Notes on the Book of Abraham

Facsimile 2I’m only a translator in the sense that people keep paying me to translate things for them.

I mean, I have a reasonably high level of proficiency in another language, some experience writing in English, and some level of enjoyment of the activity of translating. I’ve familiarized myself with the tools of the trade and done some reading about translation theory (while it can provide some useful ideas, it seems to be a surprisingly acrimonious field). The translation project managers I work with seem generally satisfied with my work, my clients keep returning to me for business, and I’m able to find enough work at tolerable rates to continue providing for a reasonably sized family.

But by some standards I’m not a real translator. I don’t have a degree in translation studies. I’m not certified by any professional association or even a member of one. At the moment, I’m not convinced that the effort to become a real translator – by someone else’s definition – would make me a better translator or justify itself in higher income.

A real translator would likely specialize in a narrower field, but I still enjoy life as an omnivore. I like seeing the sheer variety of things requiring translation and the situations in which translations are needed and the technical problems that have to be solved along the way.

There are some situations that call for a translation that reflects the original text as closely as possible. That’s my own inclination – I love fine points of grammar and semantic nuance – and it’s how a lot of people think of translation. But that’s not always what a client wants. More often than not in my experience, it’s just as important – or even more important – that a translated text is also good sales copy for the target audience, or that it’s adapted to fit the expectations of a target culture. Last week a client encouraged me to take more liberties with the translation of his book to make it sound more American. I aim to please. There’s a whole subfield of translation – “transcreation” – that deals with issues raised by this kind of work.

There’s not a clear boundary between a translation, a transcreation, an adaptation and an album inspired by a movie based on a novel. And what determines a good translation in one context (both partners and their teams of lawyers are in agreement about what each clause means in the contract they’re about to sign) can lead to some very bad translations in another (if the Spanish sales funnel leads to a collapse in sales in Argentina, or English-speaking viewers don’t have time to read the long, complicated subtitles burdening a Korean drama). Telling a good translation from a bad one is a difficult theoretical and practical problem. It’s often quite easy to distinguish between a happy and an unhappy client, however.

All of this is my way of saying that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Abraham from Egyptian papyri doesn’t present any particular problems to us as members of the church. We can and should celebrate Joseph Smith’s translation. We can learn useful and interesting things from it.

Some fragments of the papyri from which Joseph Smith worked survive today. Reconstructing what the complete papyri may have looked like is important and fascinating work – did I ever tell you about the time I reconstructed a medieval codex from a few fragments? Well, four times, actually – but we should not assume, and our understanding of the Book of Abraham should not rely on the assumption that Joseph Smith worked with anything except Egyptian funerary texts. Everything, from the extant fragments to the published facsimiles, points in that direction. I have a firm conviction that the Book of Abraham is scripture, so I will learn more about scripture by staring the facts in the face than by desperately seeking out alternative facts.

At the same time, the textual mismatch between the Book of Abraham and the Egyptian funerary texts of the papyri doesn’t make the Book of Abraham a bad translation because we are not going to persist in a naïve or uninformed view of what constitutes translation. Egyptian funerary texts were placed with mummified corpses so that the deceased would have access to all information necessary for proceeding into the afterlife. The material presented in the Book of Abraham on the Creation and Pre-existence is a central part of our own temple liturgy, which serves a similar purpose. The similarity between the two brings Joseph Smith’s translation within the realm of transcreation and adaptation. The question is not: Do the words match? But rather: Does the translation fulfill its purpose, and does it have the approval of the one who commissioned it? I’m convinced that it does.

This isn’t an argument for the logical necessity that Joseph Smith was a prophet and seer – if you’re uncertain, you’ll have to reach a conclusion by the usual methods. It is instead only an argument for the internal coherency of accepting the Book of Abraham as scripture. The Egyptian text of the papyrus says things one way, and the Book of Abraham says things another way, and after gaining some experience as a translator, I don’t see anything wrong with that. The Book of Abraham contains some of our most profound doctrines and is deeply connected to our most sacred and inspiring ordinances. Anyone urging us to remove the Book of Abraham from our canon does not have the best interests of the church at heart and is working against our spiritual welfare.

If we accept Abraham as scripture, and deal with facts as they are, we can learn some interesting things. The definition of translation involved seems to be very wide (but doesn’t necessarily contradict tight control of the text, about which I’m agnostic for this post). Does that mean that the translation of the Book of Mormon was equally wide? Not necessarily, since that translation came much earlier in Joseph Smith’s career and involved different methods, but possibly so. Interesting! As soon as we get the plates back, we can check.

Joseph Smith invested considerable effort in learning Egyptian. By the standards of today, he didn’t get very far, nor could he have. And yet this does not seem like wasted effort. It stands at the beginning of a Latter-day Saint intellectual tradition that respects secular learning and seeks to integrate it with revealed knowledge. We’re still working with papyrus today. The translation of the Book of Abraham is a great example of what to do when we’re in need of revelation: Study things out in our minds. Figure out as much as we can. Prepare our minds for revelation, and accept whatever comes after that as given by the grace of God. I don’t know if the Kirtland Egyptian Papers document Joseph Smith’s revelation process, as there are various opinions about that (speaking of acrimonious fields), but it would be awesome if they did.

So I’m not particularly worried whether the Book of Abraham meets someone else’s definition of what constitutes a real translation. The question is only whether it serves its stated purpose and meets the approval of its Commissioner. And on that point I’m entirely satisfied.

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