WHAT THE HELL DID JOSEPH MEAN BY TRANSLATION?
by Michael Barker
This post was provoked by three things:
The LDS Church’s recent statement on the Book of Mormon Translation (click here to read the statement).
- Dan Wotherspoon’s Mormon Matters episode where a panel discusses this most recent statment (click here to listen).
- The Engaging Gospel Doctrine podcast that looks at the Book of Abraham (click here to listen).
- Recently re-reading Article of Faith number eight
This essay is not an attempt to systematize the unique way in which Joseph Smith used the word translate, but more of an exploration of what he meant and hopefully a way to engage you, the reader, in your thoughts and insights. I am interested in what you think; really, I want to know. This post will seem, at times, like it has very little cohesiveness. The reason being, I am letting you into my messed up little brain and allowing you to see how disorganized things are as I try to work things out. I am trying to form something out of chaos. It’s my way of participating in a creation of some sort and I want you to participate with me please.
Having said that, the best hypothesis regarding the use of the word translation, will be the one that has the greatest explanatory power. That is, the hypothesis with the most explanatory power is the hypothesis which makes the observable data more probable than it would have been otherwise. It has the power to explain the data.
A more thorough exploration of Joseph’s use of the word translate will be done in an upcoming post by guest-blogger Laura Clayton Furst; so keep your eyes open for that.
I don’t know when my father first told me that Joseph Smith had seer stones, but I don’t think he mentioned that they were used in the revealing of the Book of Mormon; I know it was before my mission, but beyond that, I just don’t remember. While on my mission, my parents sent me the three-volume series, Doctrines of Salvation, where Joseph Fielding Smith eronesously said:
“While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose. The reason I give for this conclusion is found in the statement of the Lord to the Brother of Jared as recorded in Ether3:22-24” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Volume 3, pg. 226).
That was most likely when I first heard of any connection between Joseph’s seer stones (which he used for treasure digging) and the revelatory process through which the Book of Mormon came. Since Joseph Fielding Smith stated that Joseph’s seer stones were not used for bringing forth the Book of Mormon, I gave it no further thought.
In 2008 I read Bushman’s, Rough Stone Rolling. It was while reading Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith that I learned of the overwhelming evidence that Joseph did indeed use his treasure-seeking seer stones in the transmition of the Book of Mormon. My view shifted without problem. Michael Quinn’s, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View further solidified the bedrock of evidence that indeed the seerstone was used in God revealing the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith.
It was somewhere around this time that I stopped using the verb translate and the noun translation when speaking about how the Book of Mormon text was revealed. Those words just seemed to carry too many assumptions along with them. I just don’t know how one could call it a translation, if Joseph is not looking at a text, but instead, has his face buried in a hat looking at a seer stone. On LDS.org it states:
“Apparently for convenience, Joseph often translated with the single seer stone rather than the two stones bound together to form the interpreters. These two instruments—the interpreters and the seer stone…According to these accounts, Joseph placed either the interpreters or the seer stone in a hat, pressed his face into the hat to block out extraneous light, and read aloud the English words that appeared on the instrument.”
This single stone eventually began to be called a “urim and thummim”, which just made a mess out of everything. For now it is hard to distinguish between the two different objects used in the revelatory process of the Book of Mormon. Here’s an interesting tid bit – although the Urim and Thummim are commonly viewed as part of the clothing that the Israelite priest would wear ( Exodus 28:30), the urim also seems to be some type of tool for receiving revelation. 1 Samuel 28:6 reads:
“And when Saul enquired of the LORD, the LORD answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets.”
Instead (as you may have noticed from above) of using the words translate or translating, I will say, “The revelation which we call the Book of Mormon,” or, “God revelealed the Book of Mormon,” etc. It makes the sentence structure much more complicated and less clean for sure, but it doesn’t carry with it the assumptions that the word translate does. The assumption of course being that there is a text that one is looking at and from which one is translating. It usually assumes that the translator knows two languages. Regarding the last assumption, I feel safe to say, that most Mormons reject it, as it pertains to Joseph Smith. For the active Mormon, one of the miracles of the Book of Mormon is the fact that Joseph Smith knew no ancient laguage.
This view of how the Book of Mormon came to be also allows for the anachronisms that occur in the Book of Mormon. I won’t go into what those are as it is not the point of this essay.
Now, when Joseph Smith used the word translate as it pertained to the Book of Mormon, I don’t get the sense that he meant it in any non-traditional sense of the word. Because of how I see the data, I came up with a word just the other day to explain how I see what Joseph was doing – revelatory-translation.
THE JOSEPH SMITH TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE (JST)
Shortly after the Church was organized, Joseph began translating the text of the King Jame Bible (KJV). It seems to be that he actually thought that he could get back to the original text and that he was getting back to the original form in which the Bible was first penned:
“I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 327).
The other advantage of my “revelatory-translation” is that it accommodates what Joseph Smith did with his Bible redactions.
It seems to me that Joseph indeed thought that he was getting close to the original text as he was editing the KJV, but bible scholarship doesn’t seem to support this view. I’m not saying that in some cases, Joseph might not have gotten closer to what the intent of the original authors of the Bible were trying to get at, but there are problems (which I am not going to get into here) with the view that he was translating and that his translation was how the Bible originally came. As you may have noticed, I used the word redacted when talking about Joseph Smith’s Translation. Redacted is just a fancy word that means to edit. I see Joseph acting as redactor. He actually seems to be acting in much the same ways as the authors of Luke and Matthew did. Let me explain.
Most Bible scholars hold to the idea of what is called Markean Priority. That is, that Mark was the first gospel written of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). What the authors of Luke and Matthew did was take what Mark had written, some of their own oral traditions, perhaps other manuscripts (such as the Q document), and did redactions. Both Luke and Matthew share much of the same material as Mark, but there are differnces and a Markean priority explains many of those differences. I see Joseph working much the same way. He is taking the KJV and through the lens of a 19th century prophet, he is re-working the Bible. I personally like how the Community of Christ calls the JST The Inspired Version of the Bible. It seems to better explain what Joseph was doing and my view of revelatory-translation allows for this view.
THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM
Plenty of ink has been spilt over what the Book of Abraham is and isn’t. I will leave it at this – the extant papyri we have from the Kirtland mummies do not correlate with what Joseph produced. His revelation, interesting enough, came as he was studying Hebrew under the Hebraist, Joshua Seixas. Seixas’ Hebrew Grammar for the Ue of Beginners was published at Andover, Essex Co. It was Seixas who taught a course in Hebrew at Kirtland, Ohio from January 26 to March 29, 1936.
There are plenty of plausible reasons for what was going on with Joseph’s production of the Book of Abraham, but once again, my simple revelatry-translation allows me to see the Book of Abraham as sripture. The newest edition of our scriptures seem to acknowledge the problems with calling the Book of Abraham a translation from the Kirtland Papyri. In the introduction to the Pearl of Great Price it states:
“The Book of Abraham – An inspired translation of the writings of Abraham.”
But once again, I believe Joseph believed he was actually translating something in the very traditional sense of the word. I think the way my friend Jared Andrson explains the Book of Abraham is very helpful:
“The book of Abraham is inspired revision of the creation narrative, catalyzed by the papyri, informed by Joseph’s study of Hebrew..Adjust your understanding of scripture and revelation accordingly.”
DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS SECTION 7
My revelatory-translation hypothesis also explains what is going on with the “translated version of the record made on parchment by John and hidden up by himself” (introduction to Doctrine and Covenants 7). Why do I say this? Because there was no frickin’ tangible parchment from which Joseph translated Doctrine and Covenants 7. He saw something in a vision. Now, come on, how can you call that a translation, in the traditional sense of the word? You can’t.
ARTICLE OF FAITH NUMBER 8
Article of Faith number 8 reads:
“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly….”
This seems to be a bit narrow. That is, the “errors” in the Bible aren’t due to just translation problems, but are also do to how the material was transmitted. Due to my studies of how the Bible came to be, I’ve been stating it this way:
“We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is transmitted/transferred correctly….”
When I re-read this Article of Faith last week, it kind of threw my whole revelatory-translation hypothesis for a loop. For, it seems here that Joseph means an academic-translation, not a revelatory-translation.
Yet, this Article of Faith states something explicitly that is worth thinking about:
“We believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”
In a face book discussion, Jared Anderson asked the question, “What does “word of God” mean? Depends on how you understand the revelatory process.”
It does seem that “translated correctly” can’t really mean anything other than “transmitted” based on an earlier quote I gave:
“I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 327).
But, as was pointed out to me by Jared Anderson, “The ‘word of God’ line, once again (pertaining to the Bible), is where assumptions and conclusions about the revelatory process come in.”
So, do I need to toss my hypothesis out the window?
OTHER PROBLEMS WITH MY VIEW
The biggest problem with my revelatory-translation hypothesis is that I (or Joseph Smith) am/are equivocating with the word translation. That is, I am saying that it has a different meaning than what it traditionally does. This is a big complaint that many have with the apologetic community. Some apologists will take a word and say, “Well, that word doesn’t actually mean what it means,” in order to allow for a degree of wiggle-room as they try to defend some tenant of the Church. The best example is the appearance of the word “horse” in the Book of Mormon. It has been argued that the word “horse” might have referred to a tapir.
Another problem that you might have noticed is in my repeatedly saying in this post, “I believe Joseph believed he was actually translating something in the very traditional sense of the word.” I’m not sure if that is completely correct, for it seems that Joseph gives us a definition of what he meant by the word translate. In the title page of the Book of Mormon, the first paragraph ends with:
“Sealed by the hand of Moroni, and hid up unto the Lord, to come forth in due time by way of the Gentile – The interpretation thereof by the Gift of God.“
This statement can be interpreted two ways:
- God gave Joseph Smith a gift to translate, in a traditional academic way, ancient texts. Of course we must acknowledge that Joseph Smith did not know any ancient languages; so this traditional view is still non-traditional in a sense.
- Some type of revelatory process occurred that would be better viewed as an interpretation of an ancient text. This view allows for what some have called a “loose translation” vs. a “tight translation” of the Book of Mormon.
Regarding the title page Joseph purportedly stated the following:
“I wish to mention here that the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated, the language of the whole running the same as all Hebrew writing in general [that is, from right to left]; and that said title page is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation. … I give below that part of the title-page of the English version of the Book of Mormon, which is a genuine and literal translation of the title-page of the original Book of Mormon as recorded on the plates…” (History of the Church, 1:71–72; bracketed words in original; from “History of the Church” (manuscript), book A-1, pp. 34–35, Church Archives)
If Joseph did see his translation work as more of a revelatory-translation, then why the heck did he give some of the Book of Mormon characters to Martin Harris for Professor Anthon to examine? It seems that Joseph Smith was leaning toward a more academic view of translation (Joseph Smith History 1:63-64). And to further complicate matters, the bottom of the Book of Mormon title page states, “TRANSLATED BY JOSEPH SMITH, Jun.”
In summary, what are we left with?
Joseph Smith’s view of revelatory-translation seemed to contain or accommodate an academic/traditional view of the word translate. Is that a fair statement? Yet there seems to be tension with how we view scripture as a privileged text and wanting Joseph to bring forth scripture in a very ordinary and logical way.
I wonder how much of our view of Joseph “translating” is from us reading into Joseph’s statements something he did not mean.
Please share with me your thoughts.
I like the revelatory translation concept a lot but it may be a useful but unnecessary construct.
If you apply deconstructionist theory, words are incapable of fixed meaning. This is especially true of the English language where “dope” can mean “dumb,”neat,” or “an illicit drug.” “Shower” can mean “cleanse” or “bestow.” The connections between the various meanings are tenuous at best. The word “translation,” as a word with amorphous boundaries is supple enough to include at least the following meanings:
Meanings over the decades and centuries shift profoundly as well.
Throw in scripture-speak and “translation” can also refer to some sort of elevation, quickening, purification or even transportation from one place to another, applying not just to living beings but to objects as well. This usage seemingly has very little to do with transmitting meaning from one language to another.
Joseph was no wordsmith. The word translate has porous boundaries that can accommodate any of the above meanings and sometimes more than one meaning. The ability of multiple meanings is what makes double and triple entendres and puns capable of conveying multiple meanings.
I’m not suggesting that he was equivocating, although he might have been. I’m suggesting that not only might his 1830 usage of the word translation might be different from your 2014 usage, his 1830 usage in one sentence might have been different from his usage in 1830 just two sentences later. Dishonesty may or may not be involved, but it is more likely that most language, the English language in particular, is as maleable as chicken, capable of assimilating meanings and flavors limited only by the background and creativity of the chef using it. Whatever else one might think of Joseph, his creativity and imagination were spectacular.
Ooh. Great points Haggoth. I am going to chew on this for a while.
Great post. I am surprised there were no references to The The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon by Brant Gardner. I really liked that book.
Anyway here is a shot at a quote from the book that goes along with the definition of translation.
-pp.294-295, The Gift and Power: Translating the Gift and Power
*Noah Webster, American Dictionary of the English Language: 1828 Noah Webster Dictionary, Kindle Edition
**History of the Church, 4:461
***Hugh, Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 49
****Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 28
*****Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is entirely devoted to developing this argument. He works through examples of specific instances of changes. A more popular version of the thesis Ehrman elaborates in The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture is found in Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, 151-75
Ha, ha. I didn’t cite it because I still haven’t read it. I love Brant’s work. He’s written several posts for us actually.
Great incites you have provided.
On a side note, what did you think of the back and forth between “Pro Truth” and the other readers?
Based on your level of interest in the subject I think that it would definitely be worth your time. It is an entertaining and well-researched book.
As far as the Pro Truth comments, I believe that he/she is on a mission. Pro Truth sees things through a purely scientific lens. I can respect that, however, the amount of posts is a bit overzealous in my opinion. The author probably sees it as a benefit to show the “correct” point of view and is passionate about it. I think it is beneficial in that it does make us think and develop spiritually to see the other side.
Based on the comments I have seen I would have to guess that the author is an atheist. A valid position, but as Margaret Atwood has said
If you are to fully accept science, or what is directly testable and what it proves, Atwood goes on to say
Just some thoughts.
It’s on my reading list. Next year, I will be reviewing his multi-volume series on the Book of Mormon.
Matt, if you are interested, we haven’t done a book review on “The Gift and Power.” If you would like to do that, we would welcome it.
I think trying to draw lines between the physical and spiritual worlds Joseph believed in and or created is somewhat futile. It seems that he certainly believed in some very literal interpretations, but then in other instances it is clear too me that many of his teachings are meant to be interpreted purely symbolically. Frankly, I have no idea what the hell Joseph meant by many things. I’m not sure Joseph always knew, and I’m convinced that he frequently changed his mind about how he understood/viewed things.
My primary problem is that the leaders and orthodox members of the church since JS have primarily taught everything as being quite literal. Believing in empiricism and the scientific method, this is in my view a worthless and frankly wrong-headed approach. Was there death before 6,000 years ago? Was there a global flood? Was there a tower of Babel? Was there a Garden of Eden in MO? The list goes on and on. On the other hand, can lessons be learned from these “stories”? Could they be lessons God wants us to learn? Then again, how much of the church narrative unravels when this approach is taken? I don’t know.
To me this is the big struggle/question for the future of the church. Over the last 100 years the more orthodox, literal believers “won” and therefore wrote the church narrative. Who will win the next 100 years? If it’s the literal/orthodox, I’m convinced that the church will be relegated to a very small place in society and history. If it’s the other way around, I think the church could have a great future.
That is good stuff you just brought to the table. I think it is human nature to try to systematize things. Would you agree?
I’m not sure how your “revelatory-translation” fits with the recently released church statement about the translation. In it they indicate four times a more literal/direct approach – that he read words from the stones/interpreters.
I agree with your point. I have two responses:
1)The Church has really painted itself into a corner with taking that stance for it must accept that horses and steel existed in the Book of Mormon.
2)That view comes from Martin Harris’ interpretation of what Joseph was doing. Harris’ isn’t always the most reliable source. I would highly recommend listening to the Mormon Matters podcast I linked to at the beginning of this post for a robust discussion regarding the Church’s recent statement on Book of Mormon translation.
I agree they’ve painted themselves in a corner with it and it was surprising to see them include it. I had been under the impression that many scholars had backed away from the literal/direct method since this allows a lot more room to answer some of the troubling questions. Why do you think they mentioned it four times…..especially if it only comes from Martin’s interpretation? Why would they put it in there knowing it would back them into a corner and make it more difficult?
The entire official narrative which has continually used the word translation causes problems doesn’t it! My whole life I was raised with a literal view of how this occurred…..plates on the table with Joseph studying them and copying the text into English. You know actual translating!
I listened to the podcast when it first came out and enjoyed it.
Those are all great questions. Whoever wrote the piece on LDS.org just screwed up.
I’m glad you are a fan of Dan Wotherspoon. His is my favorite LDS themed podcast. Brings up complicated stuff, but does it in a way that allows for faith.
If you want to see the history of the usage of the word “translate” then you can see examples from hundreds of years ago. Just go to the Oxford English Dictionary, oed.com. One former definition found there (II,3) is “To interpret, explain; to expound the significance of (conduct, gestures, etc.); also, to express (one thing) in terms of another.” This usage of “translate” seems to have been in use between 1604 and 1903.
Good point Ceejay. I was thinking of including that in the post, but didn’t for some reason. I’m loving the discussion and the insights you all are bringing to the table!!!
That would be a good exercise for me to write the review. I will mull it over.
Thanks for the invitation.
“When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities…Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to rewrite the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be rewritten, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation.”
Brigham Young, JD 9:311
Dang it!!! I was going to put that quote and there and totally forgot!!! Thanks for bring it up. It’s a goodie.
I think based on everything cited and discussed hereinabove, the only conclusion to reach is that J.S. was very inventive. Furthermore, just like in his treasure seeking days where the “treasure” would seemingly slip further down into the earth as the diggers frantically dug, we also will never find the actual “treasure” of what was meant by “translation.” J.S. was also very “slippery” and desperately needed to be pinned down and have all his words defined in a legal like proceeding before the truth would have ever come out.