Thursday, August 25, 2016
Why I Don't Believe Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon (and Why You Don't Either)
Nearly every fast Sunday in my ward, someone (usually a Primary child) comes to the pulpit in testimony meeting and declares, “I know that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.” I’m not sure how they “know” this, because all the evidence points to the conclusion that Joseph in fact did not translate the book. Unless we use some contrived definition of the word translate. And I’ve seen this explanation more than a few times. But today, as in Joseph’s day, the primary definition of translate, in this context, is: “To interpret; to render into another language; to express the sense of one language in the words of another.” This comes straight from the 1828 Webster’s dictionary. So let’s dispense up front with the idea that Joseph meant something other than “translate” when he said “translate” in regards to the Book of Mormon.
Translating or Reading?
Many years ago now, when I was younger and more fluent in German, I translated Theodor Storm’s novella Immensee from nineteenth-century German into English. I think I did a fairly credible job. It was hard work, and I was very careful in trying to render not just the sense but also the sentence structure in an English that closely represented the original German. I was able to do this because I had studied German for six years before serving a mission to Hamburg, had taught German for three years at the MTC, and had graduated from BYU with a degree in German. I understood the German in the novella very well, and I also owned a very large German-English dictionary.
But no matter how you slice it, what Joseph Smith did with the Book of Mormon is in no way comparable to what I did with Immensee. First, Joseph could not read the characters that were engraved on the gold plates. As my friend Dave Mason once put it, only somewhat tongue in cheek, “Joseph Smith had a lot of experience translating documents that he couldn’t read.”1 Second, he “translated” mostly without ever looking at the plates (some artists’ depictions notwithstanding). In fact, sometimes the plates were not even in the same room with Joseph. Third, the secondhand accounts by family members and close friends indicate that Joseph “translated” with either the Urim and Thummim or (more frequently) his seer stone buried in the crown of his hat, which he placed over his face to exclude the light, and then proceeded to read chunks of text to his scribe, mostly Oliver Cowdery. I’m sorry, but this is not translating. This is not even in the same area code as the process I used to translate a German novella. Yes, I know that Joseph and even the Lord, speaking through Joseph, used the term translate to refer to what Joseph did. But, still, that’s not what Joseph did. And the text itself seems to confirm the secondhand accounts, which I have no reason to doubt. They are mostly consistent, and the evidence Royal Skousen has excavated in his Book of Mormon Critical Text Project supports them (with a notable exception or two).
I’ve read all 1,300 pages of Royal’s latest two books, on grammatical variation in the Book of Mormon. Actually, I was proofreading, so I didn’t have the luxury of just skimming. While I wouldn’t recommend these books for recreational reading—they’re a little thin on plot—they contain a host of fascinating material (at least to word nerds like me), some of which sheds light on the translation process and the nature of the resulting English text. More on that some other day, but for now let me just say that almost all the textual evidence I’ve seen supports the notion that Joseph was reading text to his scribe.
Some apologists, Brant Gardner in particular, have gone to great lengths to try to explain how Joseph actually did translate, in a more traditional sense, the Book of Mormon.2 But I’m not buying what they’re selling.
Gardner discusses Skousen’s project and his lens of looking at the Book of Mormon translation as either ironclad control (Joseph had no input in the final product), tight control (just a little wiggle room here), and loose control (Joseph was just approximating what was on the plates). Gardner doesn’t find Skousen’s perspective extremely useful for evaluating the translation itself. Skousen’s idea of tight control “refers to the transmission of the text from Joseph to Oliver, not from the plate text to English.”
Gardner suggests a different three-option framework for analyzing the translation: literalist equivalence, functional equivalence, and conceptual equivalence. A literal equivalence would be a word-for-word translation, a practical impossibility given the vagaries of language, so Gardner uses the term literalist, meaning a rendering of the text in the target language that “closely adheres to the vocabulary and structure of the source language.” Skousen’s tight control is roughly synonymous with Gardner’s literalist equivalence. Conceptual equivalence falls on the other end of the translation continuum. It preserves meaning without regard to specific grammatical structures or vocabulary. Functional equivalence falls between the extremes; it adheres “to the organization and structures of the original but is more flexible in the vocabulary” and allows “the target language to use words that are not direct equivalents of the source words, but which attempt to preserve the intent of the source text.”3 Just for the record, my translation of Immensee would probably qualify as a literalist equivalence.
Gardner first presents evidence supporting a literalist equivalence, much of it from Skousen’s work, and he agrees that the evidence does support a literalist equivalence in some regards. But he argues that a functional equivalence better explains the larger part of the translation. Significantly, though, Gardner bases a fair portion of his evidence for functional equivalence (roughly a third of this chapter) on an assumption that is far from settled—namely, a Mesoamerican setting for the book. He asserts that Book of Mormon references to asses, lions, goats, sheep, harrowing, chaff, vessels with sails, land ownership, a monetized economy, debts, and swords had to originate in Joseph Smith’s time and culture because they did not exist in Mesoamerica. However, the Mesoamerican geographical model is far from proven and does not always harmonize with the Book of Mormon text.4 So it should be acknowledged that although there may be no archaeological evidence for lions or goats in ancient Mesoamerica, there is no evidence for Nephites or Lamanites either.
Gardner provides another support for functional or conceptual equivalence—the obvious influence of the King James Version on the text. Words such as jot and tittle (3 Ne. 1:25) come directly from the KJV, not from the Nephite language. A tittle, for instance, “is a visual coding for vowels [in Hebrew], a system developed after Lehi and his family left Jerusalem.”5 These terms and others cannot be accounted for by a literalist equivalence. They must, therefore, represent expressions from Joseph’s cultural environment that replace whatever Nephite idioms Mormon actually used. I will suggest another explanation later in this essay, but let me first use the presence of KJV language in the Book of Mormon as a jumping-off point for discussing Gardner’s rather complex theory on how the Book of Mormon was translated.
The presence of long chapters in the Book of Mormon that contain King James language with a few notable and fascinating deviations poses a serious obstacle for anyone trying to reconcile this evidence with the testimony of Emma Smith and others that Joseph did not consult any other book or manuscript (including the Bible) while translating. Since it is obvious that whoever was translating the text had direct access to a printed King James Bible, this obstacle leaves only two possible explanations: either Joseph was receiving the translation word for word, as Skousen has concluded, or he was somehow able to reproduce from memory or from his subconscious mind a very close replica of certain KJV chapters. In his attempt to deal with this obstacle and many other pieces of the translation puzzle, Gardner devises a rather complicated and, ultimately, unsatisfying explanation based on biology, psychology, and revelation.
In a nutshell, Gardner’s theory involves accepting the accounts that indicate Joseph was reading English text through the seer stone buried in the crown of his hat. But most of that English text did not come from an outside source. It came from Joseph’s own brain. “Vision,” Gardner explains, “happens in the brain. Additionally, the brain does not passively see; it creates vision.”6 So, although the ideas behind the text originated from a divine source, the English text itself did not. Gardner borrows the term mentalese from Steven Pinker to describe “the language of thought . . . , or the prelanguage of the brain.”7 So Joseph received through revelation the content of the Book of Mormon in this form of prelanguage thought. It was then converted in Joseph’s brain into an approximation of King James English, the religious idiom of his day. And Joseph’s brain produced what he then “saw” with his eyes. In this way, Joseph was not a passive reader but an active participant in the translation process. Much like an ordinary translator who understands the source language and culture and must render a close approximation of a particular text in the target language, Joseph understood at a subconscious level the Nephite language and culture (through revelation) and then had to find English words to express those prelanguage ideas.
Gardner does, however, add two caveats to this theory. The Book of Mormon translation, he claims, was not entirely a product of functional equivalence. Certain pieces of the translation—names in particular—represented literalist equivalence, and at least two elements of the translation denoted conceptual equivalence. These were the connecting text in Words of Mormon 1:9–18 and Martin Harris’s visit to Charles Anthon as reflected in 2 Nephi 27:15–20. Gardner considers these and perhaps other sections of text “prophetic expansion” of the plate text.
As indicated earlier, I find several problems with this elaborate theory. Let me briefly discuss four.
First, Joseph’s ability to craft (or dictate) an extensive and intricate English document was rather limited. According to Gardner’s theory, Joseph was receiving ideas that he had to formulate in coherent English sentences. But Joseph’s formal language abilities at this point in his life were limited. I admit he was a bright young feller, but he had very little education and he had spent most of his young life digging wells, felling trees, and looking for lost stuff in his peep stone, not producing intricate narratives. According to his wife, Emma, he could not even pronounce names like Sarah and had to spell them out.8 According to Gardner’s theory, “As the generation of language moved from Joseph’s subconscious to his conscious awareness, it accessed Joseph’s available vocabulary and grammar.”9 I would argue, however, that the vocabulary of the Book of Mormon was far beyond Joseph’s “available vocabulary” in 1829. Consider the following list of words that appear in the Book of Mormon, most of which do not appear in the Bible: abhorrence, abridgment, affrighted, anxiety, arraigned, breastwork, cimeters, commencement, condescension, consignation, delightsome, depravity, derangement, discernible, disposition, distinguished, embassy, encompassed, enumerated, frenzied, hinderment, ignominious, impenetrable, iniquitous, insensibility, interposition, loftiness, management, nothingness, overbearance, petition, priestcraft, probationary, proclamation, provocation, regulation, relinquished, repugnant, scantiness, serviceable, stratagem, typifying, unquenchable, and unwearyingness. I find it unlikely that Joseph would be able to conjure up this level of vocabulary and use these words correctly in context as he dictated the Book of Mormon.
Second, the Book of Mormon’s sentence structure is quite complex, with long, convoluted sentences that sometimes employ multiple layers of parenthetical statements and relative clauses (see, for instance, 3 Ne. 5:14). Putting mentalese into concrete language at this level of complexity would have exceeded the capabilities of a young man whose wife claimed he “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon.”10 Consider the fact that Joseph dictated an unpunctuated text, and this task stretches far beyond his ability to convert prelanguage concepts into the lengthy and layered sentence structure of the Book of Mormon. Without the guidance of punctuation to separate embedded clauses, this feat would have been mind-boggling. The Book of Mormon translation was not an on-the-fly translation. In many ways it exhibits the hallmarks of a document someone labored over with abundant support texts at hand (such as a dictionary, thesaurus, the King James Bible, and perhaps some Protestant writings).
Third, according to Emma, “When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out.”11 Other witnesses, including Oliver Cowdery, indicated that if the scribe misspelled a word, Joseph would correct it.12 Skousen’s work shows these latter accounts to be inaccurate, since misspelled words and multiple spellings for some names appear in the manuscripts, but the evidence still points to a word-for-word dictation. Gardner proposes that the translation was a literalist equivalence in the case of proper names and perhaps long words that Joseph was unacquainted with but insists that the bulk of the translation represented functional equivalence. But this makes the process rather chaotic. If Joseph was receiving exact spelling for proper names and some longer words but not for the rest of the text, that means he was receiving exact revelation for parts of sentences but having to come up with text to express revealed ideas for the remainder of those sentences.
Fourth, Joseph would have been incapable of reconstructing whole chapters of the KJV from memory, even if assisted by some form of revealed mentalese. Joseph was so famously unacquainted with the Bible that he was unaware Jerusalem had walls;13 it is therefore untenable that he could have reproduced many difficult chapters of Isaiah from memory and with significant alteration, often involving words that were italicized in the KJV. Gardner admits this is a problem for his theory: “Although the alterations associated with italicized words suggest that Joseph was working with a visual text, the chapter breaks [which were different in the Book of Mormon than in the KJV] tell us that he was not seeing the KJV with its current chapter divisions. Therefore what Joseph saw may have reproduced the page with the italics, but did not reproduce the chapter divisions. It is at this point that we invoke the divine.”14 In other words, at times the “divine” revealed the basic idea of the text in mentalese; at other times, exact wording was revealed. This explanation is far from satisfactory. It’s a punt. “Okay, I tried really hard to explain the translation process, but it’s fourth down and twenty now, and I can’t see any way to get to the end zone. Call in the kicking team.”
Looking through a Different Lens
When examined carefully, Gardner’s proposed translation methodology does not hold up well. It becomes far too complex an operation, with too many pieces of the puzzle seemingly out of place. There may be simpler explanations.
So how was the Book of Mormon translated? Royal Skousen looks at this question through the lens of control—loose, tight, or ironclad. Gardner chooses a different lens, equivalence, which yields three different possibilities: literalist, functional, and conceptual. Let me propose a different lens that may shed some light on this question. I see three different types of possible translation for the Book of Mormon. It was either a human translation, a divine translation, or a machine translation. By machine translation, I mean that the “interpreters” (Urim and Thummim or seer stone) were some sort of heavenly translation device that automatically converted text from the source language to the target language, similar to our computer translation programs but obviously more advanced (can’t imagine what kind of software you’d load into a rock).
When we view the Book of Mormon through this lens, though, it becomes obvious that the English text did not come through a machine translation. Even our crude computer translation programs would never produce the sort of random usage in second-person pronoun and third-person verb conjugation usage that we find in the Book of Mormon. Nor is it a divine translation. I agree with B. H. Roberts that “to assign responsibility for errors in language to a divine instrumentality, which amounts to assigning such error to God . . . is unthinkable, not to say blasphemous.”15 In many ways, the English text does not appear to be a divine translation. That means, by process of elimination, the Book of Mormon must be a human translation, albeit one aided by divine inspiration. But who, then, was the translator? The bulk of the evidence, in my view, does not point to Joseph Smith. He was the human conduit through which the translation was delivered, but the translation doesn’t appear to be his. Gardner quotes Skousen on this point, and I couldn’t agree more: “These new findings argue that Joseph Smith was not the author of the English-language translation of the Book of Mormon. Not only was the text revealed to him word for word, but the words themselves sometimes had meanings that he and his scribes would not have known, which occasionally led to a misinterpretation. The Book of Mormon is not a 19th-century text, nor is it Joseph Smith’s. The English-language text was revealed through him, but it was not precisely in his language or ours.”16
One final comment, since this post is already way long. If the English text is far too complex and too unusual for Joseph Smith to have translated (either conventionally or through Gardner’s mentalese method), it is also quite certain that Joseph didn’t just cook this thing up in his head and then dictate it to his scribes with his face in a hat. What is perplexing is that the English text is problematic on several levels. It doesn’t appear to be exactly what it claims to be or what Joseph Smith claimed it to be. And that’s what makes this million-piece puzzle so intriguing. I’ll explore some of the perplexing aspects of the text in future posts.
1. David V. Mason, My Mormonism: A Primer for Non-Mormons and Mormons, Alike (Memphis: Homemade Books, 2011), 99.
2. See Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011). See also my review essay of this book, “The Book of Mormon Translation Puzzle,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 23 (2014): 176–86, from which I have stolen some of the material for this post.
3. Gardner, Gift and Power, 155–56.
4. Several Book of Mormon geography models have been proposed: Mesoamerica (with a handful of possible locations), Yucatan, the “Heartland” theory, Baja California, South America, a two-continent model including all of North and South America, the Great Lakes region, and even the Malay Peninsula. Each of these models has obvious weaknesses when viewed in concert with what the Book of Mormon text actually describes. Proponents of the various models have adequately highlighted the drawbacks of competing theories, so I won’t repeat them here. Obviously, if the Mesoamerican model (in any of its specific locations) or one of the other models answered all the questions presented by the scriptural text, there would be consensus on where the Book of Mormon history actually occurred.
5. Gardner, Gift and Power, 193.
6. Gardner, Gift and Power, 265.
7. Gardner, Gift and Power, 274.
8. “Emma Smith Bidamon, as interviewed by Edmund C. Briggs (1856),” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, ed. John W. Welch and Erick B. Carlson (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 129.
9. Gardner, Gift and Power, 308.
10. “Emma Smith Bidamon, as interviewed by Joseph Smith III (1879),” in Opening the Heavens, 131.
11. “Emma Smith Bidamon, as interviewed by Edmund C. Briggs (1856),” in Opening the Heavens, 129.
12. See, for instance, “Oliver Cowdery, as Interviewed by Samuel Whitney Richards (1907),” in Opening the Heavens, 144.
13. “Emma Smith Bidamon, as interviewed by Edmund C. Briggs (1856),” and “Emma Smith Bidamon, as interviewed by Nels Madsen and Parley P. Pratt Jr. (1877),” in Opening the Heavens, 129–30.
14. Gardner, Gift and Power, 306.
15. B. H. Roberts, “Book of Mormon Translation: Interesting Correspondence on the Subject of the Manual Theory,” Improvement Era, July 1906, 706–13. Yes, I realize that Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack argue that the “grammatical mistakes” in the Book of Mormon are really just instances of Early Modern English, but their theory has some holes in it and may actually create more questions than it answers.
16. Royal Skousen, “The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon,” Insights 25/5 (2005): 2.05): 2.