The Nature of the Translation Process

Much has been written about the translation process for the Book of Mormon. Book of Mormon readers might attempt to separate fact from fiction as they read the various accounts dealing with the translation process, but the reality is that they probably will not be able to do so legitimately in this life. Which of the translation accounts are truly reflective of the real process? Are all of them correct in depicting the various stages of the translation process? Are any of the accounts perhaps apocryphal in origin?

            According to Royal Skousen:

 There appear to be three possible kinds of control over the dictation of the Book of Mormon text:

            1. Loose control: Ideas were revealed to Joseph Smith, and he put the ideas into his own language (a theory advocated by many Book of Mormon scholars over the years).

            2. Tight control: Joseph Smith saw specific words written out in English and read them off to the scribe—the accuracy of the resulting text depending on the carefulness of Joseph Smith and his scribe.

            3. Iron-clad control: Joseph Smith (or the interpreters themselves) would not allow any error made by the scribe to remain (including the spelling of common words).

            One can also conceive of mixtures of these different kinds of control. For instance, one might argue for tight control over the spelling of specific names, but loose control over the English phraseology itself.11

             From one perspective, the only entirely tenable answer to questions about how the translation process worked is the one made by Joseph Smith himself: “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record, by the gift and power of God.”12

             However, everyone should be careful in interpreting the ramifications of Joseph’s statement. Novice readers of the Book of Mormon might feel that “translated by the gift and power of God” means that no errors could have occurred in the translation process. Until readers have examined the accounts about the translation process, they naturally might feel that the Book of Mormon is “perfect” in its wording. In fact, they might feel that Joseph’s use of the Urim and Thummim was equivalent to his having the help of an angel looking over his shoulder and whispering the correct words in his ear as he dictated the translation (Skousen’s “iron-clad control”).

             All Book of Mormon readers should divorce themselves from such thinking. A more logical approach is to understand that over a period of time, Joseph Smith learned the skill of translation and that he used words in the translation as a reflection of his personal vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.13 A careful examination shows a close similarity between Joseph’s Book of Mormon language-use abilities and his language-use abilities for the content of the Doctrine and Covenants—at least as reflected in the Lord’s preface to the D&C: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24; emphasis added).

             For example, as a reflection of “the manner” of Joseph’s language, he used the French word adieu at the conclusion of the book of Jacob: “Brethren, adieu” (Jacob 7:27). The word adieu was evidently a commonly used word in Joseph Smith’s time and in the Smith household. It was and is an idiomatic expression used to say “farewell”; and, at first glance, adieu seems like a strange word to appear in the Book of Mormon. However, in Joseph’s mother’s history of her son, she tells about the death of her sister, Lovisa, and shares a poem written by Lovisa shortly before Lovisa died. The first two lines of the third verse read, “My friends, I bid you all adieu; The Lord hath called, and I must go.”14 Therefore, Joseph’s vocabulary, environment, and perceptions were probably significant factors in his choice of words during the translation process.

             In this respect, the reasoning of Jeff Lindsay as he discusses the translation process is worth noting:

 Please recall that the translation process behind the Book of Mormon was not pure magic in which the thoughts of the original writer were expressed in sublime, flawless English with no effort on the part of the translator. Had that been the case, we could have bypassed all the hassle with preparing, preserving, and translating the engraved golden plates. But God requires humans to do all within their power for His work, and only then makes up the difference when necessary, typically applying miraculous aid rather conservatively. Indeed, considerable effort was required of Joseph Smith and the translation was a genuine translation of what had been written rather than what someone had thought. Joseph had been given a divine tool and gift to allow him to translate, but the human factor was not eliminated. . . . The results were expressed in the language and vernacular of the translator, based on whatever the original author had written—blemishes and all.15

             At the same time, the Book of Mormon contains numerous word-choice instances that go beyond Joseph’s “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or beyond his “language and vernacular.” For example, he used the word whirlwind in such instances as the following:

  •  And they that kill the prophets, and the saints, the depths of the earth shall swallow them up, saith the Lord of Hosts; and mountains shall cover them, and whirlwinds shall carry them away, and buildings shall fall upon them and crush them to pieces and grind them to powder. (2 Nephi 26:5; emphasis added)
  • Yea, they shall not be beaten down by the storm at the last day; yea, neither shall they be harrowed up by the whirlwinds; but when the storm cometh they shall be gathered together in their place, that the storm cannot penetrate to them; yea, neither shall they be driven with fierce winds whithersoever the enemy listeth to carry them. (Alma 26:6; emphasis added)
  • But behold, there was a more great and terrible destruction in the land northward; for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth. (3 Nephi 8:12; emphasis added)
  • And there were some who were carried away in the whirlwind; and whither they went no man knoweth, save they know that they were carried away. (3 Nephi 8:16; emphasis added)
  • And they were spared and were not sunk and buried up in the earth; and they were not drowned in the depths of the sea; and they were not burned by fire, neither were they fallen upon and crushed to death; and they were not carried away in the whirlwind; neither were they overpowered by the vapor of smoke and of darkness. (3 Nephi 10:13; emphasis added)
  • And now, whoso readeth, let him understand; he that hath the scriptures, let him search them, and see and behold if all these deaths and destructions by fire, and by smoke, and by tempests, and by whirlwinds, and by the opening of the earth to receive them, and all these things are not unto the fulfilling of the prophecies of many of the holy prophets. (3 Nephi 10:14; emphasis added)

             Joseph’s “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or his “language and vernacular” would have dictated that he should have used the word tornado in the above instances. That is, living in upstate New York, he was probably aware of the yearly tornado activities in nearby regions. So why did he not use the word tornado in the above instances?

             In explaining his Heartland Model for the New World setting for the Book of Mormon, Rodney Meldrum uses the tornado/whirlwind issue to “prove” that the New World events of the Book of Mormon occurred in the continental United States rather than in Mesoamerica. In his DVD presentation, he says the following:

Third Nephi . . . talks about . . . tempests and whirlwinds and thunderings and lightnings and so forth. Well, what is a tempest and what is a whirlwind? Well, I think, a whirlwind is pretty clear—what that is—a tornado. I think this is very interesting: It says that there were some people who were actually carried away in the whirlwind. . . .

So, that brought me to the next question, where do tornadoes occur? . . . It turns out that tornadoes don’t occur in equatorial regions at all, because the conditions necessary for their very formation are absent. Not there.

You know, it is right here, Central America, the location where the Book of Mormon was supposed to have happened has never had a single recorded tornado. Whereas up here in North America, in our proposed Book of Mormon Lands, this is tornado valley. . . . The highest concentration of tornadoes anywhere on the planet happens there.16

            If Joseph had authored the Book of Mormon rather than translated it, he naturally would have used tornado rather than whirlwind as a reflection of his “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or his “language and vernacular.” He certainly would have had no way of knowing that whirlwind was the legitimate choice as a reflection of Maya languages from Mesoamerica.

            In that respect, Stephen Houston says, “The terms of ‘hurricane’ or ‘strong, revolving winds’ vary in Mayan languages yet stress a few consistent themes.” Houston then lists several examples of Maya dialects, Maya words, and definitions associated with “whirlwind,” including the following:

  • Ch’orti’: sian ik’ar (“strong continuous wind, wind coming from several directions”)
  • Ch’orti’: sutut ik’ar (“whirlwind”)
  • Yukatek: keh ik’ (“strong whirlwind”)
  • Yukatek: ma’lay ik’ (“huracan [lasting wind?]”)
  • Yukatek: xawal ik’ (“hurricane [revolving wind]”)
  • Yukatek: xaway (“viento que corre de todas partes [wind that runs from all directions]”)
  • Poqom: kakzut (“hurricane of wind, that whirls [great turning]”)
  • K’ekchi’: cak-sut-ik’ (“huracan [great turning wind]”)

            Speaking of those Maya words and others in his list, Houston then says, “This short sample includes terms for ‘wind’ (ik’ in Lowland languages), with the added meanings of force or strength, seasonality, deadly danger, magnitudes of water, and wind that comes from many directions—all, to be sure, the precise features of a hurricane. Ch’orti’ explains such winds as the movement or writhings of a powerful serpent.”17

            From the viewpoint of the Maya in Mesoamerica (the only truly tenable New World setting for the Book of Mormon), readers of the Book of Mormon should readily recognize an instance in which Joseph’s choice of whirlwind rather than tornado went beyond his upstate New York “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or “language and vernacular.” Numerous other words could be cited to support the contention that Joseph Smith translated—rather than authored—the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God.” Some of these word choices by Joseph clearly reflect his “vocabulary, environment, and perceptions” or “language and vernacular”; and others clearly suggest a revelatory process that was independent of Joseph’s upstate New York environment.

            The translation process that Joseph mastered in learning to translate the reformed Egyptian symbols on the golden plates very likely had many similarities to the scenario experienced by Mesoamerican epigraphists and others as they learned to translate the Maya hieroglyphs from Mesoamerica. In telling the story, Linda Schele and David Freidel say, “Ancient Maya writing became an abiding part of the public imagination with the publication in 1841 of Incidents of Travels in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. . . . During the ensuing century and a half, many inspired scholars and afficionados contributed to the growing body of knowledge about the Maya and their writing system.”

            By the turn of the century, scholars had “worked out the fundamentals of the calendar and basic questions of reading order.” However, decipherment efforts were hampered beyond those discoveries because some prominent scholars concluded that Maya writing was not phonetic; and, according to J. Eric Thompson, one of the greatest Maya scholars of the twentieth century, Maya writing was concerned only with “the stately passage of time” (history was not to be found in the inscriptions; the texts did not contain recorded history).

            In 1915, Sylvanus Morley proposed that “history was to be found in the inscriptions.” In that respect, “he suggested it was recorded in what he called the ‘textual residue’ left when all the calendric information was accounted for.” In the latter half of the twentieth century, Tatiana Proskouriakoff supported this thinking and “altered forever the way we think about the Maya and who they were.” In 1971, Thompson admitted he had been wrong and said, “Touching on the inscriptions of the Classic period, the most significant achievement has been the demonstration by Tatiana Proskouriakoff that texts on stone monuments treat of individual rulers with dates which probably mark birth, accession to power, conquests, and so on. Name glyphs of rulers or dynasties are given, and hints at political events such as alliances.”

Shele and Freidel then complete the story from that point:

Yet knowing that the contents of the inscriptions concerned history did not help the historical epigraphers figure out how the Maya spelled their words. That discovery belongs to a young Russian named Yuri Knorozov, who in 1952 proposed that the Maya system was not unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform in that it was a mixed system composed of full word signs combined with signs representing the sounds of syllables. None of the big three, Thompson, Proskouriakoff, or Berlin, was ever able to accept Knorozov’s ideas. Partly it was because the Russian bureaucracy couched his discovery in the political rhetoric of the day, but just as important was the fact that they never saw the promise of “phoneticism” fulfilled. In one of his many damning criticisms of phoneticism, Thompson said it this way: “A point of some importance, I feel, is that with a phonetic system, as with breaking a code, the rate of decipherment accelerates with each newly established reading. . . . The first flow of alleged decipherments has not swollen to a river; it has long since dried up.”
            In retrospect, the reason the river of decipherment dried up was because only a few hearty souls were ready to ride the current of phoneticism. David Kelley, Michael Coe, and Floyd Lounsbury were the only Western scholars to give Knorozov a fair hearing until the dam broke open at the First Mesa Redonda of Palenque, a tiny little conference held in the village near the ruins in December 1973. At that conference, a new generation of eipigraphers, including Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, were initiated into the mysteries of glyphic decipherment. They joined Kelly and Lounsbury in blending Knorozov’s phoneticism with Proskouriakoff’s “historical approach.” During the next five years, in a series of mini-conferences sponsored by Dumbarton Oaks, this group of epigraphers developed a highly successful collaborative approach and forged the last key—the axiom that the writing reflected spoken language and thus had word order that could be used to determine the function of glyphs, even when we could not read them. Thus, while we might not know what a particular glyph meant, we could figure out whether it was a verb or noun by where it fell in a sentence. That simple assumption let us begin paraphrasing inscriptions and dealing with them as whole texts. It was a breakthrough as important as phoneticism and the historical hypothesis because it gave us a larger framework in which to test readings and reconstruct history.

            The conjunction of these three approaches—phoneticism, the historical approach, and syntactical analysis—began the acceleration that Thompson evoked as proof that the right system had been found. Now [1990] each new discovery ripples outward to trigger other discoveries, which in turn trigger still others. The number of glyphs deciphered and the interpretative fallout is growing exponentially. As the results of epigraphic research have been published, more and more archaeologists have realized that the Maya inscriptions and imagery offer a primary source of data about how the Maya thought about themselves. They are merging epigraphic and iconographic studies with archaeological projects destined to find out how this “history” epigraphers recover looks in the ground. This is a time of marvelous adventure and unprecedented discovery. The process is ongoing and unbelievably exhilarating to those of us privileged to participate in it.

            The Maya writing system used to record this ancient history was a rich and expressive script, capable of faithfully recording every nuance of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure in the writer’s language. Calligraphically, it has an unsurpassed elegance, deriving its form from the beauty of freely flowing painted line. Maya scribes, whether carving limestone, engraving jade, inscribing shell, or incising bone, never lost the eloquence of their writing’s original painterly grace. And throughout their history the Maya continued to use the original medium in which writing developed—accordion-folded books made from beaten bark paper that was surfaced with a thin layer of plaster.18, 19

            Joseph Smith undoubtedly spent a considerable amount of time learning how to translate the reformed Egyptian symbols on the golden plates before he engaged the services of Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery as scribes. Much like the Maya hieroglyphs, reformed Egyptian undoubtedly was also a phonetic, syllable-based, symbol-driven writing system. Knowing the outcomes of that conclusion, Book of Mormon afficionados should have little difficulty understanding how Joseph’s translation of a fourth-century reformed Egyptian multiple-symbol word could result in the nineteenth-century word horse when horse from the perspective of the archaeological and historical records of Mesoamerica was obviously incorrect. Twentieth-century writers of symbol shorthand systems such as Pitman or Gregg will have a special affinity for understanding how such words as “horse” could be dictated by Joseph as he translated the phonetic, syllable-based, multiple-symbol words from the golden plates. “Calligraphically,” the word horse undoubtedly is an example of the translation of a multiple-symbol word as a reflection of Royal Skousen’s “loose control” during the translation process.

            Today’s epigraphers can now read about 90 percent of the Maya glyphs in Mesoamerica, and Book of Mormon scholars are discovering some startling outcomes from the translations of the glyphs on stelae, pottery, walls of buildings, and so forth.20

            When Joseph and Oliver began to pursue seriously the process of translation, they moved ahead rapidly:

Among the many amazing facts about the Book of Mormon is how little time it took for Joseph Smith to translate it. Recent research has shown more clearly than ever before that the Book of Mormon as we now have it was translated in a stunningly short amount of time. There was no time for outside research, rewriting, or polishing.21

            In fact, a total of only sixty-five to seventy-five days was likely consumed by Joseph and Oliver during the translation process—or an average of about seven to eight pages per day. During that same time period, Joseph and Oliver spent considerable time doing other things.22 The time available for actually translating and the process of translation suggest that Joseph translated rather quickly and seldom paused to puzzle over the best word choice for the reformed Egyptian symbols he was translating. That is, he used words and formed sentences as a result of his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.

When Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon in the spring of 1829, he dictated the text line by line. An examination of the Original Manuscript reveals that Joseph Smith, as he translated, apparently never went back to cross out, revise, or modify. The manuscript pages contain the words written by Joseph’s scribes . . . as the Prophet spoke the translation.23

            A few years after the translation work was completed, Oliver Cowdery discussed the translation process. His words suggest an approach in which Joseph translated without the benefit of puzzling over appropriate word choice and without benefit of revision:

These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim . . . the history or record called “The Book of Mormon.”24
            Why should Book of Mormon readers be concerned about the nature of the translation process in connection with the word horse in the Book of Mormon? They could answer that question by trying to understand the translation process in relation to the words that came into Joseph’s mind as he translated. To a large extent, as suggested above, those words seem to be a reflection of his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions.

            That is, the connotation of a multiple-symbol word being translated is determined by the meanings of the symbols as conjured up in the mind of the translator. Joseph Smith clearly knew what a horse was based on his 1829 vocabulary, environment, and perceptions. On a few occasions, he reflected his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions as he interpreted a few symbols that seemed to reflect the connotation of horse.

            In a similar vein, Joseph did the same by relying on his vocabulary, environment, and perceptions in translating other multiple-symbol words reflecting connotations with which he was familiar. This process likely happened when he used such words as steel, wheat, silk, and cement or the names of several mammals in general.