Chapter 2: Misunderstanding the Word Translate
Before embarking on whether or not God’s word has been revealed anew in the Pearl of Great Price, the word translate needs exploring. For almost two hundred years, both member and nonmember have clung to a misleading definition of translate, causing confusion in Joseph’s role in bringing forth latter-day scripture.
A common theory among Church members assumes the words in the Book of Mormon are Joseph’s, not because he authored them but because he translated them. Supporters of this theory suppose that if someone else had translated the Book of Mormon, the stories and doctrine would be similar but in different vocabulary because the translating would have flowed through another translator’s educational level, experience base, culture, and intellect. People outside the Church assume that Joseph authored the Book of Mormon.
To identify in whose vocabulary the Book of Mormon is written and how it was translated starts with understanding that the process of translation is tedious and scholarly. Just to transfer basic thoughts accurately from one language to another takes time and skill, and the Prophet Joseph did far more than transfer basic thoughts. He dictated in elegant prose, complex poetry, and consistent doctrine.
Further, translate must be defined as understood by the Nephites and Joseph Smith. To them, translate did not mean to render or change text from one language to another but rather, translation was a revelatory process. For example, when King Limhi asked Ammon if he knew someone who could translate, Ammon answered: “I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer” (Mosiah 8:13; italics added).
From Ammon’s explanation, it seems clear that King Mosiah did not translate by learning foreign languages but by acting in the office of seer. What do seers do? They see, look, and read. Limhi’s response showed this was also his understanding: “Doubtless a great mystery is contained within these plates, and these interpreters were doubtless prepared for the purpose of unfolding all such mysteries to the children of men” (Mosiah 8:19; italics added). This is further documented in Mosiah 28:13: “He [Mosiah] translated [read] them by the means of those two stones which were fastened into the two rims of a bow.”
Prophets, seers, and revelators throughout history have received interpreters—a Urim and Thummim or seer stones—to enable them to receive revelation. This is “a gift from God,” as Ammon put it, and “the gift and power of God,” as Moroni wrote on the title page of the Book of Mormon, as Amaleki said in Omni 1:20, and as the Prophet Joseph said repeatedly.
The Lord confirmed this definition when he commanded Joseph to translate the Bible (see D&C 45:60; D&C 93:53). He did not provide Joseph with original documents written in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek; rather Joseph used the Bible he had access to, the King James Version. Then, functioning in his office as seer, Joseph emended, revised, clarified, and corrected. This is what “translated correctly” means in the eighth article of faith—either correct as it came from the original writers or as corrected by a seer.
Another aspect showing that Joseph and Oliver were not translating in the traditional definition is the speed of the translation, which took about sixty-five working days. They were completing about eight pages a day—a nearly impossible pace. If you were to hire a translator today, even with sophisticated computer tools, the translator could typically complete between 1,000 and 3,500 words per day, depending on how technical or difficult the document is and from which language it is in. (I wonder the scale of difficulty to translate from an ancient, unknown language.) Assuming such a translation were possible at the 1,000 word/day rate, then 268,163 (the number of words in the Book of Mormon) divided by 1,000 would equal roughly 268 days to translate—with today’s technology and a professional translator from the simplest of languages.
In 1604, when King James commissioned a new translation of the Bible, he appointed forty-seven scholars. They finished seven years later, in 1611. True, the Bible is three times longer than the Book of Mormon, but there were forty-seven professionals working on it. Also, King James’s scholars had the advantage of studying other English translations to help them, specifically William Tyndale’s. Experts today report that 90% of the King James Version came from Tyndale (see christianity.com).
The theory that Joseph translated in the sense that he deciphered or rendered reformed Egyptian, the language of the Book of Mormon, into English does not correlate with eyewitness accounts. There is no evidence Joseph wrote drafts. Emma said, “When [I was] acting as his scribe, [he] would dictate to me for hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him” (Richard Lyman Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling [New York: Alfred A. Knorr, 2005], 105).
Joseph did not speak or understand reformed Egyptian nor any other foreign language. He did not translate by deciphering glyphs. He did not translate from one language into another. What he did was receive revelation in the only language he knew: English. He read the English text on a seer stone or Urim and Thummim much like we read text on a cell phone screen today. Anti-Mormons enjoy making fun of the fact that Joseph translated, in his wife’s words, “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us” (Last Testimony of Sister Emma [ 26 (Oct. 1, 1879), 289–90]). But for anyone who has ever tried to read a text on a cell phone in bright sunlight, it makes perfect sense. Joseph put the seer stone into a tall hat to block the light so that he could read the text more easily. (See “Book of Mormon Translation,” Gospel Topics, lds.org):
“Joseph Smith and his scribes wrote of two instruments used in translating the Book of Mormon. According to witnesses of the translation, when Joseph looked into the instruments, the words of scripture appeared in English. One instrument, called in the Book of Mormon the ‘interpreters,’ is better known to Latter-day Saints as the Urim and Thummim. The other instrument, which Joseph Smith discovered in the ground years before he retrieved the gold plates, was a small oval stone, or ‘seer stone.’ As a young man during the 1820s, Joseph Smith, like others in his day, used a seer stone to look for lost objects and buried treasure. As Joseph grew to understand his prophetic calling, he learned that he could use this stone for the higher purpose of translating scripture.”
From the book of Moses, a truth emerges about the process of translation: “For a book of remembrance we have written among us, according to the pattern given by the finger of God; and it is given in our own language” (Moses 6:46). Instead of book of remembrance, today we use the word scripture. The Old Testament is a book of remembrance, as are the New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. They were given and received “according to the pattern given by the finger of God . . . in our own language.” This is the process of translation, or more exactly, revelation. Whenever (in any time period or hour of the day), however (by vision, dream, Urim and Thummim, seer stone, directly to the mind), and wherever (on a mountaintop, on bended knee, sitting at a desk, via a burning bush in the wilderness) revelation comes, the will of God is being manifest through an authorized prophet.
When Joseph was asked to explain the translation process, he lumped his revelatory experiences under the general heading of “the gift and power of God.” Whether he was receiving words to emend Genesis, clarify and correct Matthew 23–24, or translate the book of Abraham, they all came under the generic label of “the gift and power of God”—any and all ways God chooses to communicate with His prophets. He commanded His prophets to record revealed words using the tools and resources available to them—metal plates, animal skins, papyri, parchment, clay, stone, paper. He has communicated His words through a Urim and Thummim, seer stone, open vision, dream, or inspiration from the Holy Ghost.
With this correct understanding of translation, it is easy to explain that Joseph’s ability to translate came “through the mercy of God, by the power of God” (D&C 1:29; italics added). He gave Joseph “sight . . . to translate” (D&C 3:12; italics added).
The philosophy of believers, at least of this believer, is that God’s revelatory power is His to give—when, where, how, and through whom He chooses. Simply, His ways are not our ways. The Lord, commenting on the hardness of hearts and unbelief of the children of Israel, said: “Wherefore I was grieved with that generation. . . . They do alway err in their heart; and they have not known my ways” (Hebrews 3:10; italics added). To Isaiah, He said: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Oh how we err when we presume to know the mind, will, or ways of God. Nephi said it clearly: “O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not” (2 Nephi 9:28).
Dissidents and apostates have fought against Joseph Smith specifically and members of the Church collectively since Lucy Harris helped lose the first 116 translated pages of the Book of Mormon and since Professor Anthon tore up the certificate he gave attesting to the correctness of the translation.
What antagonists fail to understand is that faithful Latter-day Saints do not go to bed each night wondering if the Church will still be true in the morning. The faithful are filled with faith. Their faith smooths the bumpiness caused by adversity so they are not “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14). When this finding or that person disputes this or that about the Church, the faithful suspend reaction, stay a steady course, and watch the process evolve. Time and time and time again, the critics and their criticisms are but a flash in the pan and are soon shown to be of little or no consequence.
A correct understanding of the translation process inoculates members and investigators young and old against the false claims of those who set out to destroy testimony.
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017
(c) Marilynne Todd Linford, 2017