Sunday, June 27, 2021

Translating ancient texts

Because I believe Joseph Smith translated the ancient Nephite plates, I've been curious how he could or would have done it. 

Joseph wrote that he had an "intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations." He also once said that the Restoration began about the time he had leg surgery at age 6 or 7. I think his three years of recuperation enabled him to read Christian publications at a young age, a practice he continued throughout his life. The text of the Book of Mormon reflects his "intimate acquaintance" with these writers. The narrative of Joseph as an ignorant, illiterate "blank slate" was created after the fact to bolster they supernatural origin of the Book of Mormon.

His history reports that "By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following." (Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

The specifics in that statement lend credibility and reliability to its veracity. By contrast, those who spoke or wrote about SITH (the stone-in-the-hat) were usually vague or ambiguous, except for David Whitmer's description of the demonstration in the Whitmer family room downstairs.


Joseph said the Title Page was a literal translation from the last leaf of the plates, but he never said the rest of the text was a literal translation. That leads me to infer that the bulk of the translation was not literal, nor was it word-for-word.

Anyone who has studied ancient languages knows there are lots of ways to translate any given passage. Experts have translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into numerous different English editions, even when they use early English translations as a guide for some degree of consistency and continuity.

I have studied Latin and Greek, as well as modern languages. The older the language, the more primitive it is. By that I mean, older languages have smaller vocabularies so they are less descriptive. They communicate by suggesting information rather than by explaining things in detail. This requires active readers who must infer what the text means from the context.

One example familiar to every reader of the King James Bible is the use of italics to indicate words that are not in the original texts.

For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:21)

Hebrew presumably would have provided an original text as specific at the Bible, but Mormon and Moroni didn't write in Hebrew because they didn't have enough space and the metal plates were difficult to create. This means the text was even more basic than a Hebrew text would have been. 

When he abridged the plates, Mormon undoubtedly didn't spend a lot of time and space to elaborate on each topic. Consequently, Joseph had to render the ancient words into understandable English. I assume he  had to expand the text, which is what we learn from Ether 3: "these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men these things which ye shall write." (Ether 3:24)

Joseph didn't specify which things he dictated were literal and which were inferences, but we can see several times when he offered an alternative translation or an explanation, such as when he dictated "or in other words." That nonbiblical phrase appears 13 times in the Book of Mormon, 23 times in the D&C, and once in the Book of Abraham. 

Here is an example of a "different view" of a translation. Joseph wrote "Now, the nature of this ordinance consists in the power of the priesthood, by the revelation of Jesus Christ, wherein it is granted that whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Or, in other words, taking a different view of the translation, whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; 
(Doctrine and Covenants 128:8)

Here is an example of an explanation. "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36)

We could infer that it was Nephi who chose an alternative explanation of what he initially wrote, but it is consistent with his other work to infer it was Joseph who provided "a different view" of the translation, such as here:

"And it came to pass that while my father tarried in the wilderness he spake unto us, saying: Behold, I have dreamed a dream; or, in other words, I have seen a vision." (1 Nephi 8:2)

There are many other indicia of translation in the text of the Book of Mormon.

Another good example of the challenges of translating ancient languages is the Rosetta stone.

The link below shows the Rosetta stone in detail. It has just the type of primitive, vague language that I think the plates had, where you have to make a lot of inferences to convey it in English.

Go to the image and it will highlight the corresponding passages from each of the 3 languages.

Here's a good example:

[Update: the website has some problems so here are screen captures to show what it looks like. Click to enlarge them.]

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