Hebrew Translations of the BoM

Someone just asked a question I see from time to time: Has the BoM ever been translated into Hebrew? In this post, I will try to summarize what I know about this subject, partly to have a convenient place to point people who raise this question in the future, and partly to garner in the comments additional information from readers to fill in the holes in what I know.

There was at least one translation done in the 1920s. LaMar C. Barrett and Blair G. Van Dyke, Holy Lands: A History of the Latter-day Saints in the Near East (American Fork: Covenant Communications, 2005), refers to a translation done in the 20s by Herman Miller, a Latter-day Saint, which was never published. There was also a translation I have seen referred to as the “Hirsch” translation, done in 1922. This translation long resided in Joseph Fielding Smith’s office safe, and Bruce R. McConkie copied the first page of it in 1973 for the Jerusalem Branch when the decision was made by Harold B. Lee (at the Branch’s urging) to produce a new translation of the BoM into Hebrew. It is unclear to me whether the Miller and the Hirsch translations are one and the same; presumably they are, as it is difficult to imagine two different full translations of the BoM into Hebrew being done in the 1920s. I am hoping that someone who knows more about the background of this/these translation(s) will help us to fill in the lacuna.

Janne M. Sjodahl, “The Book of Mormon Plates,” Improvement Era (April 1923), reprinted here, drew 14 pages of English BoM text translated into Hebrew on a single page (to show that the text could have been written on a small number of plates.) See also the accompanying article by John Gee, “Epigraphic Considerations on Janne Sjodahl’s Experiment with Nephite Writing,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001), available here. Presumably these 14 pages were taken from Miller’s full manuscript (assuming that those who have referred to a complete translation by Miller are not mistakenly assuming from this limited production that Miller did a complete translation).

In 1968 Daniel Ludlow commissioned a Hebrew translation of Jacob 5. He no longer recalls the name of the person (an Israeli) who did this for him.

Although President Lee didn’t live to see it, one of his wishes was to have the BoM translated into Hebrew. So a committee was established in Jerusalem, with David Galbraith as manager, a non-LDS Israeli named Yonatan Shunary as translator, and John Tvedtnes as reader. There is a long story behind this translation, which was begun in 1973 and resulted in an abridged translation in 1977. I was on my mission at that time and purchased a copy, but unfortunately I lost it somewhere along the way. They are very rare now, and although one can occasionally be found at DI for just a few dollars, in the Mormon secondary book market this slim paperback goes for over $100 these days. I no longer have a copy.

There are different views on what led to the discontinuation of the Shunary abridgment. The conventional wisdom is that the Church stopped publishing it in order to grease the skids for the construction of the BYU Jersusalem Center. Tvedtnes has a slightly different view. Shunary didn’t know Biblical Hebrew and wrote the translation in a modern Israeli idiom. Both Tvedtnes and seven other readers had serious reservations about it. So according to him, the translation was pulled for quality problems, and this just happened to be the expedient result anyway in light of the brewing controversy over the BYU Jerusalem Center.

More recently, an RLDS couple that does Hebrew translations professionally has produced a complete translation, with a title that translates into English as The Chronicles of the Nephites. If you try to buy this book over the internet (on e-Bay, for example), most sites will try to charge $80 plus, but it can be purchased at Restoration Bookstore for $17. (A long time ago the translators would send one for free to any LDS who asked, but I don’t know that that offer is still on the table. But that is how I got my copy.)

If anyone can add more details to the sketch I have outlined above, please add them in the comments below.

Comments

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    I have a friend who was David Galbraith’s TA, who reports that Galbraith has unpublished memoirs residing in an office somewhere in SLC that would add to this picture. It is to be hoped that someday someone will take the initiative to develop an entire article on this subject, say for the Journal of Mormon History. I’ve thought about taking a shot at it myself, but it would be awhile before I would ever get around to it.

    I should also point out that there are occasional translations of particular verses into Hebrew in scholarly articles. I did this myself once in my “Poetic Diction and Parallel Word Pairs in the BoM” article (for the link, go to my post entitled “My Publications” in the archives.

  2. You left off the best known Hebrew translation, the gold plates.

  3. Gilgamesh says:

    They are very rare now, and although one can occasionally be found at DI for just a few dollars, in the Mormon secondary book market this slim paperback goes for over $100 these days. I no longer have a copy

    My dad has a copy – they are going for nearly $350 now.

  4. Kevin,
    I saw the abridged copy in a missionary apartment in Vienna in 1995. I wish I’d nabbed it, but had no idea at the time that it was a big deal.

    BTW, I don’t understand why its being in modern Hebrew would be problematic. What would be the point of a BH BoM? Wasn’t the intent to let Israelis read it?

  5. Interesting history. That fills in several gaps in my knowledge about the fabled Hebrew translations. Thanks for the post.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Gilgamesh, thanks for the updated market pricing. The $100 figure is old, so I knew that was a minimum but I had no idea how far the market had gone since that time.

    Ronan, apparently it is kind of like how the BoM being in a KJV-like idiom made it ring as scripture to those who read it in the 19th century. Being written in modern idiom made it read too much like a newspaper or magazine and not like the ancient scriptural idiom anyone familiar with the Tanakh would expect.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I alluded to there being more to the story behind the Shunary abridgement. I’ll try to recount what I know about it here. This is basically the perspective of my friend John Tvedtnes, who was an on the ground participant; I’m sure others involved would have their own take on these events:

    The Hebrew translation project was a special
    problem, since there are so few people in the Church who really know Hebrew, and even fewer in the mid-1970s when the project was undertaken. As I mentioned in the post, the Church Translation Services Dept. set up a committee in Jerusalem, with David Galbraith as manager, Yonatan Shunary as translator, and John Tvedtnes as the final say on the reading. But whenever John would recommend
    changes to Yonatan–who didn’t really know biblical Hebrew–he would resist. He finally told David that he needed to get to BYU to do the work.

    Yonatan leveraged this gig into a teaching position at BYU plus $10,000 to translate the BoM (the highest amount previously paid for a BoM
    translation was $5,000, and many were done free of charge). That effectively left John out of the loop, but Translation Services (properly) insisted
    that Yonatan’s translation still had to pass by a second set of eyes. So they began sending portions out to various people who knew Hebrew, seven of whom criticized the work on the same grounds as John had. Finally, they got Avraham
    Gileadi involved. At the time, Avraham knew almost no biblical Hebrew, so he never found anything wrong with Yonatan’s work. This pleased Yonatan, who insisted that Avraham be the one to read through the translation.

    Afterthe Church finally published the Shunary abridgment, they sent copies around to Israelis to read and got the same negative comments that John and seven others had been giving them earlier.
    According to John, the reviews were so negative that they withdrew the translation from
    circulation. Ultimately, this also became the politically expedient thing to do, since the BYU Jerusalem Center was then being constructed and
    Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem were objecting that it would be used for proselyting. (There’s no law in Israel against proselyting, but the Church, in order to stop the demonstrations, agreed to forego its usual missionary efforts.)

    Why is it that Shunary was allowed to continue his
    translation work after so many objections to the quality of the translation?

    When Pres. Harold B. Lee came to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Branch wanted very badly to have
    the Book of Mormon available in Hebrew, so they put it to him. He conferred with his counselors and the 12, then instructed Translation Services to work with the Branch to get it done. As I’ve mentioned, they appointed David Galbraith as project manager and John Tvedtnes (both in the Branch Presidency) as the one to approve the final reading, but they wanted an Israeli to do the actual translation. (It is their policy to not allow anyone to translate into a language that is not his native tongue). What they didn’t realize is that biblical Hebrew has no native speakers and that Israelis have to learn it just like anyone else.

    David went to one of John’s professors, Haim Rabin, who was president of the Hebrew Language Academy to ask who might be willing and able to do the translation for them. Rather than recommend one of his colleagues, Rabin recommended one of his neighbors who needed the money, Yonatan Shunary. Yonatan taught handicapped children part-time and had no special expertise in Hebrew and really none in biblical Hebrew. David showed him a Hebrew translation of Jacob 5 that Daniel Ludlow had commissioned in 1968 (and which Daniel had circulated to Israeli academics, asking if any of them recognized this ancient text). David told him he didn’t know who had translated the piece (and Daniel couldn’t remember). To his surprise, Shunary claimed to have been the translator–something that John has always doubted. To
    David, this was a sign from heaven that Shunary was the man the Lord wanted to do the job. This is why he caved in to all of Shunary’s demands. To do otherwise would be to go against the Lord’s will. John thought it was all a big scam.
    Shunary, who had never taught university courses (and didn’t have the credentials to do so) suddenly ended up with a two-year job at BYU and
    a translation job, which had “overruns” that brought in more than the $10,000 specified in the original contract. He got the Church to pay for him and his mother (despite the fact that he was in his late 30s or early 40s,he was still living with his mother) with him to Provo and to provide a
    home for them here.

  8. Arnold Green’s BYU Studies article “A Survey of LDS Proselyting Efforts to the Jewish People” also notes that a Rabbi Edward Joseph Isaacson translated the Book of Mormon into Yiddish in the late 1880s.

    FWIW, Sidney Sperry’s Book of Mormon Compendium has a bit of information on the Miller translation, including a letter from J.E. Hickman to Joseph Fielding Smith regarding the quality of the translation (Hickman apparently reviewed part of translation with the aid of Dr. Joshua Bloch and another Hebrew scholar).

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Justin. I was quite unfamiliar with the Yiddish translation–wow! Now that you mention it, I do recall the letter you are speaking of from Sperry’s BoM Compendium; thanks for the useful reminder.

  10. M.D. Pack’s master’s thesis on possible lexical Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon has further information here. He notes that Miller translated 80 pages of the Book of Mormon (citing to a BYU library microfilm) and that a man named Mordecai Kamrat translated Jacob 5 (pp. 3-4).

  11. I also located this interesting listing in the BYU library catalog:

    Book of Mormon. Hebrew. 1948

    Uniform title: Book of Mormon. Hebrew. 1948.

    Title: Sefer Mormon : sifur niktav al yadi Mormon aly lochit metochan lochot Nephi [Microform] / nettak beshophet ivri al yadi zvi Hirsh Miller.

    Publication info: Salt Lake City : [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1948]

    Physical description: 622 p.

    Reproduction note: Microfilm. Salt Lake City : Genealogical Society, 1948.– 2 reels ; 35 mm.

    Local note: Negative and positive.

  12. I also found this interesting listing in the BYU library catalog:

    Book of Mormon. Hebrew. 1948

    Uniform title: Book of Mormon. Hebrew. 1948.

    Title: Sefer Mormon : sifur niktav al yadi Mormon aly lochit metochan lochot Nephi [Microform] / nettak beshophet ivri al yadi zvi Hirsh Miller.

    Publication info: Salt Lake City : [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1948]

    Physical description: 622 p.

    Reproduction note: Microfilm. Salt Lake City : Genealogical Society, 1948.– 2 reels ; 35 mm.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Justin, you da man! This material appears to answer several questions:

    1. Since it dates the Miller translation to 1922, it is almost certain that the “Hirsch” translation (which also dates to that year) and the Miller translatin are one and the same. (It’s still unclear to me why some people reference this with the name “Hirsch,” however.)

    2. Miller’s translation was not complete, but about 80 pages worth. Presumably, the Miller-Sjodahl experiment in Nephite writing, which represented 14 pages of English text, was taken from the longer Miller translation.

    3. This identification of Mordecai Kamrat as the Jew who translated Jacob 5 for Daniel Ludlow confirms Tvedtnes’ suspicion that Shunary lied about having been the translator.

  14. Kevin, I have the RLDS translation–is it done in Biblical Hebrew? What is your opinion of this version? Is this widely used by members in Jerusalem?

  15. Kevin, I noticed the catalog listing’s reference to “Hirsh Miller.” Perhaps someone can take a look at the source itself.

  16. Christopher Smith says:

    Thanks for that, Kevin. This is something I’ve often wondered about, myself.

  17. I admit. You have got me really curious. I wonder how the modern Hebrew translation of the Isaiah passages in the BoM compare with the MT, for that matter the Great Isaiah Scroll.

    I need to pick up an RLDS copy.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    The catalog listing appears to nail it that there was only one translation from 1922, that by Miller. Thanks again, Justin, your help on this topic has been invaluable.

    BiV, although I have the RLDS one, I’ve never spent much time trying to read it. I read Biblical Hebrew, but it is a slow and laborious process for me, usually with a grammar in one hand and a lexicon in the other. So I’m afraid I can’t offer a review of this particular translation.

  19. I’ve been hoping from time to time that I could just get a photocopy of the Hebrew language Book of Mormon … now I’m wondering what edition I’d want or whether it’s worth the effort to look at any of these.

    What I’m reading here about translation efforts reminds me of stories a woman told me about the many efforts missionaries made to get her baptized. Every time some random factor would mess everything up (i.e., the font would be empty, the church would be locked and no one had a key, etc. and etc.). Then, when her husband was finally willing to listen to missionaries, everything went smoothly and they were both baptized together. Maybe this translation of the Book of Mormon into Hebrew project is one of those things that just has to wait until the right time. This really isn’t the kind of thing you want to mess up.

  20. Kevin, do you know details about the Arabic Book of Mormon?

  21. I know Dil Parkinson edited or did much of the Arabic Book of Mormon’s voweling.

  22. Thanks, danithew. I remember hearing that the Hebrew and Arabic translations were released at the same time to avoid offense. I’m not certain if that is true.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    My understanding is that that was indeed the case, Justin.

    danithew, John Tvedtnes’ view is that what is needed is a scholarly translation of the BoM into Hebrew, with footnotes, so it would be perceived as a work of scholarship and not as a proselyting tool. Approached that way such a translation would not be so controversial.

  24. Dil did do at least a large portion of the Arabic voweling. There have been off and on complaints about the Arabic translation as well. It is a fairly simplified, modern Arabic for the most part. I’ve heard some Arab members complain that it feels like a poor translation unworthy of a great religious book (linguistically the Qur’an is THE gold standard of formal Arabic language and it sets a very high and now somewhat archaic standard not unlike say Shakespearean English) as has apparently been the case with the Hebrew iterations. But I’ve also had Arab members tell me how much they liked the simple, clear nature of the translation (my view too, but then I’m not a native speaker). Given that most Arabs aren’t Qur’anic scholars any more than most Jews are Torah or Talmudic scholars, I tend to think there’s validity in both points of view and that it’s a matter for executive decisions that may vary over time according to the church’s broader circumstances in these parts of the world.

    If I have heard right, there were apparently two main translators one of whom was more flowery than the other. I’ve been reading the Arabic for my personal scripture study for a couple years now and I think I can spot where the styles diverge…I think. Frankly you’ve probably got to be a native speaker or someone who has gotten far better than most Arabic students ever get to really be able to pick up that level of subtlety (I can easily spot the difference between an old KJV-style Arabic Bible and a newer NIV-style one, but stylistic differences between translators varying only a few degrees in the same book are tougher for me).

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    Jamal, thanks for this insight on the Arabic side of the equation.

  26. Hey there Jamal – it’s cool to see you around in the blogs. I think we went to Hebron once together – at least that’s how I remember it.

    Kevin, I think it’s a great idea to create a scholarly translation of the Book of Mormon with footnotes. I’m sure it would be beneficial and some of us would enjoy having free access to a Hebrew language Book of Mormon text.

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