On Translation

I read with interest this fun column by Stephen Smoot about the Book of Mormon and the necessity to perceive it as a real history of real people. His article has a nice companion piece/counterargument here that I would also recommend folks read. I like Stephen and I find him and the W&T author to be thoughtful. The discussion has caused me to reflect a little about some of the issues in LDS notions of translation, where those issues take us logically, and the ramifications on us as a community when reading scriptures translated by Joseph Smith.

There have been some excellent conferences and articles on the notion of translation in the LDS context, and I would also recommend people take a look at those sessions as well as the more recent (and excellent) introduction to the Book of Abraham volume in the Joseph Smith papers. They provide some essential background for those trying to figure out how to understand the translation process. It should be understood that these are my own half-baked ideas, and that if you have a different approach, that’s great too. It should also be understood that absolutely nothing in this blog post is new, people have been saying stuff like this for decades upon decades, it just seems to be a little more relevant today given where we’re at with translation as a concept in the church.

I tend to look heavily at the JST and the Book of Abraham to inform my understanding of the translation process, because they are the only instances where we have both the origin source and the output. This might be a mistake – the Book of Mormon translation mechanisms might have been completely different from these others. It is very difficult to know for sure. We could say, for example, that the seer stones were not used the same way, although this may reflect a transition in Smith’s own spirituality and not necessarily a difference in the input-output linguistic relationships or other elements. Then again, the history is incomplete, and the stones might have been used in pretty much exactly the same way. But I still think it’s reasonable to look at those texts and extrapolate from them a general theory of how JSJ viewed translation, seership and scripture. If this extrapolation is not reasonable, then we’re saying that the Book of Mormon is sui generis, which makes it very difficult to examine for a number of reasons.

Anyhow, if JSJ translations went something like the JST or the Book of Abraham translations, we can draw a few broad conclusions:

– The translation is not necessarily a linguistic one; that is, there may not be a simple relationship between the Reformed Egyptian text and the English language version.

– The translation may be literal, or based on JSJ’s inspiration as to what the text should say, or it may not relate to the source material at all.

– The translation is likely to draw heavily from contemporaneous influences, especially the Bible.

Taking that back to the Book of Mormon, here are a couple of other possible conclusions:

– Even if we had the Golden Plates, it is possible that the Book of Mormon says something different from what is written on those plates.

– JSJ’s translation possibly reflects the personal inspiration of the translator, both in terms of subject matter and form of translation.

A key difference between the Book of Mormon and the other translations performed by JSJ are the witnesses and angelic involvement. The three witnesses (Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris) comment on the translation, having heard the voice of God concerning it:

That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of which hath been spoken. And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.

Note that they do not comment on the quality of the translation or its accuracy; they testify broadly as to the source of the translation (“by the gift and power of God”) and that because of this source they know “that the work is true”. What does true mean in this context? That the translation is linguistically accurate? That the book is historical? That the gospel, as contained therein, is the truth? There are a number of possible interpretations on this point, and in light of what we know about the other Smith translations, we should think about this a little bit. Is the Book of Abraham true? I personally hold it to be scripture, so yes, I think it is true, and I use that word in a similar way when I say “the Church is true”: a multi-factored expression of community, how it expresses Gospel truths, and how it brings me to Christ.

Historicity is tied to translation, because if the translation is inaccurate, how can we know that the events described in the Book of Mormon actually happened? One possibility, I suppose, is that the Book of Mormon is historically accurate regardless of what the source text actually says; that is, JSJ’s revealed text is the historically accurate one, and the plates themselves are less relevant. But I don’t think the Book of Mormon holds itself out that way. Stephen Smoot expresses the concern that we must not only believe the doctrinal messages of the book, but also the narrative of the book as real history, and the narrative of JSJ as real history. The book itself purports to be real. How can we have faith in Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or the Church if this stuff is figurative, or worse yet, a fabrication? I guess a couple of replies: first, lots of scripture is clearly figurative, but that doesn’t make it less true or less a catalyst for faith (see, e.g., a lot of the Old Testament). Second, I don’t have faith in the Church or in the Book of Mormon, I have faith in Jesus Christ, and that ultimately I measure the truth of all of these things by how effective they are in helping me develop a relationship with Jesus. In my case, they’ve been instrumental regardless of historicity or translation.

And I guess a final point is that nothing I’ve said here formally excludes the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the accuracy of the Three Witnesses, or JSJ’s own account. Rather, I would say that based on what we know about JSJ translations, we should be willing to allow for a variety of possibilities in personal belief around these matters. I’m not sure where I fall on these issues as a personal matter. I was raised with fairly traditional teachings about the Book of Mormon, have studied various evidences for a long time, but I am not sure myself. It’s definitely tempting, though, to look at someone’s testimony as somehow deficient because they are a hard-core Book of Mormon literalist or, conversely, that they don’t take the text as seriously as I think they should. That has a negative impact on community, and I hope that’s not where we should go as a group. Rather, let’s foster belief in Christ and faith where we find it. For me, the Book of Mormon is a book revealed to us by a prophet. I’m grateful for it, even as I wrestle through some of these issues.


  1. Steve, thank you for this: “we should be willing to allow for a variety of possibilities in personal belief around these matters.” Having been pressed fairly hard on this very issue, I find that I am personally beyond it (after decades of practice), but I agree that taking a hard line on the correct version of belief is damaging to the community.

  2. I’m with Chris on this one. I think this is well done for opening a conversation, even if I’m currently at a point where I’m good without answers to some of these questions.

  3. For those interested, my talk at the Faith in a Secular Age conference on Abundant Language this Saturday afternoon will offer some of those possibilities for translation. (It’s a bit of a teaser for my translation book, which is due out summer 2020 from OUP.) The UU Press collected volume will also offer some context for a generous range of committed and faithful thought about the nature of translation. I personally think it’s a great time for both people who lean more historicist and those who lean a bit less historicist.

  4. Three more considerations, which accommodate a variety of views.

    1. Joseph said “the Title Page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf… a genuine and literal translation of the Title Page of the Original Book of Mormon, as recorded on the plates.” He never said that about the rest of the translation, which leaves open the possibility/likelihood that the rest of the translation was not literal. But for him to say the Title Page was a literal translation, he needed to know what was actually on the plates.

    2. Apart from the proper nouns and the activities in the narrative, nearly every phrase and concept in the text that are not found in the Bible are found in other contemporaneous works, which is what we would expect if Joseph was the actual translator. That is, as a translator, he would have to draw on his own mental language bank, based on words he had read and/or heard.

    3. Many of the unique terms and phrases in the Book of Mormon (those not found in the King James Bible) are also found in the D&C and PofGP (Abraham, Moses, and JS-H), suggesting a common origin, which makes sense with Joseph as the translator and recipient of revelation, as filtered through his own mental language bank.

  5. Sam, I’ve heard rumblings about your translation book. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  6. Second, on looking forward to Sam’s book

  7. Sam, Will you deal with Roger Terry’s theory?

    Jonathan, People say lots of things. Why would Joseph have to know what was on the plates to know that the title page was a literal [whatever that means?] translation? The fact of literalness could as well have been revealed to him as anything else. How does Joseph have to “draw on his own mental language bank” if he was reading words that someone made appear on the seer stone? Unless, of course, he was the one who made them appear. Maybe he did — like I am part of making these words appear on my monitor. Maybe someone else made the words appear — like a blog poster Joseph did not control.

    I’ll read Sam’s book with interest, but “For me, the Book of Mormon is a book [including errors of men] revealed to us by a prophet [who did not always act as a prophet]. I’m grateful for it, even as I [no longer bother to] wrestle through some of these issues” while thinking ““we should be willing to allow for a variety of possibilities in personal belief around these matters.”
    Thanks, Steve.

  8. Well thought and said Steve.

  9. “How does Joseph have to “draw on his own mental language bank” if he was reading words that someone made appear on the seer stone?”
    This is a common misunderstanding; I’m not arguing this is the way it happened, but reading words off the stone doesn’t necessarily exclude Joseph’s mind from the translation.Stephen Ricks has argued this, for example, i.e. Joseph gets the meaning of the text in his mind via the spirit, and must try to formulate English to express it. When he arrives at something sufficient/acceptable, he knows it is so because it appears on the stone, and he reads it off.

  10. Ben, A question is neither an understanding nor a misunderstanding. Did you read the following sentences in the comment? Thanks for the summary of Ricks’ theory.

  11. Owen Witesman says:

    I am a professional literary translator with nearly two decades of experience trying to thread the needle of balancing “faithfulness” to source texts with fluency in the target texts I and my editors create. For me, every page of the Book of Mormon screams “I AM A TRANSLATION” in garish, blinking neon lights.

  12. Owen Witesman says:

    And perhaps I should add: Unlike the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants does not sound translated to me. It sounds like someone trying to mimic a style of language that is not his own—a pastiche.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    That’s great.

  14. Owen,
    Can you give some examples of the signs of translation? I clearly see the convoluted grammar as one sign that English was not the original language of the narrative. You can probably provide many more.

  15. Another Roy says:

    1) I believe that the golden plates were more spiritual or mystical in nature than physical.
    2) I also believe that, whether physical or not, JSJ did not seem to use them directly when translating.
    3) I am willing to see the whole of the BoM as allegorical revelation from God, heavily filtered through the medium of the mind of JSJ.

  16. JR, I assume you’re referring to the review of Brant Gardner’s book I wrote for Journal of Book of Mormon Studies a few years ago. That was some fun speculation, but I doubt Sam will take it seriously enough to address. What I also said in that review was that I viewed the Book of Mormon as a million-piece jigsaw puzzle that we have barely begun to put together. I still feel that way. The book is extremely complex with compelling evidence that it is inspired, but it also contains internal inconsistencies, textual clues that lead off in odd directions (for the record, I have proofread Skousen’s most recent volumes in the Critical Text Project), plot problems, language from the KJV skillfully woven into the text (see Nick Frederick’s work), as well as Protestant theology and a host of other sometimes bizarre clues. For the record, I have no reason to doubt the personal accounts of either the Witnesses (I also recently edited a biography of Martin Harris) or those who viewed the translation process. But sometimes what is in the text does not exactly square with the peripheral accounts from the early 1800s. I’m still far from understanding what this book is and what it is not. Simplistic explanations all fall short, in my opinion.

  17. Thanks Roger — was hoping you would chime in! I know this post is simplistic compared to a lot of what you’ve worked with.

  18. Taking the Book of Mormon historically can mean several things.To me, taking the Book of Mormon as history means that I believe the story Joseph Smith told: that an angel revealed the book to him and that the book was the product of real ancient living people. But to me, the idea that real, historical, fallible people would keep a record for thousands of years in which every statement was literal historical fact is really hard to believe. That’s just not how ancient people thought or spoke about things. It’s all kinds of common for ancient writers to present myth and legend as history. It would be weird if the Book of Mormon were any different. So I believe that Moroni was real, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Nephi or the brother of Jared or anyone else were depicted without any agenda, or even that they were all necessarily real people. I think there’s probably at least a kernel of historical truth for everything in Moroni’s record, but there’s a lot unknown about the transmission of, for example, Nephi’s record, through countless redactors down to Mormon and Moroni. And taking the Book of Mormon as a real historical artifact means taking seriously that unknown.

    My personal belief is close, I imagine, to Stephen’s, but I confess that I don’t see the problem with allowing a person to believe that the Book of Mormon is scripture and yet not historical if they can find a way to square it in their own mind. I think that’s a weak reading of the text, but I’m not willing to tell anybody they’re not welcome in the church if that’s the reading they choose.

  19. JKC, we already believe that some books are scripture but not historical.

  20. Yep. Of course the book of Mormon arguably makes stronger claims to be historical than, say, Job or Jonah, but still, scripture but not history is not an inconceivable thing.

  21. Right, I think the biggest problem with treating the BoM that way comes from the book itself, as well as statements of church leaders. But we’re already seeing a shift with respect to the latter, for example the recent statements about BoM geography. Anyways, I don’t personally see it as a weak reading of the text; I think ultimately it’s a reading that is likely to preserve faith in the text and its teachings regardless of corroborative evidences.

  22. “Weak reading” is more disparaging, I think, than I meant. I just mean it’s not the reading that makes the most sense to me. I don’t begrudge anybody that reading if it works for them.

  23. This is what I come to BCC for! There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to catch up on this topic but I love hearing your thoughts. THANK YOU for your study and insights. I think I just need to find a killer e-reader device and start digging.

  24. Yes, Roger, it was a fun speculation. So is Steve Ricks’. I’ll go with your comment here and continue to focus on other things. Thanks.

  25. My report from Stake Conference last night (somewhere in Utah) – Area Seventy in attendance, he reminded us that Joseph Smith had a 3rd grade education yet the book was the most correct book and contained many Hebraisms and complex descriptions of travel, horticulture, two major civilizations etc.

    Behold the party line.

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