Questions arise concerning how Joseph Smith performed the translation. Specifically, people want to know whether the words in the Book of Mormon English translation should be attributed directly to God, or to Joseph Smith. Critics and scholars alike have taken interest.
My own interest was recently sparked during an online discussion with a polite critic who claimed that David Whitmer's description of Joseph Smith seeing English words appear while translating, which he would read out loud to his scribes, means that Mormons are locked into defending and believing that God Himself chose every word in the Book of Mormon. I explained to my critic friend why the question is more complicated than that, and he came to agree. So, I decided to share my ideas in hopes of broadening the general discussion.
My approach to answering the question starts with taking seriously the claim that Joseph Smith served as translator. The Gift and Power of God did not translate for him, but provided him with necessary resources to conduct the translation himself.
The specifics of my hypothesis need not be definitive. I'm sure modifications can be made while still accounting for all the evidence. This hypothesis is more of a functional example of how the process may have worked, rather than an actual description of Joseph Smith's experience, since the best we can hope for is understanding Joseph's experience through analogy.
According to my hypothesis, the most economical understanding of the word "translator," coupled with "the Gift and Power of God," allows us to comfortably speculate that Joseph Smith was given enhanced access, as needed, to the English language. In this same way, the word "translator" also implies that Joseph experienced and understanding of the ancient language, or that the meaning of ancient characters and sets of characters on the Gold Plates was unfolded to him.
Of course, it is possible that Joseph did not need enhanced access to the English language. However, by all accounts he was not a wordsmith and even struggled with basic writing. If we can grant that Joseph relied on something other than his personal knowledge of ancient languages, we can just as easily grant that he may have relied on more than just his personal knowledge of English, through the Gift and Power of God.
According to this hypothesis, through reasoning the translation out in his mind Joseph would attempt to match the revealed meaning of the ancient language with English words. Like building a temple, Joseph would try to use the most beautiful and reverent materials (words) that he could, at times even sacrificing Hebraisms for language appreciated by English readers.
This parallels William Tyndale, who understood translation as an act of reverent worship. For instance, Tyndale's Bible translation tells us the baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Were we instead to follow John Wycliffe's translation, the baby would be laid in a watering trough in a cratch. Tyndale chose the more respectful and reverent word, "manger," and modern translators dare not change that word (more on Tyndale below).
With the English language laid before him, Joseph perhaps could have chosen any dialect. However, all around the world only one dialect was shared by all English speakers: the beautiful Jacobean phraseology of their King James Bibles. I imagine Joseph had increased understanding of just how English dialects had branched out from early roots, and Joseph chose to go directly to the roots rather than favor one dialect over another. This of course would help explain Royal Skousen’s evidence of early English language and grammar in the original manuscript.
One reason for Joseph using earlier versions of English may have been the tension between the United States and Britain, as well as tensions which were to soon become pronounced between different regions of the United States. Had Joseph Smith chosen a regional dialect, I suspect that would have been a large stumbling block for those in regions where other dialects were spoke - and it would have been fodder for critics (although critics attempt to find fault regardless).
The next step in the translation process for Joseph Smith would be settling on a word or phrase. Then, Joseph would seek God’s approval. If the wording was pleasing to Almighty God, it would appear for Joseph to dictate, which is where David Whitmer picks up his explanation.
We can summarize this hypothesis as follows:
Step 1: Through the Gift and Power of God, Joseph Smith had enhanced access to English language.
Step 2: Through the Gift and Power of God, Joseph Smith could access the meaning of ancient characters of language.
Step 3: Through reasoning it out in his mind and considering different implications, Joseph would attempt to match the meaning of the ancient language with English words.
Step 4: After deciding upon a match, Joseph would seek God’s approval. God’s approval was necessary, but God allowed Joseph to conduct the actual translation.
The Result: It was Joseph's translation, approved by God based on how well it reflected Joseph's best efforts rather than how "perfect" it was in objective terms.
Scriptural Basis for Hypothesis:
1 – When translating, Joseph had to study it out in his mind (D&C 9:8)
2 – When translating, Joseph had to receive confirmation that what he had studied out was right (D&C 9:8).
3 – Joseph was the only real witness to the translation – even Oliver did not understand (D&C 9)
4 – Ether 2:23 shows that the Lord wanted the Brother of Jared to devise a solution and propose it to the Lord, rather than simply having a solution given to him. This parallels the current hypothesis stated here.
5 - Ether 12:25-26 shows that God doesn't expect wording in scripture to be perfect. The better question is, "Was the translation pleasing to Almighty God?" God surely understands that human language is an imperfect vehicle for transmitting ideas. God is choosing flawed human communication methods as a means to draw us in and make us receptive to His Spirit. As God told Ether in response to Ether's concern about this matter, "Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness."
6 – Miraculous revelation can be experienced through the Urim and Thummim, Through the Urim and Thummim, Abraham “saw the stars” (Abr. 3:1-2) and the Lord spoke unto him (Abr. 3:4). He goes on to say, “Thus I, Abraham, talked with the Lord, face to face” and “he put his hand upon mine eyes” (3:11-12).
Questions Which May Arise:
Q: Wouldn’t this process have taken a long time for Joseph, in-between deciding on words and phrases?
A: Considering that Joseph performed his translation through the Gift and Power of God, we can't make any assumptions about time from his perspective. An Interpreter article by Roger Nicholson reports this insight from Matthew B. Brown: "'Joseph Smith reportedly said in 1826, while under examination in a court of law, that when he first obtained his personal seerstone he placed it in his hat, and discovered that time, place, and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed, and that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing Eye.' Brown goes on to note that Brigham Young confirmed this view, 'When Joseph had a revelation he had, as it were, the eyes of the Lord. He saw as the Lord sees.'"
Q: How did the King James Version of Isaiah get into the Book of Mormon?
A: According to my hypothesis, Joseph would have had access, through revelation, to the entire KJV Bible as English language for him to draw upon. The KJV may have been preferable to translating Nephi’s Isaiah, considering that Nephi may have employed such explanatory methods as midrash and targum when helping a native Mesoamerican population understand Isaiah. However, if that is the case then Nephi's explanations could have been confusing to a modern-day audience. If Nephi's intention was to communicate Isaiah's message to the reader, then we can see how Joseph would have reason to translate Nephi's words into the form of Isaiah most comprehensible to modern readers. To Joseph, that could have meant the KJV, and if Joseph found the idea acceptable to the Lord, that would explain the presence of KJV Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.
Q: How deeply did Joseph understand the scriptures he was translating?
A: It’s important to remember that Joseph did not have the Priesthood and had not even been baptized at the time his translation began. This was a learning process for Joseph, as demonstrated in the following account about his baptism:
“Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings…Our minds now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of.” (Joseph Smith History 1:73-74)
More on Joseph Smith and William Tyndale:
Most of us are familiar with William Shakespeare. We think of him as a great playwright and poet. He launched English on the road to respectability. And certainly he was one of the greatest wordsmiths in our language. Many of the words and phrases we use today were coined in his fertile mind. But William Shakespeare is not the greatest wordsmith in the History of English.
There is one other whose contribution to English is greater. There is one whose coined words have transported the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
William Tyndale's translation was truly a labor of love. He desired that scripture be available to everyone. Many people wanted him dead. In an argument with a priest, Tyndale shouted, "If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost."
In 1536, Tyndale was garroted and burned at the stake, but not until after Tyndale, the first martyr of the restoration, published his translation (working out of Germany, where he stayed ahead of his enemies). The Tyndale translation served as the base for producing the King James Version (1611). The King James Version is a revision more than a translation.
Tyndale delicately and reverently adorned the Word of God, at great personal sacrifice. This is Tyndale's gift to us and to God. So many passages are completely the work of Tyndale that it is only practical to quote a few examples. Consider "the still, small voice." Notice the alliteration of "s" and "l." Notice that the vowels start at the front of the mouth and move back deeper—"ih," "ah" and "oh"—all while relaying the intended substance of the source text. Tyndale replaced "the right of a firstborn son to inherit a greater portion of property" from his earlier translation, with a new word, "birthright." Tyndale gave us "Jehovah," previously rendered "Lord" (He took the Hebrew tetragramaton "JHVH" and put the vowels from "Adonai" between the consonants). Tyndale gave us "Lord God Almighty," "The author and finisher of our faith," "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow," "All nations, kindreds, tongues and people," "A great work laid up in store," "The salt of the earth," "Mercy seat," “With God all things are possible," "The signs of the times," "The powers that be," and countless others including "Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" and "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might."
Joseph Smith played a similar role.
There is no question that Joseph Smith took watchful care of the translation through the entire process. Again, the flow of the translation relies on word choices of the translator. Words in a source language have different sounds than words in a target language. These are just a few of Joseph's efforts:
"Plain and precious things"
"Feast upon the words of Christ"
"Feeling of a tender parent"
"The fountain of all righteousness"
"Encircled about eternally in the arms of His love"
"Lay hold upon every good thing"
And many more.
I would be remiss if I did not mention another common point of criticism. Specifically, the issue of Joseph Smith viewing his Seer Stone by placing it in a hat according to witness accounts. I can only offer my own opinion on this. Joseph Smith's hat has no doctrinal significance and appears to be just a personal preference which he did not talk about. Critics try to argue that artistic representations used by the Church are dishonest because they do not show a hat. However, the actual miraculous translation process is never depicted in the paintings - so, how can the paintings be leaving out important details of something that isn't even being depicted in the first place? The act of Joseph miraculously receiving revelation was never intended to be depicted, whether accurately, inaccurately, or otherwise.
Was Joseph "dishonest" for not talking about the details of the translation process? No, he had every right to keep the details to himself. People don't have a "right" to know anything. Artist conceptions have been based on ideas derived from details that Joseph did choose to reveal.
Joseph's physical motions are not an essential element of the translation. The paintings depict the essential elements - Joseph, the Plates, the Interpreters, and scribes. Moreover, the paintings do not attempt to depict the miraculous process - that, if anything, is being "left out" of the paintings. Yet critics don't seem bothered that the most important detail is not depicted in the paintings. Instead, they are upset about a hat. Joseph didn't mention a hat, and he didn't mention details of the process - and neither needs to be depicted in painting.