I remember when I was in seminary having learned that the English BoM translates back into Hebrew smoothly and easily, like slipping a hand into a glove. This was taken as evidence that the English BoM came from Hebrew in the first place. I’ve heard this idea repeated my whole life. It derives in the first instance from Herman Miller, the first translator of the BoM into Hebrew, and was popularized by Sidney B. Sperry.
Well, this past week I read four different Hebrew translations of 1 Nephi 1:1 (Miller’s from 1922, Yonatan Shunary’s from 1981, The Chronicles of the Nephites from 1988, and Tom Irvine’s from 2007). And I”m here to tell you that translating the English BoM into Hebrew isn’t like cutting into butter. It is probably just about as difficult and challenging as translating that book into any other language. To illustrate the challenges, consider the opening (and surely most read) words of the book:
Nephi. How should we spell this name? Of the four translations, there are three different spellings. The two most recent translations are into Modern Hebrew, and both spell the name nun-seghol-peh-yod. My background is in the biblical, not modern form of the language, and I used to think Chronicles was mistaken in not including a chireq under the peh, and that Irvine simply followed that mistake. But I have recently learned more about the differences between Biblical and Modern Hebrew, and I now think this is simply a reflection of modern transliteration conventions that attempt to represent the spelling of foreign words. Thus, the final yod without a preceding chireq is simply an attempt to represent the final “i” of the name Nephi. This is the same kind of transliteration methodology that would be applied to representing names like Tommy, Steve, or Kevin for that matter. In other words, Nephi is treated as a foreign name. There is no attempt to represent what the ancient spelling of the name in a Hebrew text might have been. Shunary does represent the chireq and is the spelling I would have assumed. Miller inexplicably represents the name as Nepho (pronounced neh-FOH). I wish I knew what he was smoking when he came up with that one.
Knowing how to represent the name in Hebrew would be a lot easier if we knew what language the name Nephi comes from and what its etymology is. There have been both Semitic and Egyptian suggestions, but no certainty. Therefore, all we can do is make our best guess for how to spell the name in Hebrew letters. Personally, I prefer Shunary’s spelling (but comparing Biblical and Modern Hebrew is in many respects comparing apples and oranges).
having been born. The English text of the BoM is characterized by lots of long sentences with complicated subordinate clauses; 1 Nephi 1:1 is an excellent illustration of this. Hebrew style, however, requires more coordination than subordination. Miller, Shunary and Irvine all translated with Hebrew expressions that we would reverse translate simply as “I was born,” and not “having been born.” Were I translating this, I would do the same. (Chronicles seems to punt on this point and simply describes Nephi as ben, “son of….”)
goodly. I was curious how these translations would deal with the relatively recent modern debate over the meaning of the word “goodly,” as to whether it is a faux archaism for “good” or an actual archaism for something like “possessed of goods”; i.e., “affluent.” This has been discussed a number of times on the Nacle; see for instance here. (Personally, I am open minded but agnostic on the issue. My working assumption is that it means “good,” but I am open to the other reading. I just don’t think it has been demonstrated yet.) The two modern translations both rendered “good.” Miller evaded the issue by inserting his own nuance with nikbadim “honored,” and Shunary just followed Miller and used the same word. It’s tough to translate an English word when you’re not even sure what it is supposed to mean.
parents. This is a surprising challenge to deal with, because there isn’t a word for “parents” in Biblical Hebrew. (If you do a search on parent in the KJV OT, you’ll see the word never appears in that entire literature.) This isn’t a problem for the modern translations, since Modern Hebrew has since supplied a word for parents, horim. Chronicles oddly has “I, Nephi, son of good ones (good parents).” Why they felt the need to put “good parents” in a parenthetical is beyond me. Irvine has “I, Nephi, was born of good parents.” Since Modern Hebrew has filled in this linguistic lacuna, it is not a problem for these modern translations. But what about the Biblical Hebrew translations?
Miller has something like “I, Nephi, was born beside honored fathers (aboth),” using the plural of ab “father.” This is in many ways a reasonable approach, since linguistically a masculine plural of such a word can be understood as including the feminine, and this usage for “parents” is indeed attested in Modern Hebrew. The problem is that such a usage is simply unattested in the Hebrew of the Bible, and the plural form aboth is quite common. Presented as Biblical Hebrew to someone who did not already know the BoM story, the reader would understand Nephi to be saying he was descended from honorable male ancestors, in a tribal sense. I suspect this is why Miller employed the (at first blush odd) conjunction etsel “beside”; I think the idea was to try to limit the “fathers” to Nephi’s most immediate and present forebearers, namely, his parents.
Shunary is supposed to be writing in Biblical Hebrew, but he just gives up and uses the modernism holim: “I, Nephi, was born to honored parents.” (His use of modernisms in what was supposed to be a biblical translation was controversial at the time.)
Who would have thought that something so seemingly simple as rendering the English word “parents” would have been such a challenge? Yet stumblingblocks like this lurked at almost every turn.
Please understand that none of this necessarily means the BoM is not a translation from Hebrew, but if it is, the language has been sufficiently anglicized in the translation process that it is no easier to render it back into Hebrew than it would be to render it into any other language.
 Paul Y. Hoskisson, “What’s in a Name?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000), here.
 John Gee, “A Note on the Name Nephi,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992), here, as supplemented by John Gee, “Four Suggestions on the Name Nephi,” in John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1999).