Gardner, Brant A. The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2011.
Gardner seeks to understand the nature of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon by a thorough examination of the text coupled with descriptions of the translation process. Gardner compares the Book of Mormon translation to regular translations and argues for three types: literal (an exact, word-for-word translation), functional (a translation that conveys meaning instead of exact wording) and conceptual. Gardener argues that the Book of Mormon translation fits the functionalist type: it is a translation of the concepts into the idioms of Joseph Smith’s world. Gardner goes further, arguing that research on cognition suggests how Smith translated: revelation was given at a pre-language level and then translated into English by Smith. Gardner argues that such is a “natural” account of the translation and that his description still posits Smith as the translator.
The book does a great job of analyzing the textual evidence: Gardner gives the various studies of the Book of Mormon text full treatment along with the various theories of what the text suggests about the translation. Further, Gardner’s theory of eidetic images (270) in the brain does much to help with the issue of how revelation may occur. However, Gardner’s claim to a “natural” explanation of translation is problematic since he asserts that it came by means of revelation: “it was the Lord (or another divine entity) that placed the meaning of the plates in Joseph’s mind” (276). Gardner rejects Royal Skousen’s assertion that “some other entity did the translation into English,” (254) even though Gardner’s model is not fundamentally different than Skousen’s: God spoke to Smith in some way, and Smith dictated to his scribes. Gardner nuances the process in useful ways, but the basic procedure remains the same: revelation. Ultimately, while Smith was certainly a part of the process, as Gardner asserts so emphatically, it is difficult, if not impossible to say where the line is between Smith and the divine. “Of course, anything is possible when the basic premises are the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon and the absolute power of God,” Gardner admits (304). I’d argue that this premis muddies the waters considerably; “For he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Ne 31:3). Thus it is difficult to know if contemporary idioms are used because of Smith’s interjection or if God himself found that to be the best way to communicate. To try to draw the line, one must make theological assertions about how God operates. “It is easy to see how Joseph could be so heavily influenced by the KJV New Testament; it is harder to explain why a divine interpreter would be,” asserts Gardner (257). But such assertions are often in the eye of the beholder; perhaps the divine found that language an effective way to communicate. Thus figuring out how “the gift and power” worked is a very difficult, and I would argue, otherworldly task. Gardner is dismissive of Kevin Barney’s assertion of “complex translation”–sometimes literal, sometimes not–saying an overarching theory is needed (247). But there is no explanation of why God would need to adhere to only one method. Ultimately, I found Barney’s complex-translation model to be the most likely.
Though the book has some other problems (the first section on the historical context of Smith’s world was not up to date on the latest research  and was ultimately unnecessary; the book could have been condensed considerably) this is nonetheless a very useful contribution. Gardner’s examination of the text and the scholarship is very thorough and his use of cognitive science should pave the way to further research.
 Loyd Ericson wanted me review the book because of the content of Gardner’s first section. Since the first section of the book was not central to the book’s main argument, I review that section in this footnote.
Here Gardner seeks to give context for Smith’s activities with his seer stone. Gardner rightly notes problems with the tem magic, noting an important divide between urban and rural worldviews: that urban people often call the practices of the rural people “magic.” This is true, but there is more to this dynamic than just the rural/urban divide (though that divide is important). For instance, plenty of urban people engaged in activities deemed magical.
Gardner nonetheless makes a valid point with this distinction but makes a fundamental error by reifying the categories. Gardner argues, as have other scholars, that Smith started out practicing magic but then shifted to religion. The big shift came with the Moroni visitation and the translation of the Book of Mormon, Gardner argues. “Joseph had crossed the threshold between magic/religion and the rural/urban tradition and brought his seer stones with him because they participated in that new context” (102). This sentence demonstrates the problems of reifying the magic/religion divide. Smith did not suddenly become an “urban” person by translating the Book of Mormon with the seer stone. However Smith viewed his seer stones, they were not acceptably religious to the notions of orthodox religion (Protestant) of his day. As I’ve stated a number of times on this blog, these categories are in the eye of the beholder; people draw the line between magic and religion in all different ways. Smith’s definitions would have been very different from established Protestant clergymen. Smith in no way was trying to accomodate Mormonism to the orthodox Protestant worldview; he rejected much of that worldview. Thus, Gardner would have been better off to have rejected the religion/magic divide, and to have instead simply sought to explore how Smith understood his world.
Ultimately, Garder was not up on the latest scholarship on the the popular religion of Smith’s day (I’ve posted a number of reviews of such books on this blog). This is understandable, considering the breadth of Gardner’s topic. I’d be interested to see if such work would alter his conclusions at all.
But again, this was not central to the books main argument, which made a valuable contribution.