rendered ambiguity: kinda makes your head hurt!

    –I’m interested in the assertion that “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”. What do you have in mind when you say “from the time of Joseph Smith”? It would seem that the Book of Abraham is an instance of a radically NON-literal translation method. How do you account for the Book of Abraham under a strong mandate for literalness?

    –on that vein, I’m interested in the implied syllogism in the phrase “relatively literal and therefore very accurate translation.” It seems that in typical translation scenarios, a literal translation could be significantly *less* accurate if it fails to convey the message or, in its literalness, picks up idiomatic or implied meanings external to the original. (Perhaps that is what is addressed in the idea of “modified-literal” — but then why cling so strongly to the literal ideal?) I understand that you are simply working under a mandate coming down from the presiding authorities, and you probably do not care to speculate on the “why.” Nevertheless, I find it fascinating and, clearly, a bit frustrating. :)

    –on a positive note, I love your observations about the way in which collaborate translation work builds the initial community of Saints in a new area. Now THAT is something I recognize “from the time of Joseph Smith” onward. :)

  2. February 23, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    Interesting, valuable . . . thanks (for this whole series).

    I love the replicating ambiguity point. It is a necessary discussion, in my opinion, and I was not aware that attention was being given (a good start) and that the approach is what I would choose (hurrah).

    I share the puzzlement over “literal = accurate”. I think (but would like to know more) that doesn’t really mean what it says. I think it means that the translator is trying to inject as little as possible of their own preconceived and possibly idiosyncratic understanding of the English text. “Literal” is like saying “it’s not me, it’s a more mechanical process.” I am skeptical, on multiple levels.

    If there is a possibility for questions, or perhaps this is all coming(?):
    >How do you think about the level or class or sophistication of the language? College educated . .. or primary education basic reading? Polite language or common/street language? In English one would ask Anglo-Saxon words or Latinate forms?
    >For some languages (presumably where the numbers are small) there has been a “selected” version of the Book of Mormon including only some books and chapters. Is this still the case? What are we to take or learn from the selection?

  3. J. Stapley
    February 23, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Are the translation guides “restricted” documents? The would seem to be extremely unusual in their descriptive potency in relation to current Mormon approaches to belief and practice.

  4. February 23, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    At some point, could you say more about the system you’ve developed for analyzing bible translations in terms of language formality and doctrinal accuracy?

  5. Kevin Barney
    February 23, 2016 at 8:52 pm

    I’ve thought that “latter day” in the name of the Church is simply using the comparative for the superlative, and that the name therefore really does mean “of the last days.” But I’m not at all sure about that. Latter can mean the second of two (or vaguely referring to a part toward the end, without necessarily defining two parts), in contrast with former (IE latter day saints as opposed to former day saints), or “recent, present,” which would also make sense. So what is the official take on what “latter day” means in the name of the Church?

  6. Left Field
    February 23, 2016 at 11:23 pm

    To me, the connotation is “saints of the present time,” not just all those “saints of the Bible.”

    It’s the same way we speak of “modern prophets” to emphasize that prophets have been restored in the present time.

    “Latter-day” is about the Restoration, not about the last days.

  7. JKC
    February 24, 2016 at 10:13 am

    I found it interesting that the church prefers to stick close to the source texts. But if that is the case, why are we so attached to the KJV in English? I mean, I can give a bunch of historical or cultural reasons, but our attachment to the KJV and our wariness toward using other modern translations that may be closer to the source texts than the KJV does seem to be at odds with our preference to stick close to source texts.

  8. Wahoo Fleer
    February 24, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    I too am interested in hearing about how Brother Harris’s work affects his view of the King James Version of the Bible and our adherence to it and what translation he would use if it were up to him. I’m sure he wouldn’t give his opinion in a million years but I’d love to know.

  9. Steven
    February 28, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    “The Book of Mormon has only been translated from its source language to English once.” Really? I guess I would have said that it hasn’t ever been done. To suggest that he translated it from the source language to English suggests that (a) he knew the source language and (b) that he used the text on the plates. I am not sure how much evidence there is for either of these claims. Regarding the first point, did Joseph Smith claim to know the source language? I am not sure that I have ever heard that. Regarding the second point, it was my understanding that Joseph didn’t have the plates out for most of the translation and that his primary method was to use the seer stone. When he was asked about it, Joseph said that he translated The Book of Mormon by the “gift and power of God.” To me this doesn’t provide any support for your assertion that “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.”

    “To facilitate the preservation of this relatively literal and therefore very accurate translation.” I think I missed something here.

    “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.” I think that the name for that experience, especially as it relates to the KJV, is “muddling our way through texts we don’t really understand.”

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