On Translating 1 Nephi 1:1 into Hebrew

Some years ago my friend Bryan Buchanan discovered a treasure in the Brigham Young office files. In January of 1846 an otherwise unknown man named Bernard Gadol sent Brigham Young unsolicited a translation of the first chapter of the Book of Mormon (equaling 1 Nephi 1:1 – 1 Nephi 5:22 in modern editions) into Hebrew. He offered to do more such translations into Hebrew, German and French in exchange for a team to take him with the Church into the wilderness. At the time Young was (as my first managing partner used to say) “up to his ass in alligators” and never responded. Absolutely nothing further is known of Gadol (although if Ardis sees this and takes it as a challenge, I won’t try to stop her from looking). His request might suggest he was a member, but he does not appear in early membership records.

Anyway, I thought it might be enlightening to use Gadol’s translation of 1 Nephi 1:1 into Hebrew as a way of examining some of the challenges inherent in attempts to render the English of the Book of Mormon into the Hebrew language. So below I give the standard English text of 1 Nephi 1:1, which was the target, followed by Gadol’s translation into Hebrew (for precision in transliteration using the Michigan transcription method), followed by my retroversion of the Hebrew back into English as a way of evaluating what he did. I then give a commentary on the translation.

The Michigan transcription system was designed in the 1970s at the University of Michigan as a way to transliterate Hebrew precisely using only the ASCII characters available on a standard keyboard. This was the system used on the old b-hebrew email list. For instance, Hebrew has three S sounds; the system distinguishes them as follows: Samek S, Sin &, Shin $. The full details of the system are given at the bottom of this post.

Standard English Text:

[1] I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

Bernard Gadol, 1846 Translation into Hebrew (hereafter, “Gadol”)

):ANIY N”PIY NOWLAD:T.IY M”)FBOWT +OBIYM (AL K.”N LFMAD:T.IY M:(A+ MIL:MEDET )FBIY W:KIY RF)ITIY CFROWT RAB.OWT B.IY:M”Y XAYAY )AP (AL ZEH HFYITIY NEX:MFD MAX:AMEDET G:DOWLFH M”(IM ):ELOHAY K.FL Y:M”Y XAYAY K.AY HOW) NFTAN LIY XFK:MFH G:DOWLFH MI+OBOWT W:SOWDOWT ):ELOHIYM (AL K.”N )ET S”PER HAMA(:A&IYM ):A$ER HFYWW B.:YFMAY

English Retroversion of Gadol

I, Nephi, was begotten of good fathers, therefore I learned a little from the teaching of my father, and because I have seen many distresses in the days of my life, and yet in spite of this I was greatly desired being with my God all the days of my life; because He gave me great wisdom of the goodness and mysteries of God; therefore I wrote a book of my activities that happened in my days.

Commentary on Gadol

Nephi. It is widely accepted that Nephi is not a natively Hebrew name, as believers see it as most likely derived from Egyptian nfr (see the Book of Mormon Onomasticon, ad loc), and nonbelievers see it as most likely derived from the place name Nephi in the KJV of 2 Maccabees 1:36 (Greek naphtha). Therefore, the sole goal of the translator is to render English Nephi into a reasonable Hebrew transliteration of that name. Gadol renders the name as N”PIY, which is acceptable. He spells Nephi with a Tsere (a long e sound), so the name would be pronounced Nayfee.

having been born. The obvious verb for “born” would be YFLAD, which Gadol indeed uses. I think if I were trying to replicate the subordination of “having been born” I might have tried a perfect passive participle, but Gadol uses a first person singular perfect, simple passive (niphal verb stem), “I was born,” which I think is fine, and indeed has been the choice of other, later translators as well.

goodly. For “goodly” Gadol uses +OBIYM “good.” The notion that “goodly” is an archaism for “possessed of goods” meaning “affluent” is of recent vintage, so all existing Hebrew translation attempts read it as “good,” which I personally think is the correct approach (“goodly” being a faux archaism to give the word an antiquarian flavor).

parents. The word “parents” provides a fascinating challenge for the translator because, perhaps surprisingly, that word never occurs in the Hebrew Bible. (Try doing a search on the Blue Letter Bible for “parents” in the KJV OT to confirm.) Modern Hebrew has supplied a modern coinage for “parents,” HOWRIYM, which is used in translations of the Book of Mormon into Modern Hebrew, but that word is of course unattested in Biblical Hebrew. Gadol uses )FBWOT “fathers,” which is an understandable attempt, because the masculine plural can have a gender inclusive meaning (i.e., “ancestors”). The problem is that a person not already familiar with the Book of Mormon text would almost certainly read that as a reference to Nephi’s male ancestors of the tribe of Manasseh as opposed to his immediate father and mother. Interestingly, Herman Miller (who would have had no knowledge of the Gadol translation and believed he was the first to translate the Book of Mormon into Hebrew) in the 1920s also used the word )FBWOT “fathers,” but he preceded it with )”CEL “at the side of, beside, close to, near.” Rather ingeniously, Miller was trying to say these were the ancestors most close or near to Nephi, i.e. his parents. Janne Sjodahl misunderstood this when he did a reverse translation of Miller as part of a report he wrote for Joseph Fielding Smith, rendering “I, Nepho, being born from the side [lineage] of honored fathers.” He took “from the side” as somehow being a reference to lineage in general, but the point was this was Nephi’s most immediate lineage, i.e., his parents. (And yes, Miller for some odd reason spelled Nephi’s name as Nepho.) So while understandable, I think if I were doing it I would paraphrase with the Hebrew equivalent of “a good father and mother,” as that seems like the only way to express what was intended clearly. Since “fathers” would be read as masculine, I rendered “begotten” as opposed to BoM “born,” because females bear but males beget. (Much as Jesus is the “Only begotten son,” not the “Only born son.”)

somewhat. English “somewhat” is interesting. Gadol renders M:(A+ “a little, few, fewness.” In English the “somewhat” seems almost a throw away word to suggest rhetorical false modesty, but in Gadol’s rendering the word seems to have more substance, as though Nephi really did feel inadequate compared to his father Lehi.

having seen many afflictions. Once again, the subordination of “having seen many afflictions” becomes coordination with a causal clause using a finite verb: “and because I have seen many distresses.” I was originally inclined to translate RF)ITIY as “I saw,” but then it occurred to me that the perfect form could be rendered “I have seen,” and I confirmed this with Genesis 7:1, where the same verb form is rendered “have I seen.” Gadol chose to use CFR:OWT for “afflictions,” which most literally refers to a female adversary or rival, but also can refer conceptually to straits, distresses or anguish. An easier way to reflect “many afflictions” would have been to use the first two words of Psalm 34:19, R:AB.OWT RF(OWT rendered in the KJV “many are the afflictions.” Given the influence of the KJV on Book of Mormon English, I have often thought it would be useful to use English from the KJV OT as a kind of reverse translation pony to determine the most appropriate Hebrew to use for a given word or expression in the Book of Mormon. Of course, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (much less the Blue Letter Bible) did not yet exist in 1846 (being first published in 1890) and so there would have been no easy way for Gadol to discern this possibility.

In the course of my days. Gadol renders this “in the days of my life” (not attempting to reflect the metaphor of the English word “course” derived from Latin cursus “a running [of a race]”). Miller similarly rendered the expression with the Hebrew equivalent of “in all the days of my life.”

having been highly favored of the Lord. I confess that there are portions of this text that I am not entirely sure I am reading correctly. For instance NEX:MFD is the niphal (passive) participle of the verb XFMAD. According to the lexicon the niphal participle of that verb means something like “to be desirable, costly, precious.”. That seems to be in the same wheelhouse of “favored,” but the nuance seems a little bit off to me. (Note that my Hebrew is rusty, so I welcome [gentle] corrections or explanations from our readers, among whom are a number with PhD level Biblical Hebrew chops.)

mysteries. SOWDOWT, rendered “mysteries” here to match the BoM target, can refer to a (divine) council meeting, or the ounsel resulting from the divine council meeting. The idea is that the Lord’s prophet would be brought by vision into the Divine Council (or Council of the Gods), participate in its deliberations, and then return and report the decision of the Council to the people.

Conclusions

  1. I think Gadol did a fine job with this effort. It is a shame that Brother Brigham was too busy to respond to Gadol’s query; for the price of a pair of oxen we could have had a complete translation of the Book of Mormon into Hebrew about 80 years earlier then the actual first such complete translation, accomplished by Herman Miller in the 1920s.
  2. Sidney B. Sperry popularized the idea that the English Book of Mormon translates easily and seamlessly into Hebrew, because in his view the original language of the Book of Mormon was in fact Hebrew. I personally take an agnostic stance on the original language of the BoM. But even if that language were Hebrew, it doesn’t necessarily follow that translating the English BoM into Hebrew is easy, like slipping a socked foot into an old slipper or cutting through butter with a warm knife. Translating the English BoM into Hebrew is every bit as challenging, and requires just as much skill and knowledge on the part of the translator, as translating that book into any other language.
  3. I think there is a tremendous amount to be gained when students read the BoM in a non-native language. In high school I took one semester of Spanish the first half of my senior year (with one other senior, a junior, and everyone else freshmen). I only did that because my sister two years older than me got accepted to the University of Illinois, but she didn’t have enough foreign language credit and so had to spend the summer before her freshman year meeting that requirement, and her experience kind of freaked me out so I signed up for the class as a senior. Then I got accepted to BYU, which didn’t even have a language requirement, so I didn’t even bother taking the second half of my one Spanish class.

When I got my mission call to Colorado, I was thrilled, partly because I had lived there for a while as a boy, partly because of the mountains, partly because the Church was well established there without being overwhelming, but also partly because I wouldn’t have to learn a foreign language. At the time that sounded really hard and was not something I wanted to do.

As time progressed I began to realize what I was missing out on. I gained an interest in biblical languages as a missionary, which I would follow up on at BYU. And even as a missionary I felt a certain envy for missionaries who actually learned a language on their missions. Because the experience of reading the scriptures in a non-native language is different from reading in one’s native language, and forces the reader to struggle more with the details.

I’ve probably read 1 Nephi 1:1 at least a couple hundred times in my life (not that I’ve read the full BoM that many times), and for most of those readings I haven’t gained anything new. I’m too fluent in English, I’ve read the text too many times, so it’s old hat. In contrast, preparing this post required me to struggle and wrestle with every word. I learned more from this exercise than in all those couple of hundred English readings combined. So I feel a bit of holy envy for those who gained a language from their mission experience; that is a tremendous, life-long gift to be cherished.

 

The Michigan Transcription System (developed in the 1970s for transliterating Hebrew using only ASCII keyboard characters)

Consonants

Aleph )

Beth B

Gimel G

Daleth D

Heh H

Waw W

Zayin Z

Cheth X

Teth +

Yod Y

Kaph K

Lamedh L

Mem M

Nun N

Samek S

Pe P

Ayin (

Tsade C

Qoph Q

Resh R

Sin &

Shin $

Tav T

Vowels

Patah A

Qamets F

Segol E

Tsere “

Hireq I

Holem O

Qamets Chatuf F

Qibbuts U

Shureq W

Shewa :

Hatef Patah :A

Hatef Segol :E

Hatef Qamets :F

Miscellaneous

Ketiv *

Qere **

Dagesh .

Meqqeph –

Comments

  1. He spells Nephi with a Tsere (a long e sound), so the name would be pronounced Nayfee.

    Interesting; that’s how it’s pronounced in German too. Anyway, great post. I agree that approaching the Book of Mormon, or any text, in another language is a good way to wrestle with it and gain new insights.

  2. Fascinating post. Hebrew is my native tongue, and even for me the transliteration is nearly impossible to read. Could we get the Hebrew letters by any chance?

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Allen, since the full letter would be meaningful for you, I’ll give you the link below. (I understand about the transliteration system; I got used to it when I was on the old b-hebrew list, but at first it looks like gobbledigook.) On my system, once you click on the link if you click on the right arrow four times it will take to where 1 Nephi starts, on the right hand side of the page about halfway down with a kind of hand drawn arrow right over it.

    https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=435fbc3b-7ef1-4379-bd0b-aa9919b9b2ad

  4. Thanks! Great stuff. Bernard Gadol is a curious combination of names, and no doubt some kind of nomme de plume. I’m looking at both the script and the grammar for clues.

  5. Kevin, there’s some here I don’t understand, but I appreciate the opportunity to learn something new and, moreso, the effort to put this together.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Greg. This one was challenging and took me a couple of weeks to pull together.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    I thought I would go ahead and add verse 2 from 1 Nephi 1:

    English Target:

    [2] Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.

    Gadol Translation:

    K.FTAB:TFM B.:LF$OWN )FBIY $EHIY) LOMEDET HAY:HWWDIYM W:LF$OWN HAMIC:RAYIYM

    English Retroversion:

    I wrote them in the language of my father, which was the learning of the Jews and the language of the Eggypyions.

    Comments:

    The “them” is plural, because its antecedent is “proceedings” from verse 1.

    This verse was much more straightforward and closer to the English target. I think this highlights a point we made above. The BoM can have a complicated linguistic structure, with lots of subordinate participial phrases. Where the language is more straightforward it will slide into Hebrew more easily, and where it is not the translator will likely have to simplify the language on her own to make it read well in Hebrew.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    I decided to go through this same process for the Miller translation.

    Standard English Text:

    [1] I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.

    Herman Miller Translation, 1920s (hereafter, “Miller”)

    ):ANIY N:POW NOWLAD:T.IY )”CEL )FBOWT NIK:B.FDIYM W:LIMAD:T.IY XELEQ M:(A+ M”ROB LIQ:X”Y )FBIY W:KIY T.UWGAT RAB.OWT S:BFBIYNIY K.FL Y:MAY XAYFY XAS:D”Y ):ELOHIYM NFXANIY WU$:MFRANIY GAM HIR:B.”TIY LFDA(AT )ET HAYF$FRW:SIT:R”Y Y:HOWFH LFK”N )EK:T.OWB ZIK:ROWNOWT DIB:R”Y YFMAY ):A$ER (FB:RUW (FLFY

    Retroversion into English by Janne Sjodahl, 1920s

    I, Nepho, being born from the side [lineage] of honored fathers and therefore instructed [literally, “have taken (on) one shoulder”] of the abundance of the learning of my father, and as I have seen great grief in my days; yet the goodness of God has led me in all the days of my life; also I have increased knowledge of the uprightness and all the hidden things of God; therefore I make ‘ershom records of the days which have passed over me:

    Retroversion into English by Barney, 2020

    I, Nepho, was begotten/born of honored/esteemed near-fathers/ancestors, and I learned a little portion of the abundant learning of my father, and because I was immersed in great sorrows all the days of my life, (yet) the mercy of God was upon me and attended me, and also I have increased knowledge of the uprightness and secrets of the LORD; therefore I write records of the occurrences of my days which came to pass upon me.

    Comments:

    First, I should note that Sjodahl was probably commenting on an earlier draft of Miller, whereas I am commenting on the final version, which accounts for some of the variations in our retroversions.

    I have previously commented on Miller’s odd but consistent spelling of Nephi’s name as “Nepho,” and his clever attempt to reflect English “parents” with “near-ancestors.”

    It was interesting to me that instead of using tobim to represent “good” in “goodly parents” he used a word meaning honored or esteemed. Perhaps the -ly ending of the faux archaism “goodly” threw him off of just using English “good.”
    The English BoM uses Lord first and then God, but Miller for some reason reverses that order, using God (elohim) first and then Lord (i.e., the divine tetragrammaton, with the usual Masoretic vocalization indicating it is not to be pronounced as Yahweh and which gave us the English word Jehovah).

    This translation adequately reflects the basic sense of what Nephi is saying. Between this and Gadol, I think Gadol might have actually hewed a little closer to the English BoM text.