The Church Has Already Written a Modern English Version of the Book of Mormon

March 7, 2005 | 50 comments
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The first installment of Phillip Barlow’s excellent 12 Questions raises the interesting question of whether the Church will ever produce a modern language edition of the Book of Mormon in English. The answer is that it already has.

Most people are aware that the Church has been involved in a massive translation effort to produce the Restoration scriptures in other languages. One of the problems that these translators face is determining the precise meaning of the often archaic (and ungrammatical) language of the Book of Mormon. Issues that can be left rather vague in English require concrete solutions in order to be rendered in languages that have very different grammars. The Church has responded to this problem — so I am told — by producing a translators’ edition of the Book of Mormon that renders the text in clear English so that different translators do not willy-nilly resolve textual ambiguities.

I have only heard of a translator’s edition of the Book of Mormon, but I would assume that such “plain English” editions of the scriptures would be necessary for the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, so they may exist as well. As it now stands, my understanding is that these texts are carefully controlled so that they exist purely as an in-house document for translation. I have heard that each copy is numbered and accounted for, much like the printed text of temple ordinances.

The interesting question becomes whether or not these editions will ever be published and whether any other English version of the Bible will replace the KJV. My prediction, which is worth less than you are paying for it, is no. I don’t think that the Church will ever jettison the KJV. Nor do I think that they should. If, as Professor Barlow suggests, it creates a false impression about Biblical language and contains many needlessly obscure passages, it is also true that it has deeply penetrated the scriptures of the Restoration, and I think that the inter-texuality of the scriptures would be lost if we were to adopt another translation, even if it was accompanied by some effort to produce inter-textually accurate modern language editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Mormon, and Pearl of Great Price. To a large extent, this inter-textuality has already been lost to some extent for those Latter-day Saints who read the scriptures on non-English languages, but I don’t think that the Church will want to compromise the availability or the authority of the original complex of texts.

I think that a better solution that picking a modern translation of the Bible to replace the KJV as the “official” version would be a softening of the whole idea of an “official” edition of the Bible and a greater tolerance for a certain amount of textual complexity. I can imagine a world in which the KJV functions as a kind of urtext for the Restoration scriptures with which one must be familiar, but is not treated as the One True Translation. Rather, for understanding the Bible, one might adopt multiple translations in an attempt to triangulate one’s understanding. To a certain extent, this is already happening. (I use both the KJV and the New English version for my own study of the Bible, as well as the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which is not keyed to any paricular English translation.) In particular, as multi-lingualism becomes the dominant issue in the Church’s approach to scriptural texts, I suspect that the issue of the “official” English translation will recede in importance, although cutting against this is the continuing prominence of the 1979 edition of the Bible, which doesn’t seem to be receding at all.

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50 Responses to The Church Has Already Written a Modern English Version of the Book of Mormon

  1. Ben S. on March 7, 2005 at 9:05 am

    Why not print a dual translation? Not an interlinear, but there are Bibles that have, say, the NIV on the left page and the NRSV (or Greek ) on the right. The church could print an NRSV/KJV version. Anyone worried about the size of such a thing could just omit the Old Testament, since few read it anyway :)

  2. Steve L on March 7, 2005 at 9:30 am

    Interesting post, Nate. I’m curious as to how you found out about the “translator’s” edition. What else do you know about it? Who made it and when?

    I disagree on the KJV issue. I think the increasing distance LDS feel to the Bible is due in small part to the inability of the average person to read and understand the KJV on a basic level. This problem will only get worse over time and eventually the church will have to do something. The question becomes whether it’s more important for members to appreciate the subtleties of intertextuality or to actually read their scriptures.

  3. Arturo Toscanini on March 7, 2005 at 9:52 am

    How long until one of these modern language versions shows up on ebay?

  4. Brian on March 7, 2005 at 10:06 am

    How long until one of these modern language versions shows up on ebay?

    Well, there is a certain law firm in SLC- Kirton & McConkie, which will make sure that never happens.

  5. Arturo Toscanini on March 7, 2005 at 10:16 am

    How would that work, Brian? Maybe one of the many lawyers here could comment on it. Would the LDS church classify it as a trade secret? Would the church have to prove that it was stolen?

  6. Russell Arben Fox on March 7, 2005 at 10:26 am

    Nate,

    “To a large extent, this inter-textuality has already been lost to some extent for those Latter-day Saints who read the scriptures on non-English languages, but I don’t think that the Church will want to compromise the availability or the authority of the original complex of texts.”

    “[A]s multi-lingualism becomes the dominant issue in the Church’s approach to scriptural texts, I suspect that the issue of the “official” English translation will recede in importance…”

    Obviously, this is all guesswork. But your two statements highlight a tension, I think. On the one hand, there is the unique, linguistically revealed status of the BoM; for the church to loosen, or even lose, a reliable and authoritative access to the language world of Joseph Smith’s work of producing the BoM in its teaching and preaching would arguably threaten the power this, as you put it, “original complex of texts” has in building testimonies and conveying doctrine. On the other hand, there is the fact that this original complex is already available only second-hand to millions of Mormons, that is assuming that slice of the church population is even aware of or cares about such issues, which is doubtful. If multilingualism eventually comes to characterize the church leadership as a whole, wouldn’t that mean the “original complex” of texts would be of merely antiquarian importance, thereby undermining (or at least making marginal) that authoritative access which the English KJV presumably provides? Yet if we want to make the authoritative access truly manifest in the church leadership and manuals, then that means that the church will have to, in some sense at least, prevent multilingualism from becoming “the dominant issue.”

    The Catholic answer, of course, was to perpetuate a Latin-language elite priesthood, who could carry the Word to any people on earth. The Muslim answer was to make mosques also centers of Arabic instruction, so that all could read God’s words as He actually spoke them to Mohammed. We’re a long ways away from having to come up with an answer ourselves, but I suppose we will have to, eventually. (Unless, of course, one consequence of globalization is to remake the whole world into an English language playground, a homogenizing project that all American institutions would benefit from enormously. To the extent that we are also, as I suggested here, an American institution, then maybe globalization is a part of God’s transcultural plans.)

  7. Jack on March 7, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Steve L.,

    For some of us who were brought up with little to no formal education, the KJV of the Bible is a primary well spring of education in literature. For me, the KJV is the only reason that I understand Shakespeare to the small degree that I do. My fear is that what we’ll see is a dumbing down of the scriptures much like what we’ve seen with music in the church. I can understand the desire to make things more accessible so that more may participate, but it’ll be a said day if we cross the final threshold of dumbing down (speaking of music) and publish a version of the primary songs that are arranged for right hand only–or even melody only for that matter.

  8. Mark B. on March 7, 2005 at 10:42 am

    It always amused me as a missionary to read the 8th Article of Faith in Japanese, which stated then that “We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly. We also believe the Book of Mormon (English version) to be the word of God.” It seemed that the Japanese version of the Book of Mormon didn’t even get an endorsement as far as it was translated correctly.

    Of course, that old translation has been replaced with a modern Japanese translation. Gone is the mystery of the old language, but it appears to have been replaced with enhanced understanding. (Has the parenthetical “eibun” been removed from the 8th Article of Faith?) Perhaps most jarring, however, is to hear the sacrament prayers in Japanese, spoken now in a language that a missionary with 6 months experience with the language might have come up with if given the English text and a dictionary.

  9. Kevin Barney on March 7, 2005 at 10:55 am

    The Church is very sensitive about its English scriptures. Consider the angst that arose from Lynn Anderson’s Easy to Read BoM. It was a noble effort intended for a good cause, to make an Engl. BoM accessible to those with learning disabilities or who otherwise cannot manage the standard text. But you would have thought that she were publishing the temple endowment for the negative reaction her effort (which I thought was pretty good) received.

  10. Justin W. on March 7, 2005 at 11:57 am

    I think that leaving the BoM alone (the English version that is) is probably a good idea. Since I can’t read any foreign languages I don’t suppose I’m qualified to contribute anything in this area. The Bible seems to me to be a completely different kettle of fish altogether. I don’t think we should ever drop the KJV altogether since, as has been said, our history and scriptures are too closely tied to it’s translation. Having said that, the earliest brethren, Joseph Smith included especially, did not like the translation. Famously Joseph said that the German was much better than his english version. The church took a dramatic turn towards the KJV in the early 20th century in resoponse to “godless” modern versions of the bible like the RSV and others. Should we really be so overly attatched to the KJV? I don’t think we should.

    For the Book of Mormon I’d like to see some more of those explanitory footnotes about some of the archaic words. Footnotes are where such helps belong. I would love to see a dual edition like Steve L. mentioned but I think it should be an LDS translation. All the modern english translations have their translators biases enclosed, ours would too. And if the bias bugs you that much you can read 18 versions of the bible until you find what you want to find or you can go learn the Greek and Hebrew.

  11. Steve L on March 7, 2005 at 11:59 am

    Mark and Russell, you both make excellent observations. I guess the whole Islamic thing in which the language and the message are inseperable has kind of become a norm in Mormon culture, even though most Mormons wouldn’t say the language of the BoM is pure and perfect, direct from God’s mouth to the page. Doesn’t the President of the church have the keys of translation, and if God wills it, couldn’t he (the President) supervise the translation/modernization of scripture at any time?

  12. John Jacob on March 7, 2005 at 1:50 pm

    Part of the “official” attachment to the KJV must stem at least in part from the fact that Joseph Smith used good chunks of it in th e BOM, with very little alteration. That lends the KJV a holy imprimatur, at least in the minds of many.
    I have often wondered if our attachment to the archaic “thees” and “thous” in our prayers does not also stem from this connection, which would suggest an even more deep-seated attachment to the KJV, one not likely to change in our generation or the next.
    In terms of the language issues discussed above, the language of prayer is even more interesting. I do translations for stake conferences into Spanish all the time. Occasionally we get the “language” of prayer talk. How does one translate this in Spanish, where we converse with the Lord “as one man speaketh to another”? In fact in Spanish, we use the familiar “tu”. I would use the more formal “usted” in conversing with the Stake Pres (if I were to talk to him in Spanish), but I pray to the almighty with the familier “tu” (as does everyone else in the world who speaks Spanish and prays).

  13. Ben Huff on March 7, 2005 at 1:57 pm

    Seems to me it is completely appropriate to let “easy-reading” versions of the Book of Mormon similarly be something for independent organizations to do. How could the church ever claim to have reworded the Book of Mormon in an authoritative way? Revise Joseph Smith’s work? Yet how could they endorse widespread use of a reworded version, printed by them, while insisting that the old version is actually the official one? This problem doesn’t arise with non-English versions, for obvious reasons.

    The “thee”s and “thou”s are the easiest thing to understand, anyway. For those scattered words whose modern meanings have drifted from what they meant in JS’s time, why not take the same approach as is already used in the LDS edition of the KJV Bible: use footnotes with a modern equivalent. The Bible edition hides behind the fact that the KJV is itself a translation from Hebrew or Greek, of course, but a footnote giving excerpts from the 1830 edition of Webster’s for unusual words would seem pretty harmless, and also be quite overtly nothing more or less than a scholarly effort.

    As for the atmospheric impact of the “thee”s and “thou”s and such, I guess I figure the scriptures are already such a different kind of writing from the modern magazine that it may be a good thing to keep the difference “in your face”. To approach the Book of Mormon as though it were a magazine article would be to just completely misunderstand. It was scratched by hand on hand-beaten metal plates, for crying out loud.

  14. Pris on March 7, 2005 at 2:47 pm

    John Jacob: I member reading this by Elder Packer, which included one paragraph on the use of ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in prayer: “There is something else: We are drifting from the use of reverential words in our prayers. Familiar terms such as you and yours are replacing thee and thine in prayer. Teach the children and gently inform new members that we use reverential terms when addressing our Heavenly Father in prayer.” It’s interesting that it’s different in Spanish. Perhaps the non-US church foreshadows the future?

  15. Nate Oman on March 7, 2005 at 3:00 pm

    Thee and Thou, gramatically, ARE the familar forms in English. It is by some strange mistake of grammar and history that Mormons regard them as honorifics. For example, Shakespeare uses the thee and thou forms in love poems not as an honorific but because they imply itimacy. (The same is true of the use of thee and thou for insults.)

  16. Julie in Austin on March 7, 2005 at 3:02 pm

    The obvious solution is to require seminary students to learn Greek and Hebrew ;)

    Maybe a half-way solution would be to modernize the pronouns and archaic verbs (“didst”) but leave the rest of the text alone, with the footnotes explaining unusual nouns (“pence”).

  17. Bryce I on March 7, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Mark B.–

    Agreed on the new Japanese sacrament prayers, although if you think a 6-month missionary could produce it, you haven’t been around the Japanese-learning American missionaries in a while.

    It took me a while to figure out why the Japanese members had such a difficult time with the old Book of Mormon language. After all, I had only studied the language for a couple of years and could understand it just fine. Then I realized that I pretty much knew the content of what I was reading before I read it in Japanese, so I had a huge advantage over the native Japanese speakers.

    Then again, I don’t find the language of the Book of Mormon and the KJV to be all that difficult either, which is not to say that I understand it perfectly, but it’s not foreign-sounding either. I suppose this is due to lifelong exposure.

  18. Ben Huff on March 7, 2005 at 3:10 pm

    Julie, I nominate you to edit the Modern English Reader’s edition of the Book of Mormon. I have a couple other ideas for how to do it well : )

    Oh, I just looked at this reader’s edition and it gets the paragraphing/versification part right I think. That was all I had to contribute : )

  19. A. Greenwood on March 7, 2005 at 3:25 pm

    The Muslim and the Catholic way of dealing with old texts doesn’t seem quite right for us. Neither does the Protestant higgledy-piggledy approach.

    Modernizing the scriptures would make more sense if there were a widely accepted version of the Bible that we could conform them too. There isn’t.

    The answer may be new revelations and new scripture written neither in the modern tongue exactly nor exactly in the archaism of the KJV and the halfway house archaism of the Book of Mormon.

  20. Peter Wiscombe on March 7, 2005 at 3:35 pm

    German has the same honorific/familiar issue that Spanish has. In German, the formal form of “You” is Sie. The familiar form is “du”. – Yet when we would teach people to pray, we would always instruct them to use the “du” as a sign of the relationship with their Heavenly Father.

    I guess it pretty much comes down to recognizing that a prayer is a sacred experience, and that the form can change depending on what is sacred in a particular culture.

  21. Nate Oman on March 7, 2005 at 3:38 pm

    In Korean members almost always pray in a hyper-honorific form. I can’t imagine a person praying in pan-mal. In wonder if this is generally the case in Asian languages. If so we have a strange divine: intimate prayer forms in Indo-European languages and honorific prayer forms in Asian (or perhaps just agglutanitive) languages.

  22. Kevin Barney on March 7, 2005 at 3:39 pm

    Ben, I highly recommend Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition. You can find my review, published in FARMS Review, at the FARMS website. He uses the 1920 edition text, but otherwise he makes the text about as readable as it is possible to do without monkeying with the text itself.

  23. Ben S. on March 7, 2005 at 3:55 pm

    I just put up a post on Prayer and Pronouns at Millennial Star

  24. John T. on March 7, 2005 at 4:25 pm

    I doubt the Church would ever find it in their interest to create a modern English translation. The Meme is much stronger if the allegories an analogies are kept inaccessible. One can meditate on the meaning and personalize it in the most convincing and powerful way possible. This also interjects elitism and rigor in mastering the Scriptures, something that will ensure Apostles are selected from educated English speakers.

  25. Jason on March 7, 2005 at 4:47 pm

    Really interesting, John T., especially in light of what is seen as a recent surge in general authority callings from non-native english speakers. Especially considering the call of Elder Uchtdorf to the Apostleship, who, while clearly a proficient English speaker, was probably not called for his ability to turn an English literary phrase.

  26. Ben S. on March 7, 2005 at 4:54 pm

    ” educated English speakers.”

    Nothing wrong with that. The 12 Jesus picked were anything but back-woods country bumpkins.

  27. Hans Hansen on March 7, 2005 at 5:19 pm

    Dropping the KJV? I don’t know, I’ve always admired the majesty of the language in the KJV, especially in Isaiah.

    While reading the other posts I was reminded of a statement attributed to Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson, “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”

  28. John T. on March 7, 2005 at 6:05 pm

    #25 and what part of “educated English speaker” doesn’t apply to Elder Uchtdorf? I listened to his presentation during the past General Conference; I thought it was especially cute that he said he was “As calm as a Hurricane” pronouncing Hurricane “Her-akun” just as the locals pronounce the name of the town in Southern Utah. As my corporate headquarters are in Fla, and they suffered through an especially brutal season this year, I asked them if they had heard of that particurlar pronunciation, none of them had. I believe Bro. Uchtdorf adopted that pronunciation to particularly endear himself to the local power structure as this was his opening salutation as an Apostle. It truly is and I believe will continue to be the Utah Church (with worldwide membership)

  29. Jonathan Max Wilson on March 7, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    For my birthday last year, a good friend gave me the 1611 replica edition of the KJV. I love archaic language and just as I prefer to read the Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the original Middle English, I love to read the KJV in the original Jacobian English with the original spelling and grammar. The replica edition includes the original dedication, entire introduction to the reader, and the Apocrypha. It also includes the alternate Greek and Hebrew translations noted in the original text by the translators. Despite the translation errors that have since been identified, it is a monumental work of art.

    I’ve read through portions of Grant Hardy’s Reader’s Edition of the Book of Mormon, linked to above by Ben Huff, and reviewed by Kevin, and it really is an excellent resource. I think that Ben is right on in comment #13 where he suggests that easy reading editions can be appropriately left in the hands of organizations independent of the church while the church maintains the official edition.

    I also like his idea of expanding the footnotes to include a Gloss for archaic or obsolete words and meanings.

  30. Steve L on March 7, 2005 at 6:21 pm

    Ouch, John T. How interested do you really think the current GA’s are in excluding “others” from the church power structure?

    Thanks for making the point on “thee” and “thou,” Nate.

  31. Arturo Toscanini on March 7, 2005 at 7:59 pm

    The argument that BH Roberts used, and that cinched the decision to go forward with Talmage’s grammatical corrections in the Book of Mormon was this: We correct the errors when we translate into foreign languages, and there’s no reason why foreign language readers should read a better Book of Mormon than English language readers. I think that this applies as much today to the Bible today as it did then to the Book of Mormon.

    The key argument for correcting punctuation derives from the fact that John H. Gilbert, who set the type for the text, appears to be primarilly responsible for its punctuation. Thus, it does not seem that the punctuation was specifically indicated by revelation.

    That said, I do not think that the Book of Mormon is so fraught with archaisms that it requires any kind of update. As I mentioned in my previous post, the RLDS church’s 1966 edition substantially modernizes the text, in spite of the statement in the foreword reading, “No concious attempt has been made to modernize the language of the text.” For example, the RLDS 1966 edition renders the opening to Enos:

    Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knew that my father was a just man; for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Blessed be the name of my God for it.

    Of course, the aesthetic value of the 1966 RLDS text is a matter of taste, but it seems to me that their modernization creates a text that is bland and colorless compared to the original.

  32. Sheri Lynn on March 7, 2005 at 8:33 pm

    My kids have illustrated “comic book” style versions of the scriptures that tell the basic stories from the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants. They’re official Church publications, and convey basic scriptural information in a format that early elementary age children can easily understand. (We also have some very nice animated videos.)

    So yes, this kind of thing is provided. These versions of the scripture are not intended for adults of normal intellect. (I’d gladly hand them to new adult converts anyway.) Those of us who seek deeper understanding must work for it. We must LEARN HOW to read the scriptures in scriptural language, just as lawyers have to learn to organize and read legalese and I had to learn to read chemical textbooks.

    When I bump into a Fischer diagram, a way of presenting chemical information I haven’t used much, I have to think about what it means, stereochemically; sometimes I must refer back to more elementary textbooks and remind myself of what (Z) or (E) mean in a chemical formula, what Markovnikov substitutions do, and so on. I admit I still have to recite under my breath, ‘methyl ethyl propyl butyl…’ which is akin to an executive secretary singing “ABCDEFG…” before filing something.) But I can take in Lewis structures, wedge-and-dash depictions, and IRs at a glance, because I have thoroughly assimilated that material after much study and work. Something essential is gained simply by the process of having to work for something. The more you work at gaining knowledge at the more advanced levels, the clearer fundamental principals become, and the easier it becomes to learn new, related information. And then comes the day when you are helping someone else learn the same things, and because you really understand it, you can teach a complicated subject in just the way that person needs to learn it. You can see where he’s missed something and you know what it is and how to show it to him. You’ve approached the problem a dozen different ways yourself in learning it. And then what you know becomes a miracle to someone else. Is it less a miracle because it took years of hard work? The other day I was tutoring some organic chemistry students. I realized that they didn’t REALLY understand SN2 reactions or why they are concerted, and have inversion of absolute configuration. Their lack of understanding of that concept from the previous semester was really hurting them. Finding a way to demonstrate this concept to them so that they really “got” felt like a divine prompting. I had the knowledge to teach them, the insight into one way of showing them what they needed to know, and when they got it, it was like a light shining on all three of us. I “saw” their understanding awaken. And then, suddenly, the much more complicated reactions they were trying to learn made more sense to them. When they take their exam they’ll remember why a strong nucleophile and a good leaving group work that particular way on their less-substituted carbons, and why it won’t work on tertiary carbons….

    (You may not understand what I’m saying if you never studied chemistry–but that’s my point. Those of us who HAVE can discuss chemical reactions at a higher level. Don’t we all want to understand Gospel matters at the highest level we can understand?)

    The understanding I’ve acquired from having to study increasingly-difficult chemistry textbooks could not be acquired only from material any layman could understand. No knowledge is more fundamental to all humanity than knowledge of the Gospel. Line upon line, precept on precept, we’re supposed to learn all we can about our religion…and depend upon study, class attendance, prayer, and repeated readings to give us that understanding.

    We all know what happens to children who never have to work for anything. As spirit-children, we all have to work to really understand the scriptures. Just my two cents. Here I’m out of my depth and admit it, but I think it makes sense. We’re not in some kind of Gnostacism here. A ten year old can read and understand the Book of Mormon. But you can spend fifty years in diligent study of the same book and still learn something new (or so I believe.) Could a modern English “translation” of the translation of the golden plates still give us that? Maybe…but my experience makes me doubt it.

  33. Jim F. on March 7, 2005 at 9:36 pm

    I was once a member of the team that produced the translators version of the Book of Mormon. Unless things have changed since then, it doesn’t rewrite the Book of Mormon in simpler language, but discusses each word and phrase in the book, explaining parts of speech, pronoun referents, grammar, rhetorical structures, etc. It would be tedious reading for anyone but a translator.

  34. Jeremiah J. on March 7, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    “If so we have a strange divine: intimate prayer forms in Indo-European languages and honorific prayer forms in Asian (or perhaps just agglutanitive) languages.”

    Nate, your point about thee and thou is essential for this discussion–but it is not strictly true that thee and thou *are* the familiar forms of English. At least not modern English–this is obvious but still an important distinction. In the age of Shakespeare, “thou” sounded familiar and personal. Now it sounds, indeed *is*, in modern English usage, archaic and formal. It’s formal in the sense that it sounds like you are reading a sonnet. In an ordinary situation (outside an LDS church), if a modern writer tried to convey familiarity with thees and thous, he would at least be judged to be an ineffective communicator, at worst a pedant.

    I think the whole situation is somewhat unfortunate. We started out, quite sensibly, praying like they do in the KJV and at time when this way of praying was more common. Today we do so because it conveys a more “reverential” tone. Indeed it does convey such a reverential tone–but only for those already well socialized into the community, and only because we continue to insist that it does. But for all the other English speakers on the planet, this tone is not understood. This includes new members, who even when praying about the Book of Mormon and thanking God for Joseph Smith, still have to be “gently reminded” to stop saying “you” when they pray. It’s not the worst thing in the world but it adds another barrier to becoming a member of the church and hearing the Gospel. Besides, the irony is that the “you” which we are persuading people to stop using is closer to the sense of “thee” as it is used in the KJV Lord’s Prayer.

    I second Nate’s suggestion about loosening up a bit about the official Bible–and about not switching the official version . While it is true that KJV has some of the most wonderful passages in the English language, several of the editions which have been produced over the past century explicitly strive to preserve much of its language. The NRSV is a very beautiful translation, which surpasses the KJV in many places because, among other things, it is simply more clear and direct. Reading the the words of Christ is no longer like hearing someone recite poetry but more like hearing someone preach.

    I have talked to some Mormons have read these new editions and called them ‘bland and colorless’. For myself I don’t see it. I humbly suggest that sometimes we prefer familiarity to understanding. Something becomes so familiar, like a made-up phrase you use with your family for so long, you no longer understand what it meant (maybe you never understood what it meant, but it doesn’t matter). It has simply become a thing you say around your family, not to convey any meaning, but merely to invoke a certain mood or feeling. By the same token I think that some people would rather hear “Verily, verily I say unto you” rather than “Very truly, I tell you” or “I am telling you the truth”, even though they mean the same thing, and even though–esp. given the message conveyed–directness is to be preferred. That’s not colorlessness, it’s the true gospel in plain, direct English.

  35. Jonathan Green on March 7, 2005 at 11:23 pm

    Here’s a suggestion: never, ever correct someone on the pronouns they just used in prayer. Inviting them over for a Family Home Evening viewing of “The Godmakers” is probably a kinder way to alienate them and drive them away from church. If you feel more spiritual when you pray with thee and thou, I think that’s great. But why would one person ever give a second thought to the pronouns another person uses? Why do we care? Where in the scriptures does it say that God cares what pronoun we use?

    I understand that thee/thou are standard practice in the church, and that there are good reasons to avoid upsetting other members of a congregation. (But who made it standard practice, and when?) Beyond that, I wish everyone else would butt out of the language I use in prayer; it’s a thing that’s just between God and me.

  36. Jack on March 7, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    “…it’s a thing that’s just between God and me.”

    Unless, you’re the voice for an entire congregation.

  37. Matt Evans on March 7, 2005 at 11:37 pm

    Jeremiah, I like your final paragraph. I don’t understand the preference for guilded lilies.

  38. Sheri Lynn on March 8, 2005 at 12:58 am

    It seems to me that comment #33 ought to set to rest any lingering doubts anyone might have that some secret, easily-accessible version of the Book of Mormon is being selfishly hidden away from us by power-hungry authorities.

  39. Russell Arben Fox on March 8, 2005 at 8:09 am

    ” I humbly suggest that sometimes we prefer familiarity to understanding. Something becomes so familiar, like a made-up phrase you use with your family for so long, you no longer understand what it meant (maybe you never understood what it meant, but it doesn’t matter). It has simply become a thing you say around your family, not to convey any meaning, but merely to invoke a certain mood or feeling.”

    Jeremiah, this comment of yours fits nicely alongside Jack’s reminder that prayer is sometimes just between God and ourselves, and sometimes something more (as when we are praying in a formal setting). If I am praying to God, I want to say what I mean, and what Matt rightly calls “guilded lilies” often gets in the way of that. I stopped using thees and thous in my private and family prayers years ago, and haven’t missed them. More difficult to root out were all those rote, convoluted referential forms that had been pounded into my skull over the years–“forgive us of our sins,” instead of “forgive our sins,” for example. I’ve gotten to the point where, while I don’t pray as I should as often as I ought, I do think I can speak to God on occasion without falseness or self-consciousness (or at least not much). When I pray in church, however, it’s a different matter. To go out of one’s way to use a language that you know is very different from the typical language used over the pulpit would only end up substituting a different mood or feeling in the hearts of one’s fellow members than the one they have come to expect. Of course, maybe that feeling would be a better one; maybe they’d be startled into thought in a good way (I know that has sometimes been the case for me when I’ve heard an unconventional prayer, like the time a very devout and experienced Church of Christ preacher, a recent convert to the church, slipped back into evangelical mode during one closing prayer). But then again, I don’t know that. So I’m circumspect when I pray publicly, and probably end up taking a hopefully middle road between how I pray privately and the prayers we hear at general conference.

  40. Mark B. on March 8, 2005 at 10:11 am

    One term with Prof. Ed Levi reading English Law Lords decisions and any Elizabethan or Jacobean text is a piece of cake.

    Rather than dumbing down the texts, why don’t we brighten up the members? Get them to turn off the TV for Lent, and practice. Give them some good helps (better footnotes explaining archaisms in the text) and stop misquoting scriptures in ways that foster misunderstanding (“Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life” is one favorite, or twisting Moroni 10:3 into an explicit direction to ponder the Book of Mormon–it doesn’t say that!)

  41. Arturo Toscanini on March 8, 2005 at 10:51 am

    I had been studiously segregating my comments, so that those about the Book of Mormon were here and those about modern Bible translations are on Philip Barlow’s 12 Questions thread. (And I’m in the odd position of arguing for ditching the Jacobean Bible and leaving alone the early 19th century heavy-handed, neoclassical ecclesiastic language of the Book of Mormon.) Now from Jim F’s comment #33, it appears that Nate’s post is based on misinformation. Nevertheless, Barlow’s thread seems to have been abandoned in favor of this one.

    Mark B: Rather than dumbing down the texts, why don’t we brighten up the members?

    My goodness, the way for you is straight and narrow indeed! The real problem with the KJV isn’t archaic Jacobeanisms, but its attempt to render ancient languages as literally as possible, even preserving word order and word count when possible. The result is often confusing, and for every powerful “Choose you this day whom ye shall serve,” there are hundreds of perfectly bewildering passages that gain nothing from Jacobean archaisms. I did a comparison of a randomly selected Old Testament scripture at comment #11 on the first installment of Barlow’s 12 Questions. Take a look at that and see if you don’t find the KJV rendition needlessly confusing (Prof. Levi’s class notwithstanding).

  42. Nate Oman on March 8, 2005 at 11:25 am

    “I was once a member of the team that produced the translators version of the Book of Mormon. Unless things have changed since then, it doesn’t rewrite the Book of Mormon in simpler language, but discusses each word and phrase in the book, explaining parts of speech, pronoun referents, grammar, rhetorical structures, etc. It would be tedious reading for anyone but a translator.”

    Interesting. I heard about the translators edition from someone who had purportedly seen one in the Church archives. Either his description was wrong (most likely explanation) or else he saw another edition. Did you work from an earlier translator’s edition, which you updated, or were you working from scratch?

    I am curious as to the actual layout of the book. Does it provide the English text with grammatical commentary or does it provide an alternative rendering of the text? Finally, what do you mean by “rhetorical structures”?

  43. A. Greenwood on March 8, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    “I have talked to some Mormons have read these new editions and called them ‘bland and colorless’. For myself I don’t see it. I humbly suggest that sometimes we prefer familiarity to understanding. Something becomes so familiar, like a made-up phrase you use with your family for so long, you no longer understand what it meant (maybe you never understood what it meant, but it doesn’t matter). It has simply become a thing you say around your family, not to convey any meaning, but merely to invoke a certain mood or feeling.”

    I humbly disagree. Its not just mindless, mechanical familiarity. The KJV really is more beautiful. Even secular and Catholic writers will agree (e.g., Flannery O’Connor).

    Even if it weren’t, why is familiarity unimportant? If the KJV has roots in our family cultures, and our church cultures, and frankly in our national culture, why should we take cutting off those roots lightly? I suggest we shouldn’t. If reading the Bible gives us God’s word and turns our hearts to our fathers, it is doubly holy.

    I recognize some of the real problems in the KJV. Still, if I were one of those whose love affair with the KJV was dismissed as it has been here, I would be a little angry. Are the Saints fools?

  44. Jeremiah J. on March 8, 2005 at 4:10 pm

    I’m not sure which translation F. O’Connor was comparing the KJV to. As for sheer beauty, if it were a competition with myself as the only judge perhaps KJV would still win. But that’s not the only criterion for a good translation, and I think that “colorless and bland” are not the same thing as, or even exclusive parts of, beauty. It would seem odd to me if I were to conclude that the LDS care most of all about having a beautiful Bible, whereas those Christians who have contributed to the monumental efforts behind NIV, RSV and NRSV instead are more concerned that the Bible is translated correctly, i.e. in language which is true as possible to the meaning, tone, and style of language of the orgininal texts.

    Familiarity is not unimportant. That’s why I don’t recommend changing the official translation, or otherwise trying to herd the Church toward a ‘better’ translation. Instead I second Nate’s suggestion that we loosen up a bit on our traditional endorsement of the KJV.

    But still one can be familiar with anything, indeed with many things which cloud your mind and make it more difficult to teach and learn the gospel. Indeed we can make the commandments of God to no effect with our traditions. If that’s not a Christian, even more a Mormon idea, I don’t know what is.

    The more general point is that familiarity inevitably exists in tension with true understanding. It seems to be something of a paradox. I hope that we can become as familiar as possible with the scriptures, that they ring in our ears. But on the other hand we need to recognize (as I think we frequently do) that this familiarity can become a block of stumbling. This is why I love missionary work so much–it forces me to make the gospel new, again and again: to break out of my comfortable relation to it and grasp it as it is. I always find that there are things which I thought I knew very well, but now have trouble putting them into simple, understandable language.

  45. Jeremiah J. on March 8, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    correction: “‘color and lack of blandness’ are not the same as, or exclusive parts of, beauty”

  46. A. Greenwood on March 8, 2005 at 4:52 pm

    She wasn’t comparing it to any translation in particular. She was comparing it to other English translations and to English literature. She was right.

    I do not believe that the KJV is so bemiring the commandments of God in ‘our traditions’ as to make those commandments of no effect. For me, the real negative of the KJV is that its inaccessible to people with little education and reading ability.

  47. Ben S. on March 8, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    For my own personal reading and study, I think accessibility (NIV/NRSV) takes precedence over beauty (KJV).

    But, with Hebrew, you get both :)

  48. A. Greenwood on March 8, 2005 at 5:01 pm

    Ben S. is probably right that personal preference comes into it. I’m one that would rather read poetry in my spare time than non-fiction. Others differ.

  49. Judi on March 8, 2005 at 10:49 pm

    #35 But why would one person ever give a second thought to the pronouns another person uses? Why do we care? Where in the scriptures does it say that God cares what pronoun we use? I understand that thee/thou are standard practice in the church, and that there are good reasons to avoid upsetting other members of a congregation. (But who made it standard practice, and when?) Beyond that, I wish everyone else would butt out of the language I use in prayer; it’s a thing that’s just between God and me.

    I like to believe that a loving God would accept any prayer that is uttered by me in sincerity and with a pure heart, regardless of the pronouns I use. I have often thought that it really shouldn’t matter how we pray as long as we do it. Apparently, Elder Oaks thinks otherwise, as evidenced by his Conference address of May 1993 entitled The Language of Prayer. His arguments in favour of using thee/thou language seem to be the following:

    1.The nature of our relationship to God is identified by the words we use to address him, which should be those of reverence, love and respect.
    2.Using words that are common in everyday use do not show enough respect for Heavenly Father, as opposed to words (like thee and thou) that are usually reserved for royalty or those of higher station.
    3. The word forms will vary in different languages, but they should always “communicate the desired feelings of love, respect, reverence, or closeness”.
    4. Using more formal language reminds us of the obedience we owe to God and the privilege it is “to come into his presence”.
    5.We have been consistently taught by our prophets and apostles to use this form of language. (See Spence W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, p. 201.; See Stephen L Richards, in Conference Report, Oct. 1951, p. 175; Bruce R. McConkie, Ensign, Jan. 1976, p. 12; and L. Tom Perry, Ensign, Nov. 1983, p. 13.)
    6.Modern revelations contain this more formal language: (ie: sacrament prayers, temple dedicatory prayers, Joseph Smith’s prayer in the Liberty Jail, etc.)
    7.Use of more ‘dignified’ language when addressing Heavenly Father is a form of spiritual maturity.
    8.Addressing our Father in Heaven in prayer is as important as other forms of communication, such as music, poetry, and prose, and should merit at least as much effort on our part to learn the appropriate language for prayer as we do these mediums.

    The following quote from the same talk mimics my opening thought.
    “I am sure that our Heavenly Father, who loves all of his children, hears and answers all prayers, however phrased. If he is offended in connection with prayers, it is likely to be by their absence, not their phraseology.”

    Elder Oaks seems to be saying that the language issue is not so much about how Heavenly Father receives us, but about our attitude towards Him.

    Perhaps some of Elder Oak’s reasoning above could apply to the argument to continue using the KJV as the Church standard, in that it familiarizes us with this preferred language of prayer, and helps us feel more respectful and reverent towards Him as we study His gospel.

  50. Jim F. on March 8, 2005 at 11:55 pm

    Nate (#43): Did you work from an earlier translator’s edition, which you updated, or were you working from scratch?

    We worked from scratch. Of course, it is quite possible that what we did has since been replaced by something else.

    I am curious as to the actual layout of the book. Does it provide the English text with grammatical commentary or does it provide an alternative rendering of the text? Finally, what do you mean by “rhetorical structures”?

    We broke the text into small chunks, from one to several verses. We underlined and otherwise marked the text to draw attention to its features. Then, beneath the text we gave explanations of the marked features.

    By “rhetorical structures” I mean the usual: chiasmus, hendiadys, syndeton, epanalepsis, etc. If I recall correctly, we used English translations of all the traditional names (for example, “two for one” rather than “hendiadys”)–except for chiasmus. But there may have been other exceptions that I do not remember. We outlined these structures as part of the notes on the text.