Joseph Smith stood on the line dividing visionary supernaturalism from rational Christianity—one of the many boundaries between the traditional and modern world.
–Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling
I’ll admit it: I’m a Joseph Smith fangirl.
I love the prophet and the man, warts and all. In fact, I sigh over him like my friends sigh over Benedict Cumberbatch.  Talk about your nerd girls, you talk about me, only…you know. With prophets.
Better, with prophetic translators because, personally, I’m a ridiculous word nerd who’s toyed with a little translation work myself. Granted, I only translate and interpret poetry, ancient hymns–things that actually use languages. I’ve never had the opportunity to attempt to translate the Word or Will of God and put it into human language, but that’s not the point. The translation thing gives me and Joe a common bond. It’s like we’re kindred spirits, you know? Sure, I’m not a prophet, but otherwise?
See, I happened to learn about LDS history as a child on my mother’s knee, when my ability to process and accept cognitive dissonance was highest. Joseph Smith? He was kind of crazy. Also, he was a prophet. The two don’t contradict each other. In fact, they sort of go together like cheese and ginger jelly. You might not see it every day, and you should probably be cautious when you do, but…seriously, just jump in and go with it. Or don’t. Your choice. I swear, it’s good.
The point is that I love the Articles of Faith and the Book of Abraham. I love the Lectures on Faith, and I could go on for hours about why this or that proposition in 1840 shows how his theology branched out and led to that or this wacky proposition in 1841 and how both of those mean something interesting and unique in LDS spiritual development. Joseph is my hero, even when he makes mistakes. Making mistakes is a prophet thing, so it’s all good.
In particular, I love it when he makes mistakes translating. I suppose translation mistakes should really bother me, but in some ways I find them comforting. I’m completely willing to suspend logic and say I’m impressed by his work on the Word (if not the words, but more on that later) of God; but as a man who dabbles in languages and scriptural interpretation? Eh. Not so impressed. He’s a bit of a goofy farm boy about it most of the time.
For example, in one of my favorite addresses he interprets a passage from Revelations and it’s so crazy that it really highlights his strengths and weaknesses as a man, spiritual leader, prophet, revelator, and—particularly–translator.
I obviously suggest you go read the whole thing yourself, but here’s the “good parts” version.
Joseph first clarifies that he is about to interpret “the beast spoken of in Revelations” but, “the knowledge of the subject … is not very essential to the Elders.” He only mentions it because:
[Elder Brown] has been called up before the High Council on account of [his interpretation of] the beast…. I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine…. I want the liberty of believing as I please; it feels so good not to be trammeled. It don’t prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine.
His point is, quit arguing about it. Sure, Elder Brown’s interpretation is, in fact, doctrinally incorrect. But errors in doctrine, according to the prophet, shouldn’t get you in trouble with the High Council. Correct interpretation of scripture is not required for salvation. Not fighting among yourselves probably is.
The Actual Interpretation/Translation
Now that the important issue has been discussed, Joseph interprets scripture. This interpretation corrects the “translations” of two specific words: “beasts” in certain writings of the Prophets, and “dragon” in Rev. 12. In both cases, his translation is completely unrelated to the literal meaning of any words written in any manuscripts anywhere, then or now. The “translation” only relates to what he views as an important, incorrect scriptural understanding. It’s not a translation as we’d define it—it’s an interpretation.
On the subject of the word “beasts” he says, “There is a grand distinction between the actual meaning of the Prophets and the present translation.”
“What is this grand distinction?” you ask. Well.
According to Joseph, every time the word “beasts” is used by Old Testament prophets, the actual term should be “images,” because the Old Testament prophets weren’t seeing actual, physical beasts, they were seeing images of beasts. John, though, saw actual beasts in heaven, and those shouldn’t be confused with any metaphorical nonsense. They were real beasts, living in heaven.
Similarly, he says of Rev. 12, “The original Hebrew [sic] word signifies the devil and not dragon as translated.” I’m not going to get picky and point out that Revelation was written in Greek, because what we really have to focus on is that in the real world there are no dragons, and especially not in heaven.
The devil is real, dragons are nonsense. Don’t get confused.
This is “rational Christianity” coming from a man who found golden plates in a hillside. It’s a strange and contradictory moment and I find it (contradictorily) faith-promoting.
The first thing this teaches me is that, sometimes, Joseph clearly spoke on scriptural topics “as a man,”and proud of it. Joseph himself said that this information was “not very essential,” so there’s that. Information a prophet considers inessential can’t be divine. If you need additional confirmation, the “translations” mentioned aren’t included in the JST, so they’re not officially endorsed (for what that’s worth). These were just minor clarifications shared to settle a dispute, not prophecy.
The second thing this teaches me is that Joseph, as a man, didn’t like words that weren’t “plain language.” He felt scripture should be precise and not lead people like Elder Brown astray or cause divisions among the saints. On a personal level, he felt that some words should be changed just because they weren’t logical enough for him. That’s right–he thought scriptures should conform to some sort of logic.
Sadly, Joseph was allergic to metaphor and approached figurative language with the serious literalism of…wait for it…an uneducated farm boy.
But that’s why I love this sermon. It illustrates how Joseph approached the scriptures on a personal level, and makes one wonder how or why such a trenchant literalist would have come up with the whole “golden plates” thing on his own. It also raises the question of what Joseph meant, exactly, when he said “the Word of God, as far as it is translated correctly.” Does it—should it?—relate to any of the translation methods approved by the community of professional 21st century translators familiar with multiple languages, living and dead, who feel an ethical responsibility for accuracy?
I wonder this quite a bit, because while I’m not exactly a professional translator, I work a lot with words, and I’m probably much fussier about interpretations than Joseph was. So when I think of the term “translated correctly” I automatically redefine (Translate? Interpret?) it in several different ways. For example:
- The etymological version: [translatus à> ppp of transferre à same root as “transfer” à “to carry across”] + [correctus à pp of corrigere à from com+regere “to lead straight, rule” à “to put straight, set right, reform, amend”] = “to transfer/carry meaning in a straight line from a source to a destination”
- The common use version: changed word-for-word from one spoken language to another without losing any of the meaning, sort of the way we imagine a tour guide or a UN employee would do it, but usually more like that guy in China translating instruction manuals does it, which isn’t very good but it gets the idea across
- The including-contextual-information version: using the words that best describe the concept, even if they’re not exactly the same words, sort of the way we describe a math problem to our kids when they’re really stuck with their homework and we use a lot of phrases like “what they actually mean here is…”
- Joseph Smith’s Word of God version: using the words that best describe the spiritual truth, and not just words some committee decided were representative of the Will of God as historically accepted but which may have been inspired by political considerations more than by divine will, and divine will is more important, thanks.
So, there’s the problem right there with translation in general: there are far too many ways to interpret the term and some of them directly contradict each other.
Joseph’s translations and interpretations weren’t rigorous or scholarly, they were revelatory. If you accept that Joseph translated through revelation to any degree, you have accepted that reason, rationality, or properly defined words and terms sincerely aren’t the point: the point is that something magical happened. You have to set aside rationality to accept the magical and irrational, and this can be distressing to people who, like Joseph, were taught to prioritize logic and plain sense. It seems to me that Joseph’s own words indicate he approached linguistic translation with curiosity and interest, and wanted the scriptures to resonate with “rational Christians” like himself.
I sometimes wonder if Joseph started studying ancient languages in an attempt to “prove” to himself that the revelations had a rational basis. Perhaps, sometimes, he asked himself why he’d been chosen to be a prophet despite his personal failings. Perhaps he thought the reason was that he had a talent for languages, and not just revelation. If that’s what he thought…I’m going to go with “nope.” And I don’t think that actually matters in the least, because he himself didn’t actually claim that he translated the Book of Mormon (or even the larger parts of his translation of the Bible) by re-examining the words in their context. Those who came after him may have tried, in their attempt to fit him into the mode of rational Christianity, but in doing so they actually did revelation a great disservice. Any old half-educated person can translate languages if they want–I’m proof of that. Almost nobody can be a prophet.
So what is the LDS bottom line for “Correct” translation?
In a recent statement on Book of Mormon Translation, the church emphasized Joseph’s declaration that he translated the Book of Mormon “by the gift and power of God.” They also point out that several processes were used to perform the translation, and that witnesses often made it clear that Joseph did not do his Book of Mormon translation work by struggling to turn a character in Reformed Egyptian (whatever that might be) into a comprehensible word. He was guided by a seer stone or the Urim and Thummim rather than the plates themselves.
In this model Joseph was simply a tool much as the stones were, transferring meaning by plugging himself in to his symbolic meditation devices and downloading directly from the mind of God, converting the thoughts into English in some undetermined way, and relaying the words to a scribe who put it all down on paper. Etymologically, that can be an accurate definition of “translation,” and contextually I believe that it is an accurate description of Joseph’s experience.
That may be as rationally satisfying as any visionary supernaturalism can ever get.
 n.b. Benedict Cumberbatch may also have warts, but that’s obviously a discussion for another day.↩
 At least Joseph didn’t kill a guy and then have to go hide out in the desert (*cough* Moses and Nephi *cough cough*) right?↩
 Why yes, I did just insert a Princess Bride reference into a piece about Joseph Smith. It seemed appropriate.↩
 And I didn’t even start talking about the Greek alternates or the “what people who disagree with me think” version or twelve others I could think of without hardly trying.↩