The Translation Process

Due to ignorance, many people believe that Joseph “translated” the record using his own words. The prophecy however said he would only “read the words”:

20 thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee

22 when thou hast read the words which I have commanded thee

24 shall read the words that shall be delivered him (2 Nephi 27) 

Apparently, Joseph had an aptitude for peering into a “peep-stone,” much as Joseph of old did with his silver cup (Genesis 44:2,5,15). Thus, God did allow Joseph the use of this interest – not for gold digging anymore – but rather for bringing forth the already translated English words of the book, from heaven to earth.

This is what Emma told her son Joseph III about the process:

“When acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible” (Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 1:542).

Young William Smith, brother of Joe said this: 

That the statements given in the preceding lines concerning the strange visions shown to Joseph Smith, are true; and the translation of the record as found by the brother as stated, is also true, and in no other way did Joseph Smith compile, or compose the Book of Mormon only as stated by the gift and power of God. The story that Joseph Smith made up his revelation of the Book of Mormon out of a romance written by one Solomon Spaulding, like many other falsehoods told on the character of the Prophet, by the deceitful and lying stupidity of the age in which we live, must fall to the ground with the rest of their refuge of lies (William Smith on Mormonism, 1883, p. 28).

 This is what Royal Skousen of the Critical Text Project of The Book of Mormon said:

I began to see considerable evidence for the traditional interpretation that witnesses of the translation process claimed: (1) the text was given word for word, (2) Book of Mormon names were frequently spelled out the first time they occurred in the text, and (3) during dictation there was no rewriting of the text except to correct errors in taking down the dictation. Joseph Smith was literally reading off an already composed English-language text. The evidence in the manuscripts and in the language of the text itself supports the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon was a precisely determined text. I do not consider this conclusion apologetic, but instead as one demanded by the evidence.

The opposing viewpoint, that Joseph Smith got ideas and he translated them into his own English, cannot be supported by the manuscript and textual evidence. The only substantive argument for this alternative view has been the nonstandard nature of the text, with its implication that God would never speak ungrammatical English, so the nonstandard usage must be the result of Joseph Smith putting the ideas he received into his own language. Yet with the recent finding that the original vocabulary of the text appears to be dated from the 1500s and 1600s (not the 1800s), we now need to consider the possibility that the ungrammaticality of the original text may also date from that earlier period of time, not necessarily from Joseph’s own time and place. Joseph Smith is not the author of the Book of Mormon, nor is he actually the translator. Instead, he was the revelator: through him the Lord revealed the English-language text (by means of the interpreters, later called the Urim and Thummim, and the seer stone). Such a view is consistent, I believe, with Joseph’s use elsewhere of the verb translate to mean ‘transmit’ and the noun translation to mean ‘transmission’ (as in the eighth Article of Faith).

The punctuation was added by the printer, and the LDS versification by Orson Pratt. Only the paragraphs in the 1830 edition were as indicated on the plates:

It appears that Joseph Smith himself specified the placement of the original chapter breaks. In the translation process, Joseph seems to have seen some visual indication at the end of a section that the section was ending; perhaps the last words of the section were followed by blankness. Recognizing that the section was ending, Joseph then told the scrip to write the word chapter, with the understanding that the appropriate number would be added later. Scribal evidence from the original and printer’s manuscripts supports this interpretation. Oliver Cowdery’s Chapter is always written rapidly and with the same ink flow as the surrounding text. But his chapter numbers are almost always written with heavier ink flow and more carefully. In many cases, Oliver took time to add serifs to his roman numerals. And in one case, the chapter number was written in blue ink while all the surrounding words (including the word Chapter) were written using the normal black ink.

The use of the word chapter and he corresponding numbers is not part of the original text and can therefore be considered noncanonical. But the breaks that Joseph Smith apparently saw can be considered a part of the original text and should be indicated in the [critical] text, perhaps by placing white spaces between sections. (Royal Skousen, “Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, Part One: 1 Nephi 1 – 2 Nephi 20,” FARMS, 2004, p. 44).

Caractors Transcript

MacKay Characters Document - Hicks Collection
MacKay Characters Document – Hicks Collection

Commonly called the “Anthon Transcript,” the above picture is of the “Character Document,” and the “caractors” were originally copied directly from the plates by Joseph, and then on the above document by Christian Whitmer. There are seven lines of characters. A translation of the document was completed by Jerry D. Grover Jr. in 2019 and reads thus:

That little scrap of yellowed paper sat peacefully for more than a hundred years, just waiting for someone to take it seriously (Jerry D. Grover, TRANSLATION OF THE “CARACTORS” DOCUMENT REVISED AND UPDATED, 2019, p. 374).

Grover gives details about his translation of the characters:

Now that all the terms have been translated individually, the translation of the full text can be rendered. There are always different possibilities for final prose in any translation. The scriptural style and language of the Book of Mormon will not be duplicated in this translation. The translation is meant primarily to discern the complete meaning of the text, so I will not attempt to preserve all of the elements of the time and calendar marking system (such as potentially ten “it came to pass” clauses) or express the multiple meanings of the names, places, and tribes. The translation is in contemporary English, leaving in place some of the original structure where it makes sense. Bracketed words or phrases are not a direct translation per se but provide context (p. 309). 

Translation of the First Four Lines of the Caractors Document

In the nineteenth regnal year of Mosiah I, the Nephites exited over the mountains to the foreign speaking people of Mulek. These twenty thousand “children of Mosiah1” traveled over the mountains for eleven days and then downriver on the east side of the River Sidon [Grijalva River] for eighty days reaching Zarahemla. And then it came to pass that after eleven years thus began the Period of the Seven Tribes.

After the space of twenty-one more years had passed, Zeniff, with sixty of his people, departed. Fifty-three more years then passed; then the Limhites departed and obtained the Twenty-Four plates from the West in the Land of Desolation, returning upriver on the River of Lamanite Possessions [Usumacinta]. Seven years from the date of the departure to obtain the Jaredite plates, the Limhites traveled west, bringing the pure gold Jaredite plates to Mosiah2, which he translated.

Previous to the arrival of the Limhites, Benjamin was made king in the second month of the four hundred and thirtysixth year after Lehi left Jerusalem. At the age of eighty-three, king Benjamin ascended to eternity, which was four hundred seventy-nine years after Lehi left Jerusalem. King Benjamin’s death occurred one and one third years before the arrival of the Limhites. Four years before the arrival of the Limhites, the Period of the Seven Tribes ended in conjunction with the Jubilee Year (p. 309).

Translation of the Second Three Lines of the Caractors Document

Sixty and one half months [prior to the coming of Christ]—Samuel the Lamanite came to the Nephites and the Lamanites prophesying of darkness—The Nephite primary count calendar was shifted from the 1,000 Year Calendar to the Coming of Christ Calendar, effective retroactively nine years after the Coming of Christ Calendar started—The 600 year Lehi Departure Calendar period ended; in the ninety-second year of the Reign of the Judges, the First and Most High King, Christ the Son, came to the Land of Jerusalem; while he was born occurred two days of brightness—The Gaddianton tribe arose; Nephi2 departed—Siege of the Gaddianton robbers, praise voiced to God; a Jubilee Year takes place, which completes the Twelfth Jubilee Period of the 1,000 Year Calendar

On the first month of the one hundred and twenty-fifth year of the Reign of the Judges Calendar, Christ came at the time of darkness to the people—After remaining fifty weeks, in the twelfth month of the thirty-fourth year of the Coming of Christ (the Most High) Calendar, Christ ascends upward to heaven; the Reign of the Judges Calendar period ends; thus commences a period of truth and prosperity—Nephites seek after riches; the rise of the Fourth Generation is complete—Nephites retreated downriver on the River Bountiful [Coatzacoalcos] to the north countries; Three Disciples departed—Innumerable multitudes of Lamanites came—The Nephites and the Lamanites are without Christ and God the Father, now choosing to be led by Satan—Moroni and Mormon are in the hands of Christ—three hundred eighty-four years (p. 309).


Chapter 10 A River Runs through It—Nephite Directional System There are multiple glyphs related to directions found in the Caractors Document:

To start the analysis, it is assumed that the Grijalva River (upon which the Sorenson model is based) is the River Sidon. Figures 98–100 show the geography of the Sorenson model. As becomes apparent, the East Sea and the West Sea do not look be east and west at all but are more north and south. This fact is geographically puzzling; in addition, the Book of Mormon text indicates that there is a sea to the north (Alma 50:15). In fact, the Book of Mormon seems to encapsulate in one brief verse some indication that there are seas on all sides (Helaman 3:8):

And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.

Unless one is on an island, a literal interpretation of this verse is difficult to apply to any known geography; as a result, some individuals have attempted in their models to have the entire Yucatan peninsula as part of the land northward, just to try to make this one verse work. Is there something in the water that the Nephites are drinking that is causing them confusion? The answer is yes (p. 249).

There are three glyphs for going upriver, with two being identical and incorporated into the glyph for “Lamanite” (C-108 and C-217). A third appears to have the same top element, but the bottom element is different (B49a, [Usumacinta River]) (p. 255).

The glyph for “Jaredite” already referenced is related definitionally to the land northward and the Land of Desolation, so the probable candidate for this directional glyph is the River Bountiful. Perhaps it is a form of the upriver directional for the river. If not, then perhaps the Papaloapan River could be considered, but there is no etymology or reference in the Book of Mormon for that river, so nothing can be assessed in that regard (p. 258).

The directional basis for the Book of Mormon is based on the alignment of the River Sidon (Grijalva River). It needs to be noted that the northern extent of the Grijalva anciently was further to the west, but in general, current orientations are the same for this analysis. The Nephites primarily occupied the upper Grijalva or above (along the blue line in the figure) until 500 years after Lehi’s departure, when they expanded to the north (Alma 50:15). Until that point in time, there was no reference to a north or south sea, only the east sea and the west sea (see Alma 22:27; 50:8). After the expansion to the north, since the alignment of orientation based on the river was different in the northern reach of the River Sidon (along the red line in the figure), those populations would refer to the seas as being on the south or the north. Hence approximately 552 years after Lehi’s departure, when the Book of Mormon mentions a north and south sea for the first time in Helaman 3:8 (for persons on the lower portion of the river), as well as the east and west sea (which were mentioned previously and continued to be the case on the upper river), the statement was accurate from a river directional point of view.

In addition, the River Bountiful (Coatzacoalcos River) also runs nearly directly south to north. In later times, as this area became populated with Nephites, the north sea would be directly north where it discharges and the headwaters would be directly south.

As explained, in order for the directions to make sense in the Book of Mormon, there must be a river that changes course in the right location and reflects the correct relationship to settlement patterns. The Grijalva River is the only river in the Isthmus that meets these criteria, so the Caractors Document does provide definitive directional evidence that the Grijalva River is in fact the River Sidon (pp. 267-268)



Additional Reading

MacKay, Michael Hubbard; Dirkmaat, Gerrit J.; Jenson, Robin Scott. “The ‘Caractors’ Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters,” Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 14, No. 1.

Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015)

The Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone was found in 1799, in Rosetta Egypt, and is now housed at the British Museum. The stone dated 196 BC is significant because it was the key that unlocked the ancient Egyptian language and culture. In the following picture you can see three different languages inscribed – hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek:

Rosetta Stone

As can be seen, the hieroglyphs take up less space than the other two languages to say the same thing. This was the reason Book of Mormon authors wrote in Reformed Egyptian – to save space. When Joseph dictated the already translated Egyptian into English, it is reported he saw the Egyptian characters on one line with the English words underneath – just like we see on the Rosetta Stone.

Altered Text

The accusation that Joe Smith or someone in the Mormon Church altered the text of the Book of Mormon is correct. Many changes were made to make the text more “grammatically” correct to our or Joe’s time. Some changes did alter the meaning of the text. Luckily, unmodified first edition copies of the Book of Mormon are available in our Bookstore and is searchable in our Scriptures on the Menu.

No matter how rigorous a publishing team may be, human error does occur. For example, the book of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls had over “2600 variants”:

Great Isaiah Scroll Version: The text of the Great Isaiah Scroll generally conforms to the Masoretic or traditional version codified in medieval codices (all 66 chapters of the Hebrew version, in the same conventional order). At the same time, however, the two thousand year old scroll contains alternative spellings, scribal errors, corrections, and most fundamentally, many variant readings. Strictly speaking, the number of textual variants is well over 2,600, ranging from a single letter, sometimes one or more words, to complete variant verse or verses (Versions and Translations of the Book of Isaiah; Aleppo Codex).


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