The Metaphysics of Translation

Understanding the nature of Joseph Smith’s translation efforts is an important part of understanding his ministry and the religions that have emerged from the early Latter Day Saint movement.  Whether the Book of Mormon, the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, the Book of Abraham, or (as some might argue) the temple endowment ceremony, his translations are both very important and very controversial.  Kurt Manwaring has begun a month-long series of 10-questions interviews with people who are researching and writing about those translations, beginning with Sam Brown, who recently published Joseph Smith’s Translation: The Words and Worlds of Early Mormonism with Oxford University Press.  What follows here is a co-post to the 10 questions interview with Sam Brown, summarizing some key points and adding some commentary.  For those who want to read the full interview (and I suggest you do—it’s very interesting), follow the link here.  Note that this is not a review of his book (something that may come later for this blog), but a discussion based on the interview with Kurt Manwaring.

Sam Brown should be familiar to much of our readership at the Times and Seasons.  He’s a believing member of the Church who is a physician-scientist by profession and a scholar of Mormonism by avocation.  He has published several books, essays, and journal articles in the Mormon studies field, including In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death and First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple.  He is also an occasional blogger who, for example, shared some of his experiences as a medical professional in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis on the Times and Seasons blog earlier this year.[1]  His latest book, Joseph Smith’s Translation, works to provide a new framework for understanding Mormon scripture, theology, and temple liturgy using a more metaphysical approach than has been traditionally used.

Now, Sam Brown’s style of writing is very rich and very deep.  I’ve appreciated what I’ve read of his writing before—it’s very thoughtful, well-researched and thought-provoking.  I’ll be honest, though, I still don’t quite understand what he is saying that Joseph Smith’s translation is or what translation exactly means in the context of Brown’s writing, at least when it comes to the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.  He states in the interview that:

One view of translation has Smith as little more than a Babel fish or Google Translate pointed at an ancient text. In flows a string of words in one language, out flows objectively matching words in another language. If Smith meets those criteria for translation, he’s acclaimed as a miracle worker, quite independent of divine participation in the process and without understanding the meaning of the texts themselves. And if he doesn’t look like a Babel fish, then he’s decried as a fraud and the religious movement he led a hoax or delusion.

At the end of long pondering, I don’t think the Babel fish model is factually true, even as an observer who is also a believer.

For reference, Babel fish is the Yahoo version of Google Translate, with the name being based on a creature in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that can act as a universal linguistic translator.  So, he seems to be indicating that he believes that Joseph Smith wasn’t providing a translation in the sense of directly rendering an ancient text into modern English.  Yet, he also insists that:

I’ll be clear that I’m not arguing that Joseph Smith didn’t translate or that he was just a storyteller or that his hoax became religious truth because he persuaded a community to believe him. I’m not suggesting that the Book of Mormon was made up. I don’t believe that we should put scare quotes (or air quotes) around the word translation when we talk about Joseph Smith’s scriptures.

I’m quite persuaded that he was translating and that translating is much more interesting and powerful than we’ve given it credit for. …

And (speaking now as a believer), I’m convinced that the Book of Mormon is really and truly scripture, Sariah and Lehi are real, Abraham is real. And that reality occurs within and matters because of contexts that are both earthly and heavenly.

The two points seem contradictory to me, at least in understanding the Book of Mormon or Book of Abraham translation process, but there is likely something deeper than what I’m grasping in what Sam Brown has shared here.  As he states later in the interview: “I think we have this tendency now to want things to only be what they seem to be at a superficial, physical level. It’s part of these modernist sensibilities that I write about in the book.”

Now, Sam Brown does explain that he sees translation as “both the movement of experiences and stories from one language group to another and also the transformation of human into divine beings.”  This plays out in interesting ways in how he sees the transformative impact of the Book of Mormon on how Latter-day Saints understand the Bible (or, to put it another way, the Book of Mormon translated the Bible).  He explains that Joseph Smith “always honored the Bible and was pursuing the anciently pure Bible. He had little faith that the Protestants had anything like that pure Bible, so he was marking out the fact of their loss. It would take ongoing prophetic revelation to keep the Bible both alive and true.”  The Protestants, with “all their sola scriptura and attachment to a static canon” had distorted the Bible, and the Book of Mormon ruptured that worldview as it “burned the Protestant biblical system to the ground in order to restore a primordially pure Bible.”  In fact, Brown discusses the idea of seeing “Laban and Nephi as types for the Protestant clergy and Joseph Smith respectively,” where Laban is “a type for the Protestants who had themselves become unfit curators for the Bible” and, “in a sense the Book of Mormon is Nephi, beheading Protestantism as Laban.”  In this sense, translation seems to be more focused on how transformative the Book of Mormon was in changing the lens through which the Bible is read by Latter-day Saints.

The temple rites also provide another context to see a form of translation take place.  Sam Brown explains that “I was interested in the fact that one word—translation—meant both (a) movement of stories, experiences, and teachings from one language to another and (b) the transformation of human beings to allow them to tolerate the presence of God.”  For the latter meaning, think of the word translated in the sense of how we refer people of Enoch or the three Nephites as translated beings.  This led to an interesting idea for Brown:

As I was working on the chapter on the Book of Abraham, it became clear to me that the Book of Abraham was above all a temple text. Which opened up for me the image of temple as scripture, but not just scripture.

It was a scripture into which worshipers were themselves written as they brought to life the ancient encounters with God.

It just clicked.

Joseph Smith’s translated scriptures were the basis for the temple, … and in the temple Church members were themselves translated into the divine presence.

It’s a fascinating way of viewing the endowment ceremony—as both scripture and an experience where Latter-day Saints experience their own translation.

Ultimately, Sam Brown wants to take a broader, more complex and metaphysical view of both Joseph Smith’s translations and the Restoration than a modern, reductionist view.  Reductionism is the concept that “the best way to understand something is to break it into individual parts and test those parts in isolation.”  It’s a useful approach for technology, but “it can only ever give partial answers to complicated questions.”  When approaching extremely complex systems, like biology or human life (or, in this case, religion), it has become increasingly apparent that reductionism alone is not enough to understand them and a more comprehensive approach is needed.  As Brown explains:

In my realms of science, we’re moving away from pure reductionism toward “systems” approaches that situate individual entities within the networks where they actually exist. To put it simply, you can learn a lot about an isolated pinecone in a lab, but if you’ve never even heard of a forest, your knowledge of the cone can only go so far. The same is true of Smith’s translations if you rip them out of the actual world they inhabited.

Perhaps the level of complexity at play in this subject is why it is difficult to grasp what exactly Joseph Smith did while he was at work in his Restoration project and (in particular) his translations, especially when we look at them through the prism of our modern worldview.

It’s a very deep and rich interview with a lot to chew on, as is the book they are discussing.  I feel like I have barely scratched the surface in this post.  For a more detailed discussion of what I’ve brought up here, some interesting thoughts on how the Book of Abraham interweaves the Chain of Being and Chain of Belonging, a little bit on the relationship between the endowment ceremony and freemasonry, and more, visit the 10 questions interview with Sam Brown here.



[1] See “When the ox can’t escape the mire,” 5 April 2020; and “Sacraments in the Time of Cholera,” 10 May 2020.

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