The Way to Translation

August 29, 2008 | 34 comments
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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.

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34 Responses to The Way to Translation

  1. Johnna on August 29, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    I’d love to see the list–some books might be really important historically or academically, but for faith and practice they are are full of hooey. I’m in no rush to put McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine into anyone’s hands in any language.

  2. Wilfried on August 29, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Thanks, Kent! I am very grateful that you keep drawing attention to this drama. But I presume this thread will not elicit many comments. “American” attention is not drawn to international topics. But try a post on SSM, home schooling, mothers who know or Romney…

  3. Kent Larsen on August 29, 2008 at 7:41 pm

    Johnna (1), the list is located here. For each title I’ve listed the translations I found, by language.

    You will have to register on Mormon Translation to be able to see the list.

    I also have discovered a second list on the subject in BYU Studies, volume 41, #3 (2002) pp.35-47. Once I get time, I plan to add that list to the Mormon Translation website also.

  4. Kent Larsen on August 29, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Wilfried (2), I think you are right for the vast majority of members. I also had the back luck (or judgment) to post on a Friday afternoon, so that may contribute to not getting a lot of comments.

    But I’m not sure that I should give up just because only a few people comment. The way I figure it, 100 people translating 10 pages each a year would make a huge difference it how much material is available.

    It may be a pipe dream, but it sure seems like one that is attainable.

  5. American dude on August 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    Wilfried, maybe there are lots of people are interested in international topics, but don’t feel they have useful comments to offer because they lack experience. Anyway, I hope you keep commenting!

    I’m curious about how much demand there is for these books. Do Latin-Americans tend to be book-readers in general?

  6. Ray on August 29, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    American dude, Wilfried is an established author here. He’s been commenting for a long time.

    “Do Latin-Americans tend to be book-readers in general?” Dude, I’m sure you meant that innocently and sincerely, but . . . wow.

  7. dangermom on August 29, 2008 at 10:28 pm

    I would love to see more major Church works translated into different languages–at the very least, Spanish and Tagalog. I think if I were running DB I’d make it mandatory to translate certain classic works (yeah, not Mormon Doctrine) and a certain number of new titles per year. Yep. The trouble is in choosing more languages–given that we can’t do them all, what else do we pick? Korean? Portuguese? Russian? A Polynesian language?

  8. Kent Larsen on August 29, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    American dude (5):

    Despite what Ray says, there is an objective way of getting at the idea behind your question. It is true that those in Latin American countries read less than the US — but then we in the US read substantially less than those in Western Europe. But in the case of Latin America there is little question that poverty plays a large role in the statistics, both because people don’t have funds to purchase books, and because past poverty tends to yield a culture that reads less today.

    Of course, it is also true that there is quite a lot of difference in reading levels between different countries in Latin America.

    BUT, I think the issue overall doesn’t mean that there isn’t a demand, just that the demand may be smaller on a per capita basis.

    The fact of the matter is that Spanish is far and away the 2nd largest language spoken by LDS Church members — some 4.2 million members speak Spanish and more than 1 million are active members. In contrast the second largest language, Portuguese, has just over 1 million members, of whom probably 250,000 are active.

    With 1 million active members, even if only 10% want to read LDS books in Spanish (and can either afford to purchase or can download free books), you still have 100,000 potential purchasers. If you can reach those people, I’d bet you can sell at least a few hundred copies of at least the kind of major LDS books we’re talking about here.

    So, the short answer is that we think there is a market, at least in Spanish. But since there isn’t much of anything to sell to them or distribute to them, how can you know?

  9. Kent Larsen on August 29, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    dangermom (7):

    FWIW, my estimate of the top 10 languages in the Church, ranked by number of English speakers is as follows:
    * English – 2,700,000
    * Spanish – 1,000,000
    * Portuguese – 250,000
    * Tagalog & other Philipino languages – 135,000
    * Samoan – 30,000
    * Japanese – 25,000
    * Tongan – 22,500
    * Korean – 20,000
    * German – 12,000
    * Tahitian – 11,000
    * French – 10,000
    * Taiwanese – 9,500

    Tagalog is clearly up there, but its hard to get an estimate of what portion of the active LDS Church members in the Phillipines speak Tagalog as opposed to other Phillipino languages.

    What the above doesn’t take into account is the financial capacity of these members to purchase books. Deseret Book, as a for-profit business, would want to invest in languages that have the best possibility of yielding a profit.

    But, I don’t have the sense that Deseret Book sees this as an opportunity, or it sees it as too risky. In my opinion we may be better off for this, as it gives local members the chance to build businesses and it may help break the Deseret Book monopoly.

  10. Julie M. Smith on August 29, 2008 at 11:25 pm

    I wonder if there might be a role for philanthropy here–either for one big donor or for, say, a group of RMs to fund translations. I’m thinking the big expense here is the translation–small print runs are pretty cheap, right?

    What does a translation usually cost, anyway?

  11. American dude on August 30, 2008 at 12:19 am

    Interesting, Kent, thanks.

    10% seems high to me…I doubt if anything near 10% of US Mormons read the kind of “important” books you are translating. Still, it does seem like there should might be a market if you can reach it.

    Do you have any statistics on book sales in various markets? I expect that Germans in general tend to be more interested in reading books than Americans, and that this is why efforts have arisen among German members to translate them, despite the comparatively tiny pool of German members. (And I’m sorry I offended Ray’s sensitive, politically-correct ears. I don’t think that reading books is the purpose of life or a measure of people’s worth as human beings, so I don’t think it it is so outrageous to assume that different groups of people probably read more or fewer of them.)

  12. Wilfried on August 30, 2008 at 12:23 am

    Julie (10), philanthropy certainly could offer a solution, but at the same time it would highlight even more the lack of interest by a company like Deseret Book to dedicate part of its profits to international translations and/or to sustain local businesses in other countries to produce Mormon books.

  13. Ray on August 30, 2008 at 2:11 am

    American dude, “my sensitive, politically correct ears” weren’t “offended” in the slightest. When you make a sweepingly general statement like that don’t you realize how impossible it is to answer correctly?

    “Despite what (Kent) says,” there is no way to answer your question in any meaningful way other than to deconstruct it to such an extent that it becomes multiple questions – as Kent showed in his answer. Essentially, his answer was:

    That depends on the country (and “Latin-Americans” are scattered throughout many countries) – and the socio-economic level of the various Latin-American populations (that vary every bit as much as any other population that is not confined to widespread, nearly complete poverty) – and the complexity or difficulty of the books in question (scriptures, probably; “Jesus, the Christ”, probably not – but that’s true of ALL populations to some degree or another).

    I wasn’t offended at all. I was amazed at the question. Perhaps if it had been asked about Eskimos or Aborigines or another population of which little is known by the general public, I would not have been surprised, but asking it about “Latin-Americans” amazed me.

  14. Kent Larsen on August 30, 2008 at 2:39 am

    Julie M. Smith (10):

    Certainly there is a role for philanthropy. Personally, I’m not ready to take that one on. But, FWIW, the going rate here in the U.S. is $0.10 to $0.12 a word, as I understand it. So, a 100,000 word novel (say 250 pages), would cost as much as $12,000.

    As you might imagine, giving anything away has its downside. I wouldn’t want someone to also give the cost of printing and distributing the books away, because that might mean that a normal, pay its own way industry fails to develop — and in the long run that would be better than a few books created and given away.

    Of course, its all in how you do it. A gift can also help jump start the businesses needed.

  15. Kent Larsen on August 30, 2008 at 2:57 am

    Americandude (11): I don’t have the figures handy. If I remember correctly, the UN (UNESCO, I think) has figures that show overall reading per capita and data along those lines. If not, then I’ve seen them elsewhere in the publishing industry press (believe it or not, I read those periodicals once in a while.)

    Your point about the German audience is very good. If LDSbooks.de can get by and produce 50 titles over 30 years for an audience of little more than 10,000 active members, then reading among Spanish-speaking members would have to be all but non-existent (1/100th of Germany) for there to be no demand.

    I think a lot of the problem is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Spanish-speaking LDS Church members don’t look for LDS books in Spanish because they’ve never seen or been told that they exist in any significant quantity (last I looked, we were lucky if there were 5 new titles a year, and I think that Deseret Book hasn’t done anything new in Spanish in 2 years, so its probably less than 5 now). On the other hand, no entrepreneur will want to start a business selling books when there isn’t a flow of new products to present to the customer — products that will bring customers back to the business regularly. I don’t know what the minimum number of new products would be needed each year to sustain retailers, but I imagine its more than a new title a month!

    [FWIW, if I am deciphering the German on LDSbooks.de correctly (I don’t really speak German, I’m using Google translate), they seem to do 4 new titles a year, and don’t sell through retailers because they don’t exist there either.]

    The bottom line is, I don’t know what model should be used, or exactly how many new products are needed each year. But I think until enough new products are produced each year, we will continue to have the same problem.

    Translation is, among other things, one way to solve the problem.

  16. Velska on August 30, 2008 at 7:12 am

    I have a friend, who has commissioned some DB books’ translations and published them, paying good money for the privilege. But what has been the biggest trouble? To get DB permission for publishing the translation (translation done pro bono by an interested member).

  17. Neal Davis on August 30, 2008 at 8:48 am

    What about Woodland Institute’s translations of the Inspired Version? Are those private, or are they affiliated with Church programs (I think there’s at least some BYU associations)?

  18. Kent Larsen on August 30, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Velska (16), you are right.

    Most publishing companies more than a few years old and with more than 10 employees have a “subsidiary rights” department that actively sells rights like this.

    In a case like you describe, getting the rights should take a few days at most. Since there isn’t any market for books outside of English, according to Deseret Book, they should be jumping at any opportunity to sell translation rights!! [About the only thing I can think of that might slow things up is that usually the company purchasing the rights produces the publishing contract. Perhaps your friend didn’t know how to do that?]

    In any case, Velska, I would love to know more about these books. Any chance you could email me (kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org) with contact information? Or at least details of what the books where and what language they were done in? I’m working on a database of LDS translations, and I’d love to know about them!!

  19. Kent Larsen on August 30, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Neal Davis (17):

    You’ll have to clue me in. I have no idea who the Woodland Institute is, or anything about their translations.

  20. Norbert on August 30, 2008 at 11:53 am

    Really interesting. Last week at the temple I happened to be chatting to a Ukrainian who does Russian translation of church books. He was working on _Miracle of Forgiveness_ and something else I forgot. He said he was being paid by a private individual, IIRC. I asked if he thought MoF was essential for church members, and he shrugged and said, ‘I do what I’m paid to do.’

    Looking on our bookshelves, I see three volumes of Doctrines of Salvation, Jesus the Christ and Added Upon in Finnish. It’s hard to work out who paid for the translations, but the copyrights are all German. If I remember, I’ll look around the institute library tomorrow and ask a few members what they know.

  21. Kent Larsen on August 30, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    Norbert (20): I just noticed the Finnish translation of Added Upon the other day — its from 2003, and I have no idea who the publisher is (who presumably paid for or arranged for the translation). Doctrines of Salvation was done by the Church and the final volume was published in 1982. Jesus the Christ was also done by the Church in 1982. Presumably the Church paid for the translation.

    I believe at that time (1982), the Church had a set group of books that were “important” and it was trying to get translations done in most languages. The books on that list included those you mention, “The Articles of Faith,” “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” “Miracle of Forgiveness,” and several others. If you look on my analysis of the list of 50 most important books you can get a sense of what titles were on that list by the number of translations done in the 1975-1985 period (at least that’s what I would guess happened).

    I do remember in that time (I served my mission then) that the Church emphasized a set number of classic works including those above, and suggested that missionaries read those works. Deseret Book even put together a missionary box set that included most of them.

  22. Bookslinger on August 30, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    What I’d like to raise funds for and “commission” is diglot (bilingual) editions of books that have already been translated. Not just the Book of Mormon, but other books, too.

    That is one way to attract the interest of a world that is hungry to learn English. That lets them learn more things while they are learning English.

    Kent, one easy way to serve the Spanish market, might be bound compilations of past Liahona editions.

    How many years has the Spanish Liahona been printed? And how many years has it been printed (or at least mastered) electronically? There are probably not enough back-issues lieing around in warehouses to create new bound-editions, so they’d have to reprint, and having an electronic master would make it almost trivial, except for the funding of it.

    12 issues of the Spanish Liahona would be a novel=sized tome, and serve a market. And if there are 20 years of back-issues available for re-print, there’s the equivalent of 20 novel-length books.

    And I really like your corroborative translation effort.

  23. Wilfried on August 30, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Kent, FYI in case you do not have this, quite a few Church books were translated in Dutch.

    A first series dates back quite a few years. I don’t know about their present availability, but the list includes (I give dates of copies I have – as a young convert I grew up with those in the 60s – These books were mostly published by the Church, sometimes upon private initiative. All in beautiful hardcover editions, except the early Pratt) :

    – Parley P. Pratt – Voice of warning and instruction to all people (Dutch ed: Een stem tot waarschuwing etc. 1866, 1915, 1922)
    Teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith (Dutch ed: Leringen van de Profeet Joseph Smith, 1938 – yes the original one including the King Follett)
    – Joseph F. Smith – Gospel Doctrine (Dutch ed: Evangelieleer, n.d. & printed in Bruges by a Catholic press!)
    – LeGrand Richards – A Marvelous work and a wonder. (Dutch ed. Een wonderbaar werk en een wonder, n.d.)
    – Talmage – The Great Apostasy (Dutch ed. De grote afval, n.d.)
    – Talmage – Jesus the Christ (Dutch ed. Jezus de Christus, 1938 )
    – Talmage – The Articles of faith. (Dutch ed. Een studie van de Artikelen des Geloofs, 1955 )
    – Talmage – The House of the Lord (Dutch ed. Het Huis des Heeren, n.d.)
    – Kimball – Miracle of forgiveness (Dutch ed. Het wonder der vergeving, 1974.)

    I myself published, through the magazine Horizon, in the 80s, with proper permissions, several items in Dutch translation:
    – Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, jr., Spencer W. Kimball
    – Jack Weyland, Charly
    – Blaine M. Yorgason, Charlie’s Monument
    – poetry by Carol Lynn Pearson & articles from BYU Studies, Dialogue a.o..

    More recently a small Dutch publishing endeavor, called Mosterdzaad, has translated and published (see here):
    – M. Russell Ballard – Our search for happiness (Dutch ed. Ons zoeken naar geluk)
    – Stephen E. Robinson – Believing Christ (Durch ed. Geloven in Christus)
    – Lindsay R. Curtis – Making of a Prophet (Dutch ed. De Profeet Joseph Smith)

    The editor of Mosterdzaad could tell you more of challenges and sales. I sent him a mail to invite him to participate in this discussion.

  24. Kent Larsen on August 30, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Bookslinger (22): Send me a note (kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org) and we can talk about your bilingual edition idea. There are certainly a lot of books this could be done with.

    But I have to say, that my own experience with Portuguese books makes me doubt whether or not this would be attractive. As much as the Portuguese and Brazilians want to learn English, they apparently don’t see bilingual books as the way to do it.

    From what I can tell, bilingual editions are mostly popular among academics and literature students, who want to be able to compare a translation with the original.

    But, I suppose, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work in the LDS context.

  25. Wilfried on August 30, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    Ah, Kent, I should have checked your listing first. I see you have quite a few of the ones I indicate. And some more I don’t have. But also a few you have not listed yet , so I hope it helps anyway.

  26. Kent Larsen on August 30, 2008 at 2:50 pm

    Wilfried, once again you have added substantially to what I know. Most of the older Dutch titles (the ones on the 50 Important Mormon Books list, are actually included as translations on that list. Check out the page to see the ones you don’t list above (including John Henry Evans’ “Joseph Smith, An American Prophet” – Dutch: Het leiderschap van Joseph Smith ; John Jaques’ Catechism for Children – Dutch: Catechismus voor kinderen; Parley P. Pratt’s Key to the Science of Theology – Dutch: Sleutel voor de wetenschap der godgeleerdheid; etc.).

    The information about the more recent editions is very valuable, and I’m very happy to learn about Mosterdzaad. I will certainly add that information to my data. That’s amazing for a language with perhaps 8,500 church members (say 3,000 active?). Its really quite incredible!

    Do you think it would be helpful to have a forum where these issues are discussed on an ongoing basis? I started a yahoogroup, LDS Books International Distribution thinking that this might be a good idea. What do you think?

  27. Neal Davis on August 31, 2008 at 1:08 pm

    Here’s the link to their English-language page, but they have Spanish and Portuguese translations as well:

    http://www.woodlandinstitute.com/english.php

    The contacts page gives Richard N. Holzapfel as the director. That’s all I know, and it’s been a useful resource.

  28. Tatiana on August 31, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    I think this is important work. I like bilingual editions too. The most excellent book of this type, though not LDS, that I’ve seen is the Bhagavad Gita “as it is” edition translated by Sri Prapubadha and sold through the Bhaktivedanta Book Press.

    http://catalog.bbt.info/d_show_book.php?id=1&target_language=English

    The wonderful thing about this book is that it takes it passage by passage, showing the original Sanskrit, then the transliteration of the Sanskrit to roman characters, then word by word definitions of each Sanskrit word, then a translation of the entire passage. By studying this book it’s possible to learn Sanskrit and have access to all the other Sanskrit works that are not yet translated. I think this is a great model to follow for The Book of Mormon and other standard works written in English.

    I wish someone would carry out that sort of translation of important works in other languages into English, which is unfortunately the only language I read well. I’d love to see Homer done that way, the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Tao te Ching, the Analects of Confucious, etc. as well as Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Jorge Luis Borges, Madame Bovary, Faust, The Canterbury Tales, etc. That way people would be motivated and find it possible to just learn the original languages when reading great works of scripture and literature, instead of having to be dependent upon translations forever.

  29. Tatiana on August 31, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Sri Prabhupada, by the way, is the man who founded the Krishna movement in the west. He was a great scholar and a holy man.

  30. Kent Larsen on August 31, 2008 at 7:01 pm

    Thank you, Neal.

    There are a few details I’d quibble with on their site (the choice of material for the “On this Day in Church History” section is boring — how many new stakes formations or new mission formations need to be listed?), but overall its helpful, especially because its also in Spanish and Portuguese.

    But more to our point here, I don’t see much of an indication of which works are on the way, how they are funded or run the site or how anyone else can participate. And how many of the works they are doing are truly important? They are unquestionably of historical value, but I don’t know if they are really important works that need to be at the top of the list.

    Its great to have works translated. Its better to have important works translated. Its even better to have a system set up that will help more works be translated in the future. And, most importantly, its best to also have a system that gets wide distribution of important works. I’m not sure that depending on the Internet as the only way that works will be distributed is a good policy.

    I hope that doesn’t sound overly critical of Woodland Institute’s efforts. I’m glad they are doing what they are doing. I’m just trying to place that effort in the broader context.

  31. Kent Larsen on August 31, 2008 at 7:08 pm

    Tatiana (28 & 29):

    I agree that bilingual editions are very useful. I’ve published a couple myself, I have another in preparation, and I may have a series of them on the way (none LDS at this point).

    But, in general, there aren’t as many consumers that want bilingual editions as want straight translations, at least not in the US or in the areas I know well (Portugal and Brazil).

    But, as I told Bookslinger in comment 24, I’d be willing to give it a try. Send me a note (kent [at] motleyvision [dot] org) and I’d love to hear more about how you think this would work.

  32. Hans Hansen on August 31, 2008 at 9:06 pm

    Guess I shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Norwegian translations!

  33. Kent Larsen on August 31, 2008 at 11:30 pm

    Hans (32), probably not. But, there are some old translations in Norwegian that you may not have available and that could be put back in print.

    Have you looked at the Norwegian translations on the 50 Important Mormon Books list?

    I don’t have a full list compiled yet, but I know there are other translations out there also.

  34. Kent Larsen on September 12, 2008 at 11:27 am

    Just an update, in case anyone passes by this post and wonders about Mormon Translation. The website has recently seen an enormous amount of change. We have added 8 additional languages! Those interested can now help translate Mormon texts into: Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Korean, Japanese, Russian and Ukranian, in addition to Spanish and Portuguese. We can add additional languages as needed.

    There are now 7 different texts being translated. In addition to the 4 we had (Dialogue between Joe. Smith and the devil!, Angel of the Prairies, Added Upon and History of the Church), we have added James E. Talmage’s The Great Apostasy, The Lectures on Faith and the King Follett Discourse. In the next few weeks we will add an additional 7 titles: Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage; The Journal of Discourses; Articles of Faith by James E. Talmage; Essentials in Church History by Joseph Fielding Smith; Gospel Doctrine by Joseph F. Smith; A Marvelous Work and a Wonder by LeGrand Richards; and Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations by Lucy Mack Smith.

    The website now has more than 1000 pages ready to be translated into all 10 languages available.