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).

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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