Die Boek van Mormon Revisited

A little over two years ago I did a post titled “Die Boek van Mormon” in which I reacted to a story from John Pontius about how one Felix Mynhardt translated the Book of Mormon into the Afrikaans language. The story recounted as a faith promoting aspect of this that he translated the text from English first into Ancient Egyptian, and then from there into Afrikaans, and the text was obviously an Egyptian document, or something like that. I took the view that that was ridiculous, that no linguist worth his salt would actually approach a translation project that way, that there would be no virtue or benefit to creating an intermediate translation like that rather than just translating directly from the English ur-text into Afrikaans.

I concluded with two possibilities:

So one possibility is that Mynhardt made some faith-affirming statement about his experience in translating the book, and Pontius has simply not communicated it accurately.

The other possibility is that Mynhardt did indeed say something like this (Pontius claims he checked with other missionaries and they have similar recollections) and that Mynhardt was a bit of a pompous nutcase.

A few days ago John’s wife Terri posted the faith promoting story again on her blog, here. She mentioned that there was a contemporaneous record of the key May 14, 1972 meeting in the Church Archives. And a commenter, D. Charles Pyle, gave a lengthy quote from that source, as follows:

“There are other semantic difficulty — which was the translation of the holy name of the Lord God. The Hebrew origin of the Bible has been translated merely as Lord God, Jehovah, the Lord of Lords, etc. But in each instance it is possible to consult the available Hebrew or Chaldean text and arrive at a satisfactory ending. In the case of the Book of Mormon, the original was written in reformed Egyptian according to Mormon 9:32. And such examples of the various Egyptian languages that are extant do not contain a word or phrase which can be rendered by Jahveh or Lord God, as understood by us. … Now another problem arose from the indirect quotations from the King James version of the Bible which was known at the time. Direct quotation such as from Jeremiah, etc., could be rendered directly from the Afrikaans version. But indirect quotations or references not cited word for word caused many a headache. And I afterwards found that if I translated the relevant passages from the English into Hebrew first and then translated the Hebrew, however cumbersome this may sound, actually those sentences made better sense. This was particularly the case when words or phrases are used in the English but not so in the King James version. There are so many instances of these I shall not even attempt to cite them. The point I wish to make is that this to me proves that the Book of Mormon was not thought up but had in fact a solid matter of fact origin of some Semitic language.

I think you will have understood by now why the Book of Mormon took more than a year to translate and another year to revise. I undertook the work with some diffidence. As I progressed, I came from passage after passage of the above nature New Testament words and phrases used in a Pre-New Testament setting.

I could only reconcile myself of the prevelance when I had transliterated them into the Hebrew idiom. Retranslating using the familiar idiom would of course have been a natural thing to do in Joseph Smith’s case. The problem is how did he translate? Did he “see” the correct rendering as a whole or render each passage piece-meal? Considering the time stated for completing the whole work, I cannot believe the latter explanation. I refer you anyway to the History of the Church, Volume 1, page 132, further.

Now as I progressed the mass of detail comprehended in the Book of Mormon no fact conflicting with any other impressed me more and more. One would be inclined to either accept the entire work as inspired or to repudiate it in it’s entirety. To repudiate it would mean ignoring the plain fact that that it was conceived and written inside a space of three months which proves rather that it was inspired. Living with it as I have done for three years does not make it easy to dismiss it entirely. …”

(Transvaal Stake meeting transcript and recording, LR 9256 24, Folder 1, pages 5-7, CHL, spelling and grammar as in original, ellipses Pyle’s, emphasis added in bold)

To me, that contemporaneous record resolves the mystery. Of my two possibilities, the first is the case. In the zeal for telling a faith affirming story, the details of what Mynhardt actually said that he did had not been communicated accurately.

First, the intermediate language involved was not ancient Egyptian, but rather Hebrew. Second, Mynhardt did not say he translated the whole text first into Hebrew and then into Afrikaans, which as I have insisted would make no linguistic sense. Rather he did this in a very limited context, where in my view it actually would make sense. He pointed out that where there were direct quotations from the OT, he could simply use the existing Afrikaans OT as a source for those passages. And that is perfectly natural; any translator would do the same thing. (We call that “riding a translation pony.”) But sometimes the quotations are not exact; a few words might be added here and there, or in other cases it’s more of an allusion than a direct quotation. And it is in this very limited context where he said it was his practice to do an intermediate translation into Hebrew first and then into Afrikaans. And in this limited context, such a process would indeed make linguistic sense. It wouldn’t be absolutely essential to do it that way, but when a text is partially derived from a known Hebrew source, I can certainly see the value of trying to figure out how the BoM text would hold together in Hebrew first before doing the Afrikaans rendering.

So I conclude several things: (i) Mynhardt wasn’t the kook the original version of the story made him out to be; (ii) as I suspected, the original version of the story was well intended but simply lacked the linguistic sophistication to represent accurately what it was that Mynhardt said that he did, and (iii) to me there is nothing particularly faith promoting about this practice; rather I see it as normal linguistic due diligence in the process of crafting a translation of the English BoM (with its numerous quotations and semi-quotations of OT scriptural passages) into a modern language (in this case, Afrikaans). It is true Mynhardt interpreted his experience as suggesting that there was an ancient Hebraic origin to the text, but this is really no different than the extensive literature on Hebraisms in the BoM and in and of itself does not prove such an origin; the value of his statement to this effect will be in the eye of the beholder.

 

Comments

  1. Whenever people re-tell a story, even with good intentions, some details are lost or changed. But the underlying truth is still truth. God be praised and thanked for the wonderful gift of the Book of Mormon, and all of our scriptures.

  2. Bryan H. says:

    Fascinating story. Thanks for the follow-up.

  3. David Williams says:

    i served a mission in South Africa and learned to speak Afrikaans so I read your post 2 years ago with interest. I also read Pontius’ post. I was in South Africa about 12 years after the Afrikaans translation was introduced so I have no first-hand knowledge of Mynhardt’s statements.
    Like you, I wasn’t sure about Ponitus’ statement so I searched the Church News and the Ensign to see if I could find any reference to Mynhardt’s work. I found an article in the March 1973 Ensign titled, “The Saints in South Africa”. The article talks about Mynhardt’s work. He said he relied on the Lord’s help to complete the translation. Interestingly, the article says Mynhardt is fluent in 15 listed languages. Egyptian is not one of them.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,748 other followers