Several years ago bookseller Curt Bench put together an annotated list of the 50 most important Mormon books published before 1980. While I won’t claim that everyone will agree with his assessment, I’ll be very surprised if anyone objects to more than 25% of the list.
The list includes histories, doctrinal works, literature, books by sympathetic non-Mormons and a handful of notorious anti-Mormon works. Nearly 60% of the books were either published by the Church or by a company now owned by the Church.
What is surprising is the availability today of the books on the list. Less than 60% are available today in English, and, as the analysis I’ve posted on Mormon Translation shows, most of the books on the list have never been translated into any other language at all. Spanish-speaking members make up about 4.2 million Church members and at least 1 million active members, but only 10 of the books on the list have ever been translated into Spanish (one more supposedly will be published soon). Historically, more LDS works have been translated into German than any other language, and yet only 15 of these books have ever been translated.
Much of the reason for this is due to the international development of the Church. Growth among non-English speakers didn’t reach significant levels until the 1970s, by which time the Church established a centralized translation service and devoted significant resources to this work. But when you look at what get’s translated, its clear that the priorities are on the Scriptures, Church international magazine and the manuals, policy documents and instruction materials needed to run the Church. Its a very practical policy, one that doesn’t include translating other materials at all.
Looking at what has been translated in the past 20 years or so. Those that have been translated recently have been translated by Deseret Book, not by the Church’s translation service. The books published have been also all recent books by General Authorities, and I get the feeling that Deseret Book wouldn’t have done these books if the Brethren hadn’t told them to.
The situation is quite clear, I think. Any work that isn’t required for the Church’s programs won’t be done by the Church, and will be done only reluctantly by Deseret Book. New translations of older works simply won’t happen. We won’t see Jesus the Christ in Tagalog (probably 4th largest language in the Church), the History of the Church in Spanish or the Encyclopedia of Mormonism in any other language (at least not from the Church or Deseret Book — I’ve heard a rumor that a German-language version is being done privately).
For those of you that disagree with my previous posts on the spread of Mormon Culture, is this really what you want? Do you really believe that ALL these 50 works are not of value to those Church members that can’t read them now? Remember, more 40% these books were published by the Church, presumably because they were of value to the English-speaking LDS audience.
I’m sure I’ve made what I think very clear. I am not saying that every book should be translated, or even that most books should be translated. I see no need to translate the average LDS romance novel or the Work and the Glory series, or even the average book by a General Authority. In fact, I’m opposed to relying too much on translation — local members should write their own novels, literature, histories and even doctrinal works [at least until their language is close to at par with English culturally and spiritually]. But there clearly are works that are so important to understanding Mormonism and developing a Mormon culture that they need to be translated.
Recognizing this, I even set up the Mormon Translation website to provide a way for important works to be translated collaboratively by groups of Church members into the other languages where they are needed. I hope that by building a large enough community, everyone can benefit from the resulting translations.
But regardless of whether the site is successful, its clear that these translations won’t happen without someone taking them on.