Ever been in one of the few LDS stores outside the United States? or in countries that don’t speak English?
The selection can be quite discouraging. When I visited the store near the SÃ£o Paulo Temple in Brazil a few years ago, they carried a few books in English, a lot of art, trinkets and items with little or no language-specific content, and a handful of books in Portuguese. From what I’ve seen in online stores for other languages, the situation is similar elsewhere.
This is really not surprising, when you think about it. Language-specific materials are usually only produced by the Church, and never in sufficient quantities to stock or even support an LDS store. Members generally can only purchase those materials available through LDS Church Distribution in their country.
But, I don’t make this observation to point out the difficulties that Church members face when they don’t speak English. Instead, I want to ask what cultural products should be modified for other languages, and how that should happen.
Both here on Times and Seasons and on my blogging home, A Motley Vision, what Mormon culture is and what it includes have been discussed. I argued last December that some Mormon culture was not only inevitable, but vital to the success of the Church.
I was particularly impressed by Wilfried Decoo’s post Mormon identity and culture from last March. There Wilfried drew a distinction between the gospel culture and local cultures, the non-Mormon environment that most members live in, and suggested that Church leaders will need to preserve many elements of Mormon culture so that they remain consistent everywhere while evaluating elements of local culture to make sure that they do not conflict with the gospel.
My own interests lie in elements of Mormon culture that mostly didn’t enter into Wilfried’s analysis. When Church members create their own cultural expressions, i.e., when they write a novel or a song or paint an image or collaborate on a film, no one expects the blessing of church leaders. Yet these expressions are distributed at least among English-speaking members, and increasingly among non-English-speaking members, where local members go so far as to make their own translations at times.
The Church has its own distribution system for Church-approved materials–presumably those items that Wilfred suggests should be coordinated to avoid conflicting doctrinal beliefs in different places. But this limitation to approved materials leaves out a lot of the 5,000 to 10,000 items from a variety of labels, publishers and producers available to members in English.
Here in the U.S. we distribute many items not distributed by the Church through a system of LDS bookstores largely led and controlled by Deseret Book. [I addressed the problems this causes in a three-part post on A Motley Vision here, here and here]. These stores cover the Mormon corridor well, the rest of the western U.S. adequately, for the most part, portions of the rest of the U.S. occasionally, and the rest of the world in a spotty fashion.
But beyond the problems of coverage, this distribution system is hampered by the same kind of problem that Wilfried saw among local leaders, who “in order to fashion an extremely standardized and thus safe ‘gospel culture,’ impose restrictions well into the realm of the acceptable.” LDS stores simply don’t carry works that they believe any customer might object to as “inappropriate.”
Outside of this system, some material is distributed directly and at conferences and conventions. The rise of the Internet as a distribution method has helped this direct distribution significantly, but even this distribution is hampered, principally by the difficulty in letting members know that an item exists.
In a few cases, some materials have been distributed through channels that are not specifically Mormon, often when the appeal is wider than to just Church members, or when the distribution channel is highly automated and no longer requires intervention of a human evaluator to judge what should be included. However these channels are also hampered by the difficulty in letting members know that these materials are available.
The situation is even more complex for members of the Church who don’t speak English. Except for LDS Church distribution, there aren’t many options for distributing privately produced Mormon works. I’m sure that xerox copies of shorter material (the kind that were collected in Especially for Mormons) are passed among members at Church and at LDS functions, and sent person to person by email, when access is prevalent enough. But these methods aren’t very reliable, and I don’t think they work well for longer works.o
Above all for these members, we need to remember the difficulty of translation. The going rate for translation is something like $0.10 to $0.12 a word (often long manuscripts can be done for less than that, but certainly not for less than $0.05 a word). When a book-length work is 100,000 words ($10,000 at the going rate), who will pay for the translation?
Given these factors it might seem impossible for Mormon cultural materials to be distributed among members who do not speak English (outside of LDS Church distribution). Even within the English-speaking portion of the Church, I find the situation frustrating because of the impediments to wide distribution. So I wonder if there isn’t a way of distributing Mormon cultural works that solves some of these problems, especially those faced by members who do not speak English.
The current model assumes a high degree of conformity and is centered on Deseret Book. For non-English speakers, it is assumed that materials will be translated from English and distributed through local LDS stores.
But there are alternatives to this model. One often suggested idea is to skip Deseret Book and the current LDS stores in favor of distributing through the channels available in the U.S. The rise of the Internet has led to a class of online stores (such as Amazon.com) that list virtually everything — they make almost no judgment about each item, not even whether an item will even sell. Since everything is listed, it is easy to be included. LDS items are listed, of course, but not always as LDS items. It is often impossible to know that an item is in fact Mormon from its listing on these stores. This idea also faces problems outside the U.S., where national distribution systems still make judgments about whether an item will sell or is of interest to their customers, and where online stores aren’t as frequently used.
Another model assumes that LDS stores will eventually expand into most other areas of the Church as the concentration and income levels of members justify that expansion. What isn’t clear is how long this will take. When there are a million active Spanish-speaking members of the Church, it is hard to believe that so few have Internet access and enough disposable income that even a small Internet store can’t be supported. In contrast, the German language, with about 10,000 active members supports a small publishing company that has published about 50 titles (all translations of Deseret Book titles) since it was founded in 1986.
Others suggest that with income levels so low in many countries around the world, Mormon materials should be given away for free on the Internet. Doing so, they believe, will demonstrate demand and stimulate the development of distribution of physical copies as well. I’m not sure, in this case, who will pay the costs of creating or translating these materials, and if the physical materials don’t exist (i.e., the materials only exist on the Internet) is it even possible for an author to benefit at all from such a giveaway? In addition, I’m not sure that enough local members will have access to the Internet or, if they do, know where to find these free materials.
I’m persuaded by many elements of these models. I suspect that for English-speaking members, the best move is to expand the ways that materials can be found. While I’d like to see new LDS stores, retail stores can be very difficult to start and run given competition from Internet-based businesses. The Internet stores that list LDS materials need better classification or tagging so that it is possible to find virtually all LDS materials. It would even help to have an LDS equivalent of Amazon.com — someone that carried Mormon materials without the judgment of “appropriate” that Deseret Book and most LDS stores make. I can also see the benefit to developing demand by giving away materials for free, provided that there is a mechanism in place that helps develop permanent, stable distribution of physical as well as virtual materials.
For members that don’t speak English, none of these models is itself very persuasive, in my opinion, since they don’t address the single biggest difficulty — the time and cost of translation. My suggestion for solving this difficulty is simple: don’t! At least not when it isn’t necessary or when the work isn’t of long-term value (i.e., works by the prophet, some works by apostles and reference works like the Encyclopedia of Mormonism).
Instead, local members should produce their own materials. They can then express themselves in ways that fit their local culture as well as the gospel, and the financial benefits, if any, go that much more to local members. I think local materials are also more likely to build and support local distribution. And, if the work is of international value, it can then be translated into English, which is more likely to have the kind of distribution that can afford the cost of translation.
I’m sure there are more models or elements that should be considered when examining how Mormon culture is spread. I’d love to hear comments on what those are, or what models should be used to spread Mormon culture.