Last November I met Tod Harris at the AAR-SBL conference and immediately began pestering him with questions about his linguistics work in the Church’s Translation Department. He graciously agreed to be interviewed for the blog, and today I am very pleased to share the first part of his peek into the complexities of the Church’s extensive translation work. Second and third installments are available now.
Tod Harris currently serves as manager of scripture translation support for the LDS Church. Tod has been working in Church translation since 1986. He has a degree from BYU in German Literature and a master’s from Cal State Dominguez Hills in Humanities. Tod and his wife Lisa have three children and live in Salt Lake City, Utah.
1. Describe your role and responsibilities as senior linguist in the Church’s Translation Department. What is your background in terms of education and work experience? How did you come to this leadership role?
I began working as a volunteer in September 1986, assisting with a fledgling project to analyze the Bible translations the Church was using in different languages, before we had the standardized program for evaluating and selecting a “preferred” Bible that we use now (more on this later). The Church used to advertise for volunteer (and some paid) positions on a regular bulletin that was displayed on boards in foyers in Church buildings. I was standing out in the foyer of the building I was attending at the time, trying to quiet my fussy infant daughter, and saw one of these ads asking for someone with experience with translation, with computers, and with at least one ancient language. At the time I was working as a freelance technical writer and translator, about a year out from graduation from BYU with a degree in German Literature. As part of that degree I had taken a course in translation, as well as two semesters of Old Norse/Icelandic, and had put myself through the last year of school writing software user manuals, so felt like I had the qualifications to fill the volunteer position. I went down to the Church Office Building the next day, interviewed with three of the linguists working in the Translation Department at the time, and was asked to start helping that day. I worked on that original Bible evaluation project for about six months, and got to know some of the processes and people in Translation well enough that when a full-time job opened in March 1987, I was offered the position. I gladly accepted, and have been working in Translation ever since.
I started very early working with the group that designed, produced, and maintained the support material we provide translators to help ensure they understand the English source texts, such as specialized lexicons, translation guides, and term management aids. I spent several years finding and training teams of translators who were tasked, at the time, with producing basic Church materials such as the “Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith” pamphlet and the Gospel Principles manual, and eventually became a supervisor for teams working on the Book of Mormon. I have also supervised teams interpreting for General Conference as well as assisting with interpretation myself. I served for a few years as the manager of the group that produces and maintains the support material used by all translators and reviewers, and eventually specialized in working just on the scriptures. During that time I also completed a master’s degree in Humanities with a philosophy emphasis at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Because of my experience both writing and editing the translation guides, as well as supervising translation teams, I was eventually assigned to oversee what we call “ecclesiastical reviews,” which are the final reviews of all translated scriptures to ensure that they are doctrinally accurate and are acceptable to native speakers, and still perform that function today.
For about the last two years I have also overseen a team of five technical linguists who are working to standardize the format of all non-English scripture databases as well as upgrade them to match the new 2013 English scriptures (see the answer to question 2 for more explanation on this). I report directly to the manager of Scripture, Temple, and Music Translation, but also work on assignment for the Director of Scripture Coordination in the Priesthood and Family Department in conducting the final ecclesiastical reviews for completed scripture translations.
2. What are some of the most significant achievements of the department in the last five years? Who or what determines the priority of translation projects?
There have been several notable successes in the last several years. First, as you may be aware, the Church issued new editions of the English scriptures in March 2013 (see the Church’s website, https://www.lds.org/scriptures/adjustments?lang=eng, for more information). Not long after this, the Scriptures Committee of the Church assigned Translation to update all non-English scripture databases to include all these same adjustments, as appropriate (some of the adjustments have no effect in non-English languages). I was assigned to put together a program to implement all of these changes, as well as to standardize all the databases of existing translations (because many of these have been produced over several decades, they were in several different formats from several different word processing platforms). With the help of some very talented people we got such a program up and running in late 2013, updated all the scripture translation support material to include all the 2013 adjustments, and are now working to apply these materials to all scripture databases. We’ve finished preliminary work on about 50 databases and are making good progress on the rest.
Next, we recently completed work on a Portuguese quad. Your readers may be aware that the Church produced our own version of the LDS edition of the Bible in Spanish in 2009. We were assigned to begin working on a Portuguese version not long after that, and because of the 2013 updates, were able to coordinate those efforts relative to the existing Portuguese triple so that we completed the update of the triple about the same time we finished the work on the Bible. Because of this, presiding committees made the decision to produce the first non-English quadruple combination of the scriptures (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price). The electronic version has been available on the Church’s website and in the Gospel Library mobile app for several months now, and should be on shelf as a printed version by the end of March. Work is also underway to produce a Spanish quad now, too.
In addition to these significant projects, the regular work of scripture translation has been continuing, and we have produced translations of the Book of Mormon in Kosraean (a language of Micronesia), Chuukese (a language of Micronesia), and Persian, and triple combinations in Marshallese, Xhosa, and Zulu.
3. Take us through the stages of producing the new Portuguese edition of the LDS scriptures, focusing especially on the new translation of the Bible.
Producing the new Portuguese scriptures followed our normal processes, for the most part, except we did not have to begin from scratch as we would have with a new project in a language that does not yet have scriptures. We first found a team of native-speaking translators and reviewers by working through the translation office in Brazil and by coordinating with Church leaders in both Brazil and Portugal for referrals to talented members. We also worked through these same channels to gather a committee of ecclesiastical reviewers (the translation team usually works as close to full time as possible and are most often paid for their work; the ecclesiastical review committee members are called and set apart and work on a volunteer basis). The translation team worked with the existing text of the Portuguese Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price first to incorporate all 2013 updates and then to review any suggestions for corrections that had been collected since the last publication of the scriptures. Any altered or corrected scripture text was then reviewed by the ecclesiastical review committee.
For the Bible, we followed a process similar to the one used in producing the Spanish Bible. Rather than translating from original texts, we decided to work from an existing translation from the public domain, in this case the 1914 Almeida version. Because of the archaic nature of the language used in this version, the text underwent a very conservative revision, focusing on updating the orthography and modernizing some of the more outdated grammatical constructions and vocabulary that had shifted in meaning and acceptability. Chapter headings, cross-references, and explanatory footnotes similar to those in the Church’s English edition were added, as well as significant verses from the JST. All of this work also went through a committee of what we call “member readers” (with members from both Brazil and Portugal to assure acceptability) as well as ecclesiastical review. A final ecclesiastical review of the full text of the updated triple, as well as the new Bible, was conducted in São Paulo, Brazil, in January 2014. We then spent several months finalizing, typesetting, and conducting final proof readings. The electronic text was published late last year, and as mentioned above, the printed copies should be on shelf in March.
4. How do you manage differences of opinion in the process, between ecclesiastical leaders and professional linguists, or among linguists? How are proposed translations approved internally?
We’ve had a lot of experience over the years learning both to collect feedback and suggestions from reviewers on the translation team and the ecclesiastical review committees and to respond to and reconcile it appropriately.
First, we have the tools I mentioned, the lexicons and the translation guides, which provide standard definitions of key terms and explanations of critical textual features as well as instructions for handling such features. In many cases, being able to turn to these authoritative sources helps limit differences of opinion because meaning and interpretation has been carefully defined.
We also work to train the project supervisors to recognize the difference between suggestions based on preference and true improvements and corrections to the text and to help teams and committees avoid purely preference-based comments.
In addition, we stress the spiritual nature of scripture translation, harking back to Joseph Smith’s explanation that he performed his work through “the gift and power of God,” and actively strive to avoid any kind of contention between translators and reviewers.
We have a process of translation, review, and reconciliation in place with allows all parties to have what we hope is a fair forum for input and feedback, and work to ensure that the final text has been accepted and agreed upon by all members of the translation team and ecclesiastical review committee.
When translations are complete they all go through what we call a final ecclesiastical review to ensure doctrinal accuracy as well as acceptability to target language speakers. A report of the results of the final ecclesiastical review meetings is submitted to presiding councils for approval.
Check back later this week for additional installments, including Brother Harris’s discussion of desirable ambiguity in scripture, the relative importance of comprehension in scripture reading, and the overriding mandate for literal translations of canon.