Notes on the Book of Abraham

Facsimile 2I’m only a translator in the sense that people keep paying me to translate things for them.

I mean, I have a reasonably high level of proficiency in another language, some experience writing in English, and some level of enjoyment of the activity of translating. I’ve familiarized myself with the tools of the trade and done some reading about translation theory (while it can provide some useful ideas, it seems to be a surprisingly acrimonious field). The translation project managers I work with seem generally satisfied with my work, my clients keep returning to me for business, and I’m able to find enough work at tolerable rates to continue providing for a reasonably sized family.

But by some standards I’m not a real translator. I don’t have a degree in translation studies. I’m not certified by any professional association or even a member of one. At the moment, I’m not convinced that the effort to become a real translator – by someone else’s definition – would make me a better translator or justify itself in higher income.

A real translator would likely specialize in a narrower field, but I still enjoy life as an omnivore. I like seeing the sheer variety of things requiring translation and the situations in which translations are needed and the technical problems that have to be solved along the way.

There are some situations that call for a translation that reflects the original text as closely as possible. That’s my own inclination – I love fine points of grammar and semantic nuance – and it’s how a lot of people think of translation. But that’s not always what a client wants. More often than not in my experience, it’s just as important – or even more important – that a translated text is also good sales copy for the target audience, or that it’s adapted to fit the expectations of a target culture. Last week a client encouraged me to take more liberties with the translation of his book to make it sound more American. I aim to please. There’s a whole subfield of translation – “transcreation” – that deals with issues raised by this kind of work.

There’s not a clear boundary between a translation, a transcreation, an adaptation and an album inspired by a movie based on a novel. And what determines a good translation in one context (both partners and their teams of lawyers are in agreement about what each clause means in the contract they’re about to sign) can lead to some very bad translations in another (if the Spanish sales funnel leads to a collapse in sales in Argentina, or English-speaking viewers don’t have time to read the long, complicated subtitles burdening a Korean drama). Telling a good translation from a bad one is a difficult theoretical and practical problem. It’s often quite easy to distinguish between a happy and an unhappy client, however.

All of this is my way of saying that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri doesn’t present any particular problems to us as members of the church. We can and should celebrate Joseph Smith’s translation. We can learn useful and interesting things from it.

Some fragments of the papyri from which Joseph Smith worked survive today. Reconstructing what the complete papyri may have looked like is important and fascinating work – did I ever tell you about the time I reconstructed a medieval codex from a few fragments? Well, four times, actually – but we should not assume, and our understanding of the Book of Abraham should not rely on the assumption that Joseph Smith worked with anything except Egyptian funerary texts. Everything, from the extant fragments to the published facsimiles, points in that direction. I have a firm conviction that the Book of Abraham is scripture, so I will learn more about scripture by staring the facts in the face than by desperately seeking out alternative facts.

At the same time, the textual mismatch between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian funerary texts of the papyri doesn’t make the Book of Abraham a bad translation because we are not going to persist in a naïve or uninformed view of what constitutes translation. Egyptian funerary texts were placed with mummified corpses so that the deceased would have access to all information necessary for proceeding into the afterlife. The material presented in the Book of Abraham on the Creation and Pre-existence is a central part of our own temple liturgy, which serves a similar purpose. The similarity between the two brings Joseph Smith’s translation within the realm of transcreation and adaptation. The question is not: Do the words match? But rather: Does the translation fulfill its purpose, and does it have the approval of the one who commissioned it? I’m convinced that it does.

This isn’t an argument for the logical necessity that Joseph Smith was a prophet and seer – if you’re uncertain, you’ll have to reach a conclusion by the usual methods. It is instead only an argument for the internal coherency of accepting the Book of Abraham as scripture. The Egyptian text of the papyrus says things one way, and the Book of Abraham says things another way, and after gaining some experience as a translator, I don’t see anything wrong with that. The Book of Abraham contains some of our most profound doctrines and is deeply connected to our most sacred and inspiring ordinances. Anyone urging us to remove the Book of Abraham from our canon does not have the best interests of the church at heart and is working against our spiritual welfare.

If we accept Abraham as scripture, and deal with facts as they are, we can learn some interesting things. The definition of translation involved seems to be very wide (but doesn’t necessarily contradict tight control of the text, about which I’m agnostic for this post). Does that mean that the translation of the Book of Mormon was equally wide? Not necessarily, since that translation came much earlier in Joseph Smith’s career and involved different methods, but possibly so. Interesting! As soon as we get the plates back, we can check.

Joseph Smith invested considerable effort in learning Egyptian. By the standards of today, he didn’t get very far, nor could he have. And yet this does not seem like wasted effort. It stands at the beginning of a Latter-day Saint intellectual tradition that respects secular learning and seeks to integrate it with revealed knowledge. We’re still working with papyrus today. The translation of the Book of Abraham is a great example of what to do when we’re in need of revelation: Study things out in our minds. Figure out as much as we can. Prepare our minds for revelation, and accept whatever comes after that as given by the grace of God. I don’t know if the Kirtland Egyptian Papers document Joseph Smith’s revelation process, as there are various opinions about that (speaking of acrimonious fields), but it would be awesome if they did.

So I’m not particularly worried whether the Book of Abraham meets someone else’s definition of what constitutes a real translation. The question is only whether it serves its stated purpose and meets the approval of its Commissioner. And on that point I’m entirely satisfied.

29 comments for “Notes on the Book of Abraham

  1. March 26, 2020 at 11:36 am

    I agree with you. Though I do think that it would help if in the Pearl of Great Price that either the images get dropped, or have the real interpretations next to what Joseph Smith taught what they were. I think it would help people start on the path of understanding that the papyri may have been more of a catalyst for revelation than a translation.

  2. March 26, 2020 at 12:03 pm

    Jonathan, great post. I especially love “The question is only whether it serves its stated purpose and meets the approval of its Commissioner. And on that point I’m entirely satisfied.”

    Has anyone here read Terryl Givens’ recent book on the Pearl of Great Price? I thought it was great, though reading some reviews, some people get irritated at Givens for using “naturalistic” terms like “Joseph’s prophetic imagination,” or for ascribing to the catalyst theory (which you allude to, jader3rd). It’s arguable whether GIvens emphasizes the human side of revelation too much, but it’s a possibly needed over-emphasis, because I think we assume all revelation is divinely dictated, which doesn’t seem to me helpful. I think it’s more like what you say, Jonathan: Joseph reached vertically AND horizontally, studying out of the best books, and God helped him. (That seems especially the case with the JST.)

    I’m divided as to whether the Book of Abraham is a JST-like creation of Joseph’s; a direct revelation of something by the actual Abraham; pseudepigrapha; or something in between these. Like you said, there’s a lot of debate there. But like you, I’m convinced it’s scripture, and that it’s “true” in the ways that count.

  3. Brandon
    March 26, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    “The question is only whether it serves its stated purpose and meets the approval of its Commissioner.”

    I have every reason to believe based on extensive research by Dan Vogel, Robert Ritner, and several other experts on Egyptology and early Mormon history (I haven’t personally engaged with primary source material, but few have especially as deeply as Vogel and others) that part of Joseph Smith’s stated purpose in “translating” the Book of Abraham was to keep up his image as a person with divine powers to translate supposed ancient religious texts and that he did indeed intend to convince people that he could actually convey the meaning of the ideas, words, and symbols recorded in pictures and writings on the ancient Egyptian papyri into English as a translation in the same sense that conveying “mi nombre es Juan” from Spanish as “my name is John” into English is a translation. Why else did Joseph Smith have facsimiles made and why else would his followers include the facsimiles in what became the Pearl of Great Price? Why else would Joseph Smith undertake the writing of Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar using Egyptian hieroglyphics in sequence from the papyri if not to convince people around him that he had divine translating powers and to awe them at his prophetic gift? Of course translate can have several meanings and it also can be argued to have several meanings in the context of the Book of Abraham, but clearly conveying actual meaning of ancient Egyptian words into English was one of these meanings, and an important one.

    As to what to do with the Book of Abraham, it has never received that much focus in popular Mormonism. The challenge is always to read the Book of Mormon and memorize scriptures from it. I’ve never heard someone say in a testimony meaning that they know that the Book of Abraham is the word of God and is true. It already has a sort of secondary status as is. Its doctrines are not featured prominently in manuals and general conference talks. It is not invoked too often. It is there, but not frequently. In fact, I never even sat down to read the Book of Abraham until after my mission. It was something I always ignored, and I imagine others did to. My point in saying this is that the church doesn’t really have to do or say anything regarding the Book of Abraham. It can just keep plodding along as is and the controversy over the Book of Abraham won’t have much more impact than it has already had.

  4. March 26, 2020 at 1:31 pm

    Hah, way to bring us down to earth, Brandon. I mean that sincerely, since I think your point is fair–and an unfortunate corollary to how little we pay attention to the Old Testament (which along with the entire Bible, should be studied SO MUCH MORE than it is, as far as I’m concerned).

    My only quibbles–both arguable–with your point about popular Mormonism: (1) for all we ignore the Book of Abraham as a people, Abraham 3:21-24 alone has had an outsized influence on how we imagine the Plan of Salvation. And (2), a dearth of proper contextualization for the Book of Abraham, which the OP and some recent books have provided, have given plenty of people rational reason to leave the church. (To be fair, I don’t know how much the BOA actually contributes to people leaving, but it seems to be A reason.)

    Perhaps Joseph did want to be seen as a real translator–BUT, perhaps he was also motivated by a real desire to learn from the best books and to get revelation, and God honored those real quests in a way Joseph didn’t quite, himself, understand (to your point, Brandon, since Joseph did seem to think it was very much a real translation). And perhaps, as the OP stated, the Book of Abraham can become–instead of a reason for people to leave–a reason for people to stay, since it does seem to model a real quest for people to leave. Perhaps that’s too many perhapses, but it represents a good hope for our church’s future, I think.

  5. March 26, 2020 at 3:08 pm

    Nope. Not here, not today. If making that comment is important to you, you’ll need to start your own blog.

  6. March 26, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    I have, off and on, spent months and maybe even years tracing the translated poems in a 1850s poetry anthology back to their sources. None of these poems are Mormon in any way — they are supposed to be classics of the original language.

    Its been an interesting project because of what it shows about the 19th-century view of translation. In every case I have the name of the original poet, the name of the translator, and the text of the poem in English. Only occasionally is there a title to the poem that has also been translated from the original language. But there are quite a few poems where it is basically impossible to identify the original poem — the text in English isn’t anything close to a direct or word-for-word translation.

    And, even when I have been able to identify the original, its often clear that the original was simply an inspiration for the translation. At best some of the concepts of the original are found in the translation.

    For me this shows that the term translation had a much wider use in Joseph Smith’s day than what we might understand today. [One day maybe I’ll post in more detail about this and give some examples]

  7. March 26, 2020 at 5:11 pm

    Professional literary translator here (FI-EN). I concur with all of Jonathan’s thoughts. The BoM and BoA might as well have flashing neon watermarks on every page that scream “You are reading a translation!”

    Brandon, I mentor beginning literary translators. They never have any clue what they’re doing at first, but they do it anyway. They’re full of enthusiasm, and they take translation Very Seriously. Everything you describe about JS just sounds par for the course to me. I can only imagine how a divine dimension to the endeavour of translation could juice that natural excitement and naiveté. And a publisher who doesn’t create buzz is a terrible publisher.

    Desperately looking forward to the release of the Urim and Thummim API for Trados 2020.

    Excuse me, I need to go get frisky with the original intent of a source text.

  8. Wondering
    March 26, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    Kent, It seems to me that at least as to opera libretti and poetry, including hymns and other texts intended to be sung, “translation” still — and not only in the 19th century — has a meaning in common use that is much broader than what many expect it to mean with respect to prose. E.g.,a “literal” translation (whatever one means by “literal”) is never singable. Of course, even if a poem is not intended to be sung, a “translator” often has to make choices that are not at all literal if some of the poetic aspects of the original are to be preserved or at least imitated.
    Owen, it doesn’t take professional qualifications as a translator to see that the BoM and BoA might as well have such watermarks on every page! It probably does take some familiarity with more than one’s mother tongue and with literature to see that. I wonder sometimes why more of our people don’t seem to see it.

  9. March 26, 2020 at 6:39 pm

    Sorry…I can’t help but share this. After my last comment I switched back to another window where I’m working on a sci-fi YA novel translation. I’m one of the very few literary translators who has adopted the full suite of technological solutions available to translators these days. Electronic dictionaries, translation memory, neural AI machine translation, real-time remote collaboration…for heck’s sake, all I’m missing is a big hat to block the glare on my screen coming from the window. All those complicated questions about the authorship of the BoM and BoA? Tight vs loose? Yeah, that’s my everyday life. The list of “miracles” required for Joseph’s story to be true is very short for me.

  10. SDS
    March 26, 2020 at 7:04 pm

    Translation is a fascinating process, and this post and the comments offer some interesting insights into that process. I have to say, though, that the observations of professional or semi-professional translators or theorists may not be authoritative or responsive with respect to some of the practical concerns of ordinary members or investigators in these matters. For them, often, the question is not whether what they receive is something that sophisticates might describe as a kind of “translation.” The question is whether they have received the kind of product that they thought and were led to believe they were receiving.

    Let’s suppose that there is one kind of process that might be commonly and perhaps crudely described as “literal” or “word-for-word” translation (granting that those may be less than precise descriptions even of this kind of process). And there’s some other process that might be described as more “free form” or “creative” translation or whatever. If I give you something and lead you to believe that it is the first kind of thing, and you later find out that it is more the second kind of thing, you may not be much comforted if I explain to you that what I gave you can still be described as a kind of “translation.” Or if you relied on and used what I gave you on the assumption that it was the first kind of thing, and your reliance and use might not have happened or might not have seemed warranted on other assumptions, then again you may feel aggrieved; and again your grievance won’t be assuaged by an explanation that although you didn’t receive what you thought you received, it was still a kind of “translation.”

    I suspect that concerns felt by some over these matters are more this kind of concern, not questions about what can and cannot plausibly be described as “translation.”

  11. Brandon
    March 26, 2020 at 7:41 pm

    Jonathan, you deleted my comment, which was respectful and reasoned. As far as I can tell, the reason you deleted my comment was because it entertained a probable reality that you simply cannot bring yourself to entertain. And therein lies the weakness of your argumentation. If you get easily offended at ideas you don’t like, then no serious discussions can be had. And consequently you, as well as apologists of the Book of Abraham, are eventually forced into a position of silence. Just like the gay marriage debate. It used to be that defenders of the church’s policy would write at length calling on us to fight against it and giving us long lists of reasons of why it was wrong. But literature defending gay marriage became so abundant, accessible, and scientifically-grounded that even though the church and many of its members have not changed its position on gay marriage, they have stopped writing at length on it. And such will be with the Book of Abraham (and has already arguably happened). To write about the topic using the traditional defense narrative is only to invite people expressing very strong counternarratives, which are very hard to fend off with counterarguments to that. The counternarrative literature is simply so abundant, accessible, and grounded in high-level research that it is hard to pontificate against. So the response is to shut down discussion and wall yourself of from ideas you don’t like, just like many believers do with gay marriage: “it is the way it is and I’m not explaining why” sort of attitude.

    Your deletion of my comment also buttresses a point I raised about apologists and bias in another post: which is that Mormon apologetic discourse on a select few topics related to central beliefs are more prone to bias and their discourse cannot be as trusted on Mormonism. The freedom to discuss Mormonism exists more on non-Mormon or ex-Mormon forums. In my experience, I’ve never seen any believer comment (provided it isn’t trolling) get deleted there. Quite the contrary, in fact. Mostly if a believer makes a comment, people want to discuss and flesh it out, and respectfully. Non-Mormons interested in Mormonism and ex-Mormons simply seem less prone to offense at belief than believing Mormons are over disbelief and reasoned criticism. So no, I’m not offended that you deleted my comment. It just makes you look a bit fragile, that’s all.

    Owen, I too am a translator. I don’t know how you’d make the case that Joseph Smith translated what we find on the facsimiles. Thus clearly say something completely different.

  12. Wondering
    March 26, 2020 at 7:56 pm

    Yes, SDS, I suspect the same, though with emphasis on what they thought more than on what they were led to believe. It might be fair to say of many that they were allowed to believe in a “literal” translation process more than they were led to believe. Often the messenger (missionary, teacher) is as ignorant of the breadth of the term “translate” as are those who assume some kind of “word-for-word” translation. (This is not to say, however, e.g., that paintings showing Joseph tracing lines of text on the gold plates themselves were not foreseeably misleading in the absence of explanation.) But Church publications have used the word “translate” or an abbreviation of it in ways that do not take much thought to realize that they cannot mean anything like a “word-for-word” translation. E.g. Hymns 1985 No. 62 (“trans. by William H. Draper”) and No. 204 (“trans. by John F. Young”) and No 70 (“trans. by Frances Elizabeth Cox”). Meter and rhyme in the latter at least are clear indication that this cannot be a “word-for-word” translation.
    This usage is by no means unique to our Church, but shows up in enough contemporary hymnals, libretti, popular press, etc. (e.g., “The megamusical Les Misérables opens on Broadway March 23 for the … being produced in 42 countries and translated into 21 languages.”) that it does not take “professional or semi-professional translators or theorists” to figure out that the word does not necessarily imply any version of “literal.” And yet that is a very common assumption. More could be done to avoid the assumption in our teaching, but I would hesitate to suggest that responsibility for what may be miscommunication about “translation” lies wholly on one side.

  13. p
    March 26, 2020 at 8:56 pm

    Hear hear, Brandon. Well said and much appreciated.

  14. March 27, 2020 at 12:48 am

    Brandon, I cannot speak for Jonathan. But I saw the comment you made that Jonathen deleted, and it accused Joseph Smith of being an adulterer and a con-man, and that anyone versed in the BOA evidence who didn’t think Joseph was conning people were ill-informed. Yeah, let’s talk about what Joseph thought translation meant–I’m actually really curious! And sure, talk about pressures he was under to maintain the appearance of prophetic authority. But back that up with some quotes instead of sweeping, aggressive generalizations. And don’t make me feel like an idiot for believing that Joseph wasn’t either of the things you suggested.

    (Jonathan, sorry if that’s strong and/or a threadjack; feel free to delete this.)

  15. March 27, 2020 at 12:49 am

    Okay, it seems to me that Jonathan, you’re saying that translation can be a lot more nuanced than a 1-to-1, word-for-word translation (which is what most of us think about when we hear the word translation), but that translations can be more creative and involved than that. SDS, you’re saying sure, but what about when people are led to expect that simpler kind of translation of thing? And Wondering, you say it’s less about what people are led to expect than what they assume, suggesting the responsibility for the miscommunication lies on both sides.

    If I’m following this thread right, then here’s what I’m wondering:

    1. What did Joseph think this “translation” project was, and what did he lead others to believe it was?
    2. Even if Joseph understood his project to be a simple matter of translating the glyphs 1-to-1, did Joseph have to understand the nature of how God was working with him, for the result (the BOA) to be valid? More generally, can a prophet miscategorize and/or misunderstand the nature of how God worked with them in particular cases? And does that mean anything for the validity of the scripture produced?
    3. Regardless of the answers to the first two questions, did Joseph ever intend the Book of Abraham to be canonized as scripture? And consequently, does this question of translation mean way more to us today than it did to Saints at the time?

  16. rickpowers
    March 27, 2020 at 12:51 am

    If you came to my house and picked up something off of a shelf and asked “is this a peanut?” And I said “yes, that is a peanut” when, in fact, it is a rock that looks like a peanut, you will probably break a tooth when you bite down on it. Point being: actual truth is important. We all learned that when we were very young. Others will now refute this as being simplistic and naive in relation to the Book of Abraham. Fine. But Joseph said the papyrus was one thing, and it wasn’t. and I bit down hard on it.

  17. Wondering
    March 27, 2020 at 6:34 am

    Bryan, Those questions seem worth thinking about except only that I have no idea what you mean by “valid” and “validity” in connection with the BoA and scripture respectively. (“Valid” is a word thrown around a lot in legal opinions without any specific, clear meaning there either, so my confusion is not unique to your comment.) But for those words, my responses as to Joseph’s intentions would be “I don’t know.” As to whether “a prophet [can] miscategorize and/or misunderstand the nature of how God worked with them in particular cases?” I’d say, not only by reading some prophets’ overblown rhetoric or mistaken statements, but also be reading scriptures about prophets and by extension from my own experience with how God has worked with me, “of course.”
    rickpowers, Good point. Of course, it stops short of the question whether Joseph knew the papyrus wasn’t what he said it was and of the question whether the BoA has some value as scripture even if Joseph was wrong about the papyrus.

    I have wondered when Mormons [here a broad cultural term that goes beyond the Church] complain of (deride? accuse? point out that?– not sure what the right word is) those who profess to take the Bible as the inerrant word of God as in error, or even foolish, whether they do not make the same mistake with scriptures other than the Bible and with the words of those humans they sustain patriarchs or as “prophets, seers and revelators.” I wonder if learning to take responsibility for our own beliefs and revelation (a different thing from participating in united efforts to build Zion) might be more appropriate than expecting consistent superhuman knowledge and power on the part of others.

  18. p
    March 27, 2020 at 9:04 am

    I wonder how many hundreds of these discussions I’ve read over the years. Why the word “translation” is still used in any sense to describe BoA’s relationship w/ the papyri is dumbfounding – the very definition of wishful thinking. Time to accept this, I think, as we finally seem to have accepted continental American prehistory, N&S, without a Semitic presence. This leaves us with two books of scripture w/ zero factual basis – exactly like all scripture on this planet. Scripture is aspirational, not actual.

  19. Raskolnikov's Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 10:09 am

    I guess I just don’t follow the OP. The examples of translation and translator’s craft just don’t seem to apply to the actual production of the book of Abraham. I have translated a number of texts and have degrees in comparative literature and a foreign language so have spent many years studying the transmission of texts across languages and cultures. We can say we need to redefine the word “translate” to expand it in thousands of different ways, but I think it is better just to say it doesn’t work here, despite what Joseph Smith said and what has been claimed.

    It seems to me that the analogy to the Book of Abraham is if I gave Mr. Jonathan Green an ancient papyrus scroll, he had absolutely no knowledge of the language of the scroll and couldn’t read it, but he had some general ideas about the culture that may have produced it, and then decided to write an expansive religious midrash based on his own imagination having absolutely nothing to do with the text. Trying to say that this is translation just doesn’t seem to work for me. There is no transmission of the original text.

    If you want to argue that this is what God wanted as the produced text, that is a separate argument. It is wholly speculative, but I think it fails to try to shoehorn into a author/translation/translator context. I think the value of the text as a spiritual document is also a separate conversation – one well worth having. But again, I think it needs to be divorced from the idea that the text is somehow sacred or scriptural because it is the translation of ancient prophetic writings – it simply isn’t (see Brian Hauglid’s comments after his work on the relevant Joseph Smith Paper’s volume).

    So, am I missing something?

  20. Not Fenimore
    March 27, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    I’m with Raskolnikov. Calling Rent a translation of La Bohéme, both from the French and from the 19th C, is one thing. Calling it a translation of Orpheus et Eurydice (they’re both about the intersection between art and death!) is quite another.

  21. March 27, 2020 at 4:15 pm

    Raskolnikov’s Successor, I suspect you are in fact missing something, because my own academic work involving languages also didn’t prepare me for it. In academic translation, we care about the original text quite a lot. We want to know exactly what the words say. A lot of translation situations are in fact like that, but not as universally as we’d think.

    A while back I had a conversation with a client that went more or less like this:

    Client: What does that bit of dialog in this scene say?
    Me: They’re saying X, Y, and Z.
    Client: That’s stupid.
    Me: That’s literally what it says. If you understand all the references to sports, politics, and gardening, it all makes sense.
    Client: That’s stupid. Change it.

    In some areas of translation, this would be absolutely wrong. In other areas, it would be absolutely essential. So because I accept the Book of Abraham as revealed scripture, and Joseph Smith understood his work as involving translation, then I need to modify my concept of translation in that context. Now that I’ve seen that real-world translation is a more expansive concept than I had thought, I understand that modifying how I think of translation when it comes to the Book of Abraham doesn’t require a huge mental leap. It’s an extreme case to be sure, but it accords with certain aspects of the work I’m paid for.

    If you’d prefer to call it something else, I have no objection. I care about the Book of Abraham as revelation and scripture. I’m not tied to the word “translation.” Feel free to use another term if you prefer. But you should in turn be willing to meet Joseph Smith halfway and try to understand his usage and be patient with others who also use it.

    Think of the movie Arrival. To communicate with aliens, the main character had to completely upend how her brain conceived of time and space. If someone walked out of the theater and said, “That’s not translation! Translation gives you the words of the original text. I want my money back,” you’d think they had completely missed the point. When it comes to translation of ancient scripture through prophetic revelation, I think it’s okay to apply a concept of translation that’s at least as expansive as a Hollywood movie’s account of talking to aliens.

  22. Raskolnikov's Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 4:45 pm

    Jonathan Green, I do try to have patience with people who do use the word “translation.” I feel there is a great amount of cultural weight hanging on that and there are feelings of threat if that is asked to be abandoned. I certainly don’t agree that translation works and the more common refrain that we need to expand what translation means seems to be asking to wholly change the meaning of the word. That isn’t really how language works in a communal way.

    However, I don’t have too much patience when someone tries to suggest by analogy that the Book of Abraham translation worked in a way that modern translations work, whether that is a word for word translation, a translation that is less literal, or even a translation adopted to a different context. With the Book of Abraham, what you have is a new text that has absolutely, again, absolutely, no relationship with the underlying text. If I give you a recipe for spaghetti and your translation produces Crime and Punishment, you in now way translated it. Irrespective of the beauty, spirituality and impressiveness of Crime and Punishment, it simply isn’t a translation. It is something else. And I don’t have to meet you half way because you want to claim that it is a “translation” for whatever purposes, good, evil or indifferent, you may have to claim to that word.

    And you are the one making the argument that the word “translation” works. I am just pointing at areas where I feel that it doesn’t. Feel free to defend you assertion. Saying, you can use that word and I’ll use another isn’t a defense or even a reasonable response – if it was, we would all just call things whatever we want and can ascribe meanings to words that suit us individually. As a translator, you know that is not how words work.

  23. March 27, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    @Brandon wrote “Owen, I too am a translator. I don’t know how you’d make the case that Joseph Smith translated what we find on the facsimiles. Thus clearly say something completely different.”

    So do my translations of nearly every song lyric I’ve ever encountered in any novel I’ve ever worked on. Sometimes we also change illustrations. If instead of being a random dude slinging words for money I was a prophet hell-bent on bringing his people to God? Boy howdy, then the gloves would really come off.

  24. Owen Witesman
    March 27, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    @Raskolnikov’s Successor, I would hail the spaghetti recipe translator as a genius. Imagine him doing it live! Translation as contemporary performance art? Sign me the heck up. Forgive my flippancy, but we’re talking about a dude who claims that God gave him some rocks in the 1820s that helped him translate the writings of ancient Israelites in the Americas. None of this is going to fit into any normal paradigm.

  25. Raskolnikov’s Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 6:54 pm

    Owen, sure, hail him as a genius. That isn’t the issue. Just don’t call him a translator of the Book of Abraham, which is what the argument is. There is no Book of Abraham outside of what Joseph wrote (caveat that Abraham may have written something, but I promise you it sure isn’t what is in Joseph’s book).

  26. March 27, 2020 at 9:41 pm

    Raskolnikov’s Successor, you say that the Book of Abraham has “absolutely no relationship with the underlying text.”

    The weird thing is that’s not actually correct. The Egyptian funerary papyri served a purpose, as I noted in my post: to provide the deceased with information for safe passage into the afterlife. And in an odd turn of events, the Book of Abraham, with its treatment of Creation and pre-Earth life, is tied to how we do much the same thing. The relationship is indirect, but it’s real enough that I think the word translation is justified. What Joseph Smith was up to wasn’t just creative invention according to his own whims. There’s enough similarity of purpose to give us pause.

    So that leaves us with a question. If you put Egyptian funerary literature into Joseph Smith’s hands, and the goal is to make a contribution to the Restoration, what’s the best way to translate it into English? Are we sure that the Book of Abraham isn’t it?

  27. Wondering
    March 27, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    Jonathan, Would you say the similarity of purpose depends upon taking BY (and others) literally when they said or quoted?:

    President Brigham Young (1801–77) said of the endowment: “Let me give you a definition in brief. Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the house of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the holy Priesthood, and gain your eternal exaltation in spite of earth and hell.”*
    * Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1941), 416.
    Quoted by President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles;
    Adapted from The Holy Temple (1980).

    Some committed Latter-day Saints have thought that language more symbolic of the importance of implementing those key words in one’s life than literal as to sentinels charged with keeping the pure in heart — those who have become “new creatures” through the atonement of Christ — out of the Father’s presence if they can’t provide secret passwords and gestures. If that were the case, does it do anything to the similarity of purpose you perceive?

  28. Raskolnikov’s Successor
    March 27, 2020 at 10:26 pm


    I guess if you feel a riff on KJV Genesis story and a pre-mortal life midrash is similar in purpose to Egyptian funerary texts, then you can apply translation to almost anything. I think it makes the world meaningless.

    On a personal note, for me these types or arguments — trying to cling to words arising from traditions but now stripped of any real meaning or stretched beyond reason – created more dissonance and frustration with apologetics.

    Other than to try to defend a claim that Joseph made, what is the purpose of clinging to the word “translation.” Authority? Legitimacy? What happens if it isn’t a translation?

  29. Todd
    March 28, 2020 at 2:39 am

    Back when I would process humanitarian shipments and attempt to avoid “value added taxes”, I would receive many documents written in Spanish. Though unfamiliar to Americans, most of the world ingratiate themselves to whom the are writing. I tried several different approaches to translating these documents, and found one that I thought best.

    I would directly translate everything. Then, I would put away the original and, using my literal translation, create a work that, in my own words, expressed everything that had been expressed in the original, except for the ingratiating language that Americans hate, because it is seen as deception.

    So, some would say I did a lousy translation job. I think I did a very good job. You see, I took a document written in a foreign language, with foreign linguistic customs, and made it legible to an American. (A side note: I kept telling my superiors to ingratiate themselves when writing to these foreign people. They never did, and they never got answers back, while I did.)

    How does this pertain to the The Book of Abraham? I have been reading Temple and Cosmos by Nibley. Based on what I have been reading, I would like to offer a theory. Let’s assume that Abraham taught pharaoh what he could from his vision/s. Let us further assume that pharaoh wanted this information in the next life, so it was placed in his tomb. Is It possible that the Book of the Dead, was and is a very corrupt version of the Book of Abraham? I think a good translator writes what is meant, not what is written. I believe Joseph was a good translator.

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