September 14, 2011

Review: Gardner, “The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon”

Title: The Gift and the Power: Translating the Book of Mormon
Author: Brant A. Gardner
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Religion
Year: 2011
Pages: 379
Binding: Hardcover/Kindle
ISBN13: 9781589581319
Price: $34.95*

“A gust of wind shuffles the two manuscripts. The reader tries to reassemble them. A single novel results, stupendous, which the critics are unable to attribute."
—from If on a winter's night a traveler, a novel by Italo Calvino

Stop and think over that epigraph for a minute. Then think about this next one. For at least 30 full seconds:

"...between that ancient text
and our modern translation
sits Joseph Smith staring at a stone
in the crown of his hat."

—Brant A. Gardner, p. 260 


Brant A. Gardner's new book is a game changer—a paradigm-bending exercise combining rigorous methodology with creativity in a historical analysis of the Book of Mormon translation story. Gardner amasses evidence from the historical record, the actual Book of Mormon manuscripts, and its text in order to “discover the most economical explanation for all aspects of the Book of Mormon” (x).

Gardner is aware from the outset that controversy surrounds such analysis: whether the Book of Mormon is a translation, what kind of translation it is, and how the translation was done. He alerts the reader up front that his book operates under the assumption of historicity (stay with me here, folks). He believes "it requires that we understand that the Book of Mormon is a translation before any discussion of it as a translation becomes relevant" (x). He recognizes that the end of any such investigation is largely dictated by this initial assumption. So, I anticipated a lengthy justification directed at skeptics for his initial assumption. To such readers he offers only this consolation: “I begin as one of the faithful...[but] I have attempted to keep the investigation based on the same principles as might be applied to a secular text” (xi).1 In a surprise move, Gardner shifts his opening apology toward the believers in Book of Mormon historicity:

“The prophets I believe in are human beings, their frail humanity blessed with a touch of the divine. I believe that God works through very natural means much more often than He displays transcendent power. Therefore, while I do believe in the text’s declared provenance, I will end up with a description that is predominantly naturalistic—with a touch of the divine” (xi).2
This warning will become especially relevant in part two of the three-part book, where he analyzes Royal Skousen’s translation theory. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Easy to do when reviewing such a complex book.


In fact, part one, "History and the Translation Process," initially feels like a lengthy side-track. Here Gardner is laying the groundwork for the subsequent two parts by analyzing the cultural context of the Book of Mormon translation and the historical accounts which describe it.

Among other things, he discusses village seers and stones, money digging, and definitions of "religion" and "magic." While he builds on the earlier scholarship of others (John L. Brooke, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Richard Bushman, etc.) he isn't simply summing up former work. He's clearly not afraid to challenge a “friendly” source (e.g. Ronald W. Walker) or accept information from a supposed “foe” (D. Michael Quinn)3 and vice versa to forge his own interpretation of magic and religion, taking on the idea that these should be understood as mutually exclusive categories (22). Part one alone is worth the price of admission due to Gardner's diplomatic, scholarly additions to the sometimes-contentious discussion of the "magic worldview" and Mormonism.

Part one concludes with Gardner's fascinating observations about the creation of "sacred communal stories," contrasted with academic histories. He posits a surprising theory about the "sealed portion" of the plates, traces the descriptive shift from seer stones and interpreters to Urim and Thummim,4 and discusses how Native Americans become Lamanites and a hill becomes Cumorah in the collective imagination of Latter-day Saints. Especially key here is Gardner's belief that the scientific and religious understanding of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries—their perceptions—directly influenced the translation process itself, in addition to the stories they told about the process, which Gardner posits are not necessarily equivalent.

Though it seems a bit round-about, Gardner has to explain why the witnesses accounts of the translation conflict with the manuscript data. He gets a helping hand from folklore and memory studies (109, 113). This is especially necessary since Gardner isn't simply crafting a new narrative, picking and choosing the data which fits his arc and calling it good. Instead, he has largely set the stage for part two by analyzing the process of witnessing and remembering to account for discrepancies between witness accounts and manuscript evidence.

“…listening to someone who is translating [aloud] from another language involves a fluctuation, a hesitation over the words, a margin of indecision, something vague, tentative. The text, when you are the reader, is something that is there, against which you are forced to clash; when someone translates it aloud to you, it is something that is not there, that you cannot manage to touch." —from the novel "If on a winter's night a traveler" by Italo Calvino
Part 2 is where Gardner asks “What Kind of Translation is the Book of Mormon?” (135). We're 135 pages in and we're starting to get to the nitty-gritty. (Fortunately, Gardner crafted the book so that any part can be read first, each part consistently refers to the other two parts when further discussion or foundation is given.) Gardner first takes his bearings in a sophisticated analysis of what it means to translate, to take ideas from one language and clothe them in another. This is an issue that could fill volumes, translation is fraught with problems. He considers color, metaphor, numbers, cultural idioms, literary aesthetics—many of the considerations facing a translator of any text. The stakes seem even higher when dealing with what purports to be sacred scripture with theological implications.

And here is were Gardner reaches the crux of the translation issue as he sees it—his book’s absolute relevance for all discussions of BoM origins. He asserts that all discussion of textual clues regarding authorship or origins in the BoM are undergirded by assumptions—usually implicit—about the “relationship of the plate text to the translated text." He writes: "It is critical that we select our understanding of the relationship between the plate text and English text based on a firm analysis of data rather than simple assumptions” (145).

This is important enough that he restates it, so I will too:
“A correct understanding of the kind of translation we have in the English version of the Book of Mormon will underlie virtually all arguments that attempt to relate the English text to a historical time and place” (146).
In fact, he revisits this assertion at the end of the book, throwing down this gauntlet:
"I believe that some description of the translation method must become a declared foundation for any analysis of the Book of Mormon against a geographical and cultural background" (319).
Otherwise, Gardner believes, we are simply exhibiting evidence which conforms to our particular theory, disregarding the rest. Gardner demands a careful, complete analysis of the available data. He recognizes that the largest problem facing such a project is the lack of the original plate text. (This is where skeptics can easily declare 'game over.') He elects to examine features of the English text in order to construct deductive and inferential arguments which he believes converge “on a single concept that most often explains how the English text represents the plate text” (146).

With that in mind, Gardner brings readers up to date with the ongoing scholarly discussion of translation methods. He briefly outlines Royal Skousen’s “de facto typology” of BoM translation which posits a range of possible methods from “tight,” to “loose,” to any mixture of the two (152-155).5 Gardner argues that this typology is “not useful” because it refers to the transmission of the text from Joseph Smith to his scribes, not to the relation between the plate text and the English translation (155). Thus Gardner hopes to reorient the entire conversation. Rather than searching a spectrum from tight-to-loose (which others like Blake Ostler inadvertently fall under), he posits a “three-fold set of analytical translation types: literalist equivalence, functional equivalence, and conceptual equivalence” (155).

Remember it, folks. L.F.C. Whether or not you find Gardner's translation theory compelling, this is a crucial point to consider when discussing textual evidence of Book of Mormon origins. Here’s what makes his proposed schema different: “Each of these terms describes a relationship between the target and the source languages, with each indicating a greater distance between the two” (156).
“If a coded message were hidden in the succession of words or letters of the original, it would now be irretrievable…”
—from Italo Calvino's novel, "If on a winter's night a traveler"
In the next two chapters Gardner assesses the respective evidence for these three categories. Under the evidence for Literalist Equivalence he looks at things like BoM names, archaic vocabulary, inter-textual quotations, and Hebraisms. In regard to the latter, he concludes that the book does in fact contain Hebraisms. Then he adds a very large “but”:

Hebraisms may be present, but what does that data tell us? He sees at least two possibilities: (1) they represent “a faithful retention of the plate language or grammar, or (2) the influence of the King James translation” on Joseph Smith (175). Here Gardner is certain to ruffle feathers, especially feathers of folks who are persuaded largely by Hebraisms as evidence of ancient authenticity.6 Gardner sees other features in the BoM text which must be accounted for in addition to Hebraisms, which leads him to discuss evidence for Functional or Conceptual Equivalence of translation, thus diminishing the weight of Hebraisms as evidence of ancient origin. This evidence includes things like grammatical structure, vocabulary and cultural content (anachronisms), modern expressions, and clear King James influence. He usefully employs Joseph Smith's inspired translation of the Bible as a possible way to analyze the BoM translation and account for these anomalies.

“Every evening I spend the first hours of darkness penning these pages, which I do not know if anyone will ever read… Perhaps this diary will come to light many, many years after my death,when our language will have undergone who knows what transformations…”
—Italo Calvino, "If on a winter's night a traveler," a novel.
Arguing against a strictly Literalist Equivalence (with exceptions based on BoM manuscript data) and giving evidence for Functional and Conceptual equivalences only takes Gardner part of the way. Part three, “Translating the Book of Mormon,” is where Gardner turns further from analysis toward hypothesis. The sub-sections are titled as questions through which Gardner anticipates critical responses and outlines his theory. (How Did Joseph Translate?", "Why Didn't Joseph Retranslate the Book of Lehi?", "Why Did Joseph Believe the Interpreters or Seer Stone Were Essential?", "How Did We Get the Isaiah Passages?", Why Couldn't Oliver [Cowdery] Translate?", etc.) Creatively analyzing research on the science of sight, human memory, brain science and language formation, Gardner seeks to synthesize witness accounts and textual evidence in order to answer these and other questions.

**Non-Spoiler Alert!** 

If you want to know how Gardner believes looking into a stone in the crown of a hat could lead to an inspired scripture you'll need to pick up the book. I've described Gardner's basic preparatory material and methodology. You get to see how it all shakes out in the book.


Gardner's book is (perhaps surprisingly) my personal favorite Mormon-themed book of 2011, and I've read a few. I particularly appreciate Gardner's ability to use a variety of sources, and to differ with many without acrimony. I like his careful description of methodology so readers know the precise reasoning behind his theories and conclusions. I enjoy the way he draws on a variety of fields for support—sociology, biology, history, etc. (his training in anthropology helps facilitate his use of eclectic source material). As a footnote fanatic I loved swimming in his sometimes oceanic footnotes, which often include plenty of back-story for readers unfamiliar with ongoing controversial points, and the differences between himself and the positions of others. I also admire his courageous tackling of large issues like magic versus religion. I was quite satisfied with his inclusion of a great deal of usually-overlooked sources from early Church history. This gave me confidence that Gardner hasn't simply selected quotes to fit a narrative without regard to contradictory data or overall context. Finally, I appreciated his epilogue in which he acknowledges several questions his work leaves unanswered. Since these further questions are directly related to his theory of translation, I leave you to discover them.

Go read this wonderful, provocative, creative book. You may disagree with his theory, but the conversation takes a big step forward in this book. I can't recommend The Gift and Power:Translating the Book of Mormon enough.

____________________________________________________________________ Footnotes:

1. He points readers to his multi-volume Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon for the reasoning behind his historicity assumptions (x).

 2.  Moreover, Gardner likely anticipates that average members of the Church will encounter information here about divining rods, seer stones, seeming discrepancies in church history and so forth which they might find troublesome. He rhetorically softens his own theory of translation by deferring to former Church authorities who align more with his line of thought, perhaps hoping to persuade Mormons not to close the door on his ideas (see his reference to B.H. Roberts, for instance, p. 320). At the same time, he’s not averse to calling into question some of the recollections or understanding of Joseph Smith himself! (pp. 133, 282, 287). He appreciates the audacity. Calvino's excerpt from yesterday's post was largely prompted by Gardner's introduction.

3. I do not intend this framing as a personal judgment regarding those particular scholars, but to emphasize that any simplistic division between critics and apologists becomes irrelevant in Gardner's assessment of the relevant scholarship.

4. There are so many parts of this book which cry out for inclusion in a review. The labeling shift from seer stones to Urim and Thummim is just one of the many examples of how Gardner sees the early church quickly adjusting "rural" traditions to more "urban," and thus more socially acceptable, traditions, relying on biblical precedent for legitimacy. Rocks in hats are village seer stuff, Urim and Thummim are the stuff of prophets (127). Even here, though he differs from Ashurst-McGee's picture of Joseph Smith's lineal progression from seer to prophet. I'm resisting fascinating side-discussions like this all over the place. Please read this book.

5. LDS scholar Kevin Barney sums these categories up in "'A More Responsible Critique.' A review of "Does the Book of Mormon Reflect an Ancient Near Eastern Background?" Written by Thomas J. Finley, FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 97-146.

6. See an engaging exchange between Gardner and LDS scholar David Bokovoy, who believes Gardner has made a "worthy attempt," but finds the book "very problematic." Bokovoy, "Brant Gardner's New Book," Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board, Hence my intense endorsement of the book: its potential to spur thought and spark dialogue on a fascinating aspect of Joseph Smith's roles of "seer" and "translator" (D&C 21:1). For another interesting and recent analysis of Smith as translator, see Samuel Brown, "The Translator and the Ghostwriter: Joseph Smith and W. W. Phelps," Journal of Mormon History, vol. 34, no. 1, Winter 2008, pp. 26–62. Brown's article bears more on Smith's later Egyptian work than the Book of Mormon. See also his "Joseph (Smith) in Egypt: Babel, Hieroglyphs, and the Pure Language of Eden," Church History, Volume 78, Issue 1, pp. 26-65.

*The Kindle version is broken into two parts at $9.95 each. This is to allow the author and publisher to actually make a little money, as Amazon's Kindle pricing would essentially end up taking the lion's share of profits otherwise. This information as per a Kofford Books employee.