January 4, 2010

Я, Нефий (Ya, Nyefii) I, Nephi: Comparing the Russian and English Translations of the Book of Mormon

My wife Kristen served a mission in Russia and recently we thought it would be a great idea to do family scripture study by comparing the Russian and English translations of the Book of Mormon. This new series will discuss our project.

We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly. It seems to me the same caveat is extended to the Book of Mormon, which we also believe is "the word of God."1 Among other benefits, this caveat helps us deal with the problem of translating the scripture into other languages. Currently the book is flooding the earth in 82 languages, with selections available in 25 others.2 Translations from English to other languages differ from Joseph Smith's original translation in that they are done without the aid of a seer stone and with the aid of proficient speakers of different languages.3 In 1997 Kai A. Andersen, director of Scriptures and Production Coordination in the Church’s Curriculum Department, described the "Great care [that] is taken in publishing the Book of Mormon in a new language to ensure that the new edition is true to the English version....These are involved processes that take time. Translation cannot begin until competent and worthy individuals who speak a target language are called to serve as translators. Preparation of the Book of Mormon in a new language includes not only translation but also reviews by Church leaders with a strong gospel background. This process ensures that translations reflect as closely as possible the spirit and meaning of the English version."4 As Kristen and I compare the Russian and English versions we hope to add a little more insight into the issues of translating scripture.5

First, Kristen reads a single verse in Russian and translates it into English. I read along in the English edition and note differences or ask for clarification on the meaning of specific words and phrases. I don't read the English verse to her before she translates, which helps avoid influencing her own translation.

This clearly isn't an exact science, but it allows us to make a reasonably accurate comparison. Along the way we hope to identify areas where the interpretation is especially strong and illuminating, or faulty and misleading. In comparing the Russian to English translations we are not presupposing the superiority of one over the other. So far we've discovered that both versions inform each other in ways that make the scripture more meaningful.

This gives Kristen the chance to practice her language, translation, and interpretation skills. I'm becoming more familiar with the sound of the Russian language. It's also a way for us to experience the Book of Mormon in a new light. It gives us more appreciation for (and a more reasonable view of) Joseph Smith's remarkable translation "by the gift and power of God."6 It's amazing what translating can do to the meaning of a text. Hopefully the exercise will help soften an over-literal reading. In short: this exercise plays right into my interest in communication theory, meaning, text, and interpretation.

In this blog series, "Ya, Nyefii," Kristen and I will share some of our findings. The rest of this introductory post talks a little more about the process of translation and the difficulties and possibilities inherent to the process. We are not presuming to propose corrections for the official text of the Book of Mormon here.

The Intertwining of Translation and Interpretation 
Interpreting and translating scripture seem to be directly related. Kevin Barney recommended an article regarding the process of translating the Bible which informs our project. With the Bible, "we cannot translate until we first understand the original meaning, so translation is, to that degree, dependent on interpretation."7 But there are deeper issues at stake, including how literal to make a translation, whether to include paraphrases or explanations outside of the translation, etc. The article continues with some very general suggestions:

Biblical interpretation consists of three steps:
1. What does the text say?
2. What does it mean?
3. What does it mean to me?...

Bible translation consists of three parallel steps:
1. What does the source text say?
2. What does it mean?
3. How do we best express that meaning in the target language?8

Clearly these questions apply as well to the Book of Mormon.

A quick note on translation:
The title of this blog post includes Cyrillic characters followed by a Romanized pronunciation in parentheses, followed by the English rendering: Я, Нефий (Ya, Nyefii) I, Nephi. Throughout the series we'll use Cyrillic, Romanization and English characters. Our Romanization is geared more to help English readers pronounce the Russian and is not based on academic Romanization. All translations are by Kristen Hodges, who holds a BA in Russian Studies from the University of Utah and is currently working on a Master of Arts in World Languages.

See Joseph Smith, Articles of Faith, v. 9.

As of August 2009, "The full Book of Mormon is currently published in 82 languages. Book of Mormon Selections is available in another 25 languages," see "News of the Church,” Ensign, Aug 2009, pp. 74–80. Wikipedia contains an accurate list of current translations. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Book_of_Mormon_translations.

Compared with the Qur'an, which Muslims believe was delivered in the language of God and is, strictly speaking, incapable of being translated, the Book of Mormon has reflected the democratic impulse of the culture of its origins. Attempts are made to disseminate it in as many languages as possible.

See Kai A. Andersen, “‘In His Own Language’,” Liahona, Jun 1997,p. 29. See also "Translation Work Taking Book of Mormon to More People in More Tongues," News from the Church, LDS.org, 6 February 2005.

We are using the current (1981) edition of the English Book of Mormon. The Russian translation we are using is the current official edition, published in 1988. The first official Russian edition was published in 1980, though its initial translation began in 1925 when European mission president James E. Talmage encouraged convert Andre Anastasion to begin the project. His translation took five years to complete and underwent several revisions before finally being published. See Gary Browning, Russia and the Restored Gospel, (Deseret Book, 1997), pp. 13-14. Bookslinger's excellent blog "Flooding the Earth" has information on ordering copies of the Book of Mormon in every available language. A Russian copy can be obtained at Distribution Centers in Utah, or ordered online here

Joseph himself was somewhat reticent to discuss the particulars of translation. See BHodges, "Joseph Smith's Descriptions of the Book of Mormon Translation," LifeOnGoldPlates.com, 28 September 2009. Various theories have been formulated regarding how the process worked, from a tight control over the text where Joseph basically dictated a word-for-word text, to a loose control where Joseph heavily influenced the translation to the point of making additional expansions on the original text.

See "Interpretation and translation compared," author unknown, bible-translation.110mb.com.



Ardis E. Parshall said...

Excellent idea; I'm looking forward to examples in future entries of the series.

BHodges said...

Thanks, Ardis. We're excited for it.

fritz said...

Nice post. I was waiting for that Russian translation and I was glad that I have found it in here.Thanks for sharing.I could say that translators really play a big role in our society.I can't see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions.

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