Return to Vigor Issue 16
Defending the Faith
LDS Scholars Affirm the "Impossible" Book of Mormon
Orson Scott Card
A review of
Noel B. Reynolds, ed. Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies: 1997) 574pp., $19.95.
For all that arguing with anti-Mormons is useless in terms of persuading them to change their minds, it is essential that some answer to their claims be made, from time to time, if only to reassure the Saints that there are answers, so they don't start trying to accommodate their faith to fit the bogus claims of the enemies of the Church.
Most of the time, however, the defenders of the Book of Mormon either do not understand the charges being made or do not understand the reality of the book that they defend. Like those misguided Saints who think that the only way to defend LDS doctrines of creation from the science claims of atheists is to defend the equally false claims of the creationists, many a defender of the Book of Mormon comes unarmed into the intellectual fray.
Ultimately, of course, the Book of Mormon is its own defense. When read by a person of sincere heart, with real intent, the truthfulness of it is invariably made manifest, as we know well. But the Assimilationist movement within the Church loves to play the game of talking as if certain "facts" already fully demonstrated the "impossibility" of the Book of Mormon being a genuine document. Their tone of smug certainty, like all the emanations from the great and spacious building, has the power to make some Saints ashamed enough to let go the iron rod. So these charges must be cleared away, not angrily, but thoroughly, as one scrapes mud off one's shoe before walking on the carpet.
Every question about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is thoroughly examined, and the editor is commended for holding all contributors to a high standard of scholarship and tone. The book is astonishing in its fairness and lack of heat. The claims of anti-Mormons are thoroughly presented before being refuted, and the refutation is almost always up to the highest standards of scholarship, logic, and civility. The writers never resort to subjective replies -- there is a place for testimony bearing, but this is not it.
I especially enjoyed:
Richard L. Anderson's thorough examination of the eleven official witnesses, providing us, in a scant twenty pages, with irrefutable quotations from all those who lived long enough to have occasion to add to the testimony they signed prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon.
Louis C. Midgley's calm review of the claims of those who, disbelieving in Joseph Smith's account of how the Book of Mormon came to be, offer alternate theories, which boil down to three approaches: (1) Joseph Smith wrote it, either by way of fraud or out of insanity; (2) Since Joseph Smith could not possibly have written it, someone else did and Joseph Smith passed it off as his own work; and (3), the recently developed theory that Joseph Smith wrote it but came to believe, at some point, that it was truthful; and this theory attempts to draw in Assimilationist Mormons by claiming to a "middle ground," in which the Book of Mormon is not factual, but still contains genuinely inspired religious or mythic "truth." All these claims are dealt with clearly and devastatingly, but in good humor.
And, while they have already been well-documented in many separate sources, this book brings together clear summaries of the corroborating evidence for authenticity to be found in the text of the Book of Mormon itself and in archaeological findings in the areas most likely to have been the milieux for the events recounted in the book.
I wish I could tell you that Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited was perfect, but then, the works of human beings rarely attain that level, and none of the authors here would likely claim infallibility. Nor am I equipped, either as scholar or scientist, to detect significant errors of scholarship or fact. However, there is one otherwise excellent essay that perpetuates a pious fallacy that, quite unintentionally, is actually an argument against Joseph Smith's claim to be a translator by the gift and power of God, and reduces him to a much lesser role; furthermore, this pious fallacy flatly contradicts the testimony of LDS scripture, is supported by no authoritative evidence, solves no problems relating to the Book of Mormon, and raises problems that are quite insoluble without some pretty silly distortions.
I speak, of course, of the contention that Joseph Smith, instead of translating, merely read about twenty or thirty words at a time as they appeared, in English, on the urim and thummim or seerstone. This view is so unnecessary, unhelpful, and misleading to Latter-day Saints that it must be refuted, and so, unarmed as I am for such a task, I will at least attempt it. It is unfortunate that I must devote so much space to criticism of only one aspect of a fine scholar's otherwise valuable report on his important work, in an excellent book that supports that "most correct" translation by the gift and power of God, when my strong desire is for every Saint who cares about these questions to own and study this book. So let me conclude my positive review of Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited with my hearty recommendation, and put my one objection in a separate review, which follows immediately.
Joseph Smith: Reader or Translator?
Orson Scott Card
A review of
Royal Skousen, "Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript," Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, Noel B. Reynolds, ed. (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies: 1997), pp. 61-93.
Skousen has devoted years to a thorough study of the manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts that show us firsthand what words came from Joseph Smith's lips as he dictated his translation of the Book of Mormon to scribes of varying degrees of education, erudition, and accuracy. His work cannot be faulted, and he reaches conclusions that would be unquestionable were it not for the fact that one of his fundamental premises is, simply, wrong. And he has perpetuated this error not only here but also in a much shorter overview of the same topic that was published in BYU's alumni magazine.
Let me begin, though, not with Skousen's single (but nontrivial) error, but with some of his valuable insights. Several witnesses, all writing or speaking years after the translation, reported several things about the translation that the manuscript clearly demonstrates could not be true. For instance, it is claimed by David Whitmer (in 1874) that "... the words would appear, and if he failed to spell the word right, it would stay till it was spelled right, then pass away; another come, and so on." (66; all such citations are of page numbers in Skousen's article.)
Joined with David Whitmer's we have the testimony of Samuel W. Richards (in 1907) that "If Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the 'interpreter' until it was copied correctly." (66) Other voices chime in. Joseph Knight says, "But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous" (65); Martin Harris (in an 1881 account) is quoted as agreeing that sentences would only disappear from the seer stone after they were written correctly; and Emma Smith, who was herself a scribe, says, "... when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time." (65)
But Skousen, despite these harmonious testimonies, had to deal with the fact that the manuscripts have their normal share of misspellings, and also of errors of transcription or hearing that, until corrected, either changed the sense of some passages or made no sense at all. Confronted with this evidence, Skousen correctly concludes that in making these statements, the witnesses were, quite simply, wrong. This does not, however, raise any kind of doubt about the honesty of the witnesses. While all of them had opportunities to observe the process of translation, and some of them actually served as scribes, nevertheless misunderstandings, the power of suggestion, and the natural alterations of memory over time can fully account for the errors.
First, all these witnesses had conversations among themselves, both during the time of translation and in later years. Thus what one saw -- or, more to the point, how one interpreted what he saw -- could easily have been transmitted to the others, coloring their interpretation of their own memories. It is also natural that if one witness claimed to see a telling detail that made things clearer, the others might easily accept his explanation and, eventually, add both the explanation and the supporting detail to their own account as if they had seen it themselves. This sort of thing happens constantly in eyewitness accounts -- it's why investigators prefer to interview eyewitnesses separately, and before they have a chance to influence each other's testimony, however innocently.
Second, it is easy, over time, to expand a single incident until it becomes "often" and finally "always," without ever realizing that truth has been converted to error. When Emma says that Joseph corrected spelling errors without having any way of knowing what she had written, and the manuscript makes it obvious that this was not at all a regular occurrence, given the number of misspellings on the paper, she did not lie. She doubtless reported faithfully an event that happened once or perhaps several times, which she extrapolated to cover the entire process. But the explanation for such a correction is not necessarily that the Lord would not let Joseph go on translating until the scribe got the spelling right; on the contrary, it might simply be that Joseph Smith, in his heightened state of awareness, now and then realized that he might have used a word whose spelling was unknown or uncertain to Emma. Either he assumed it would be unknown to her or heard the hesitation in the sound of her writing, and thus he offered the correct spelling. If she had already written it down incorrectly, it might seem to her a miracle, while to him it was only a matter of being helpful, a right guess. Years later, we have her expansive statement that is contrary to the facts in the manuscript, but which might accurately describe what happened with several of the misspellings that were corrected at the time.
Third, over time all our memories are generally supplanted by the stories we have repeatedly told about them, with the actual visual and auditory memory fading until it disappears; yet, knowing that the account was truthful when first spoken, the witness has no reason to doubt his own story, despite the fact that errors of interpretation inevitably insert themselves between event and story. For in the event, causality is never certain, but it is almost impossible to tell a story without dealing with causation either by explaining why things happened as they did, or by expressing uncertainty about the cause. In their desire to make a ringing declaration that the translation was true and miraculous, all these loyal witnesses are likely to err on the side of explanation, even though they often had no more evidence for their explanation than that it was their best guess -- or someone's best guess -- at the time -- or later.
I have gone to greater length in examining the possible reasons for the misstatements of these witnesses than Skousen himself does, for the very reason that even though Skousen has no problem rejecting their testimony when the manuscript seems to him to contradict them, he nevertheless relies unquestioningly on their testimony about matters concerning which their accuracy is even less reliable, and on which it is contradicted by the words of the Lord to Joseph Smith in scripture, by the evidence of the final text of the Book of Mormon, and by the fact that Joseph Smith and the Lord never fail to describe what Joseph Smith did with the Book of Mormon (and with the books of Abraham and Moses) as translation.
I speak of the witnesses' claim that the words "appeared" in English, in Roman letters, on the seerstone, and that Joseph's "translation" consisted of reading out the words phrase by phrase, new phrases appearing as soon as prior ones were transcribed. While Skousen rejects (correctly, I think) the witnesses' claim that the appearance of a new phrase was contingent on the correct transcription, right down to the spelling, of the current phrase, he barely considers the possibility that in fact Joseph Smith was not seeing English words in Roman letters at all. This despite the fact that these witnesses actually saw the outward process of translation and heard Joseph Smith dictating the words and phrases, while not one of them ever witnessed what the Prophet actually saw when he put his face into the hat that held the seerstone.
And let there be no doubt on that score. If Joseph Smith had ever told any of them that he saw English words in regular letters, it is unthinkable that the person whom he told this to would fail to assert, over and over, that he had this information straight from Joseph Smith's own lips. And yet, at least from the evidence available to me (which consists only of the evidence presented in Skousen's article and my fallible memory of articles I've read earlier), no such claim was ever made. Not even when David Whitmer was asserting that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet specifically because of his revisions of revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants did he make any claim that Joseph himself had ever said that the Book of Mormon merely appeared to him word by word on the urim and thummim. While this is negative evidence, and any such claim by one of the witnesses would still not constitute proof, it is still a point worth remembering. We have no claim from these witnesses that their beliefs about the method of translation came from Joseph Smith himself. When they make statements about what Joseph saw, they are reporting only what they believed. And their unanimity is completely explainable by the fact that they all talked to each other repeatedly over many years before any of these statements were recorded.
Thus, when David Whitmer calls it "luminous writing" that the Prophet saw, it is more likely to be Whitmer's own reasoning that we're getting: The Prophet dictated smoothly and clearly, phrase by phrase, which sounded to Whitmer like someone reading; and since there was no light in that hat by which to read anything at all, the (supposed) writing on the seerstone must have been luminous. The result of this extrapolation is an early nineteenth-century description of an active-matrix LCD display; unfortunately, this description is likely to have been nothing more than science fiction, invented to explain what to Whitmer (and the others) seemed otherwise inexplicable.
They knew they were seeing a miracle; the Prophet was not explaining it; and so, abhorring the lack of explanation, one or more of them invented a plausible one, which the others then adopted because it sounded so reasonable, given what they knew.
But it is not plausible, and the Lord and Joseph Smith do contradict it, in language that cannot be ignored.
Scriptural Account of Translation
The only account we have from Joseph Smith's own lips about the process of translation is the two revelations in D&C 8 and 9, in which the Lord is speaking, through Joseph Smith, to Oliver Cowdery. Cowdery wanted to try his hand at translating, and the Lord was willing to let him try. In 8:1-2, Cowdery was promised that if he asked in faith "... you shall receive a knowledge of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit. Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart" (italics added, here and in future quotes).
Now, the Lord is pretty direct in the Doctrine and Covenants. If the Book of Mormon was being translated by the method Whitmer and the others claimed, wouldn't the Lord have said that if Cowdery asked with faith and sincerity, "you shall see the words of the translation upon the interpreters," or "I will cause you to see the words that should be written" or some other such clear statement? Instead, Cowdery is told that the knowledge will be told to him in his mind and in his heart. This does not sound like screen reading. And it is worth pointing out that in 8:11, the Lord says that this gift is to "translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up."
In section 9, Cowdery has already failed in his attempt to translate. "...You did not translate according to that which you desired of me," says the Lord (9:1). He is counseled to be patient, for "it is not expedient that you should translate at this present time," though he is to continue to "assist" in the translation by writing down what is given to him. Thus the act of transcribing is identified as assisting in translation; could merely reading luminous words off a stone be any more "translation" than writing down what is read aloud? Of course not, as the Lord makes plain in the following verses:
"...You have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me." (9:7-9)
This is a very different process from the one Whitmer and others assumed was going on. If the words are appearing on the stone, what is there to "study ... out in your mind"? And, while the Lord does describe a kind of error correction -- the "stupor of thought" that comes when the translation is wrong -- it has nothing to do with the scribe's spelling of words in English, but rather with the translator's accuracy in rendering passages from the original language into English.
This stands as the only authoritative eyewitness account of the actual manner of translation, and while it consists of the Lord speaking to Oliver Cowdery, it was through Joseph Smith's lips that the Lord's words were conveyed to Cowdery, and while it is conceivable that the method that the Lord describes to Cowdery might not have been the method Joseph Smith was using, it seems unlikely in the extreme; absent other comment from Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, or the Lord in other revelations, it seems almost certain that the method described to Cowdery was the method used by JosephSmith. And in that method, there is no place whatsoever for luminous letters appearing on stone, to be read off mechanically by a faithful reader. What the Prophet did was translation, not reading a translation done by God or some angel and typed out for him in English.
Not only is this the sole eyewitness account of the translation, it is also accepted by Latter-day Saints as scripture -- as the word of God. The other witnesses cited, while believers in the genuineness of the Book of Mormon, all had their doubts about the genuineness of later acts of Joseph Smith as prophet, and some, like David Whitmer, had left the Church over their lack of belief in Joseph Smith's own assessment of how binding, immutable, and perfect were the revelations he received.
In other words, the witnesses that Skousen believes on this point were not eyewitnesses to the translation process and almost certainly had no account from the only mortal eyewitness, Joseph Smith, other than the scriptural account we have in D&C 8 and 9; and these unreliable witnesses had a record of discounting Joseph Smith's own views of how his revelations were received.
Why Not Trust the D&C Account?
On what basis, then, does Skousen insist that these witnesses, who he himself proves were wrong in their explanation of things they did see, must be trusted in their account of things they did not see and on which the only eyewitnesses -- God and Joseph Smith -- clearly contradict them?
The only guide to Skousen's reasoning consists of his statement that "there appear to be three possible kinds of control [by the Lord] over the dictation of the Book of Mormon text" (64):
"1. Loose control: Ideas were revealed to Joseph Smith, and he put the ideas into his own language (a theory advocated by many Book of Mormon scholars over the years).
"2. Tight control: Joseph Smith saw specific words written out in English and read them off to the scribe -- the accuracy of the resulting text depending on the carefulness of Joseph Smith and his scribe.
"3. Iron-clad control: Joseph Smith (or the interpreters themselves) would not allow any error made by the scribe to remain (including the spelling of common words)" (64-65).
Thus Skousen commits, probably without ill intent, a common fallacy or trick of rhetoric: He sets up extreme "straw men" on either side of his own position and acts as if those two extremes, and his own position, were the only possible alternatives. By refuting the extreme positions, he thus leaves the reader (and himself, if he is fooled by his own badreasoning) with the impression that only his own position remains.
But this is not the case at all, and his own article makes it obvious, for he devotes his text to demonstrating that "iron-clad control" is contradicted and thus disproved by the manuscripts, while spending no time at all presenting and refuting the arguments of those who argue against the "luminous writing" account. On the contrary, Skousen's three-part division of "kinds of control" obscures the fundamental two-part division: between those who think Joseph Smith was reading off a translation provided to him in written form on the seerstones, and those who believe that all the evidence supports the scriptural account that Joseph Smith was genuinely translating by studying things out in his mind and receiving confirmation from the Spirit when he got it right. There is no middle ground. Either he was reading or he was translating.
Is there any reliable evidence supporting the view that Joseph Smith was reading rather than translating? Let me suggest several that Skousen may assume as supporting evidence:
1. Joseph Smith usually (but apparently not always, or at least not consistently) spelled out proper names and foreign words.
2. Joseph Smith dictated smoothly, in distinct phrase-units.
3. Joseph Smith never had to be told where he had left off in translation, or have his previous translation read back to him, but always picked up after a break in exactly the place where he left off.
4. The Book of Mormon, as translated, preserves many poetic and other structures from the original composition in other languages and from other literary traditions, and so could not result from loose translation of ideas alone.
These are matters on which David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Emma Smith, and others were genuine eyewitnesses, not merely stating their guesses about things they could not know. Either the Prophet usually spelled names or he did not; either he usually dictated smoothly, or he did not; either he never had anything read back to him to find where he left off, or he did; and in any of these cases, these witnesses would have been among those to see or hear him do it. They still may not be utterly reliable -- what mortal witnesses are? -- especially when claiming that he "always" and "never" did a particular thing. But they had excellent opportunity to observe and can fairly say what Joseph often or always or rarely or never did when they were observing. The manuscript does not contradict them on these points -- it even, as Skousen indicates, supports them.
First, Skousen very carefully demonstrates that in fact the manuscript gives every sign of having been dictated -- that is, there are plenty of auditory errors, where the scribe hears one word or phrase when the Prophet clearly intended a homophonous one. So on that point, the witnesses are certainly accurate: The Prophet spoke aloud, while scribes took down what they heard. For this alone, Skousen's article would be well worth reading. (To my mind, this demolishes the last shreds of the Spaulding theory -- or any other theory that says the Book of Mormon was composed by anyone other than Joseph Smith.)
Skousen also makes an interesting, but not definitive, case for the idea that the phrase units the Prophet dictated consisted of twenty or thirty words at a time. Skousen assumes this to be the number of words that appeared on the stone at any one time, of course, but what he actually demonstrates is only that this is about the number of words in a particular "batch" of translation. Anyone who has taken dictation knows that there is only a certain amount of language that can be heard, remembered, and recorded at a time, and the dictator soon learns to adapt the length of his phrases to the capacity of the scribe. The length of these "thought-units" may be merely an artifact of the process of dictation and transcription.
Skousen makes much of one twenty-eight-word passage written in, presumably, the Prophet's own hand. Skousen speculates that the scribe was suddenly called away, and Joseph Smith had to take over to write down the words that were currently in his mind before he forgot them (72-75). To Skousen, this indicates that Joseph felt he needed to write down this passage before the words disappeared from the seerstone. But to me, it seems that they indicate the opposite -- for if these words were on the seerstone when the scribe went away, would they not continue to be on the seerstone when he returned? Why should Joseph Smith have to hasten to write them, if they would simply appear at will on the stone? On the other hand, if Joseph Smith, studying out the translation in his mind, had got the language right just as the scribe was called away, and the words therefore did not appear anywhere except in Joseph Smith's own mind at that moment, then he would have some urgency about writing them down in his own hand without waiting for the scribe to return.
In those twenty-eight words that may be in the Prophet's own hand, there is a spelling error -- "citty" for "city." Much is made of spelling errors, by the way, which is odd, considering that American spelling was very much in a state of flux at that time, and while educated Americans strove for "correctness," there was still no final arbiter of what correctness would consist of. So spellings that now look to us to be "incorrect" do not necessarily show either ignorance or unconcern about spelling, but may rather reflect the uncertain state of spelling at that time. However, because consensus was emerging at that time, there was a great deal of snobbery about spelling, and those who prided themselves on correct spelling generally showed consistency in their writing, spelling the same word the same way, while those who still spelled in some mixture of traditional and phonetic spelling might spell the same word differently at different times.
Joseph's Smith's own handwriting over his lifetime shows considerable variation in his spelling, and not just of unfamiliar words. "City" is a common word indeed, but Joseph Smith apparently used the spelling "rule" that gives us "witty," "potty," "pretty," and "catty" rather than the more erudite etymological "rule" that gives us "city" and "pity." What matters for the point at hand is that neither the fact that he misspelled this word nor the fact that he correctly spelled "possessed," "therefore," and "throughout" in the same passage give us any indication of whether he had just read these words off the interpreter or merely found them in his own mind as he translated.
The fact that Joseph Smith never had to be told where he had left off, or have anything read back to him, neither affirms nor contradicts the idea of words appearing on stone. If he only took breaks when he completed a thought-unit in the original language, and retained a reasonably high level of concentration on the work even when away from it, it is not extraordinary that he would be able to begin his next session of translation with the next thought unit. The habit of picking up where he left off, without prompting, only argues against the idea that Joseph Smith was composing the Book of Mormon -- making it up. As long as he is working from an externally existing source -- either words on the stone or the original text -- the habit is fully accounted for.
As to the matter of preserving aspects of language and literary devices from the original, this only affirms the accuracy and closeness of the translation, and tells us nothing about whether the translation appeared on the stone or was studied out in Joseph Smith's mind and then affirmed by the Spirit. That the Book of Mormon translation, in English, is very accurate and faithful is not dependent upon the method of translation -- except that it works against the straw man Skousen raised in his "loose control" model. Since I don't know anybody who believes in that "loose control" model, and D&C 8 and 9 deny it almost as surely as they deny Skousen's "tight control" model, we haven't gained much by ruling it out; but there it is, we can all agree that there was nothing vague about Joseph Smith's translation, and it was closely tied to the original text written by Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, Moroni, and various others.
The Problem of the Use and Non-Use of the Original
Why would David Whitmer and others come up with their story about words appearing on the seerstone and the urim and thummim, given that Joseph Smith never said so and the revelations in D&C 8 and 9 contradict it? I suspect that it's because of Joseph Smith's non-use of the gold plates. During most or perhaps all of the translation, he was not reading directly from the plates themselves. For a period of time, he copied out the characters on paper, and worked from his copy. Mostly, though, he put the seerstone or urim and thummim in his hat, put his hat over his face, and from that posture dictated his translation.
Well, of course this made no sense to David Whitmer and the others. How was he getting the words to say, when his face was buried in the lightless confines of his hat? When the Book of Mormon lay covered with a cloth on the table, or perhaps even completely out of sight? How could he be working from the original text? It is only natural that they speculated about where he was getting these words from. And, in fact, it is this scenario that Skousen's three degrees of control seem designed to explain.
The trouble is that, while the Whitmer luminous-words-on-stone explanation seems to account well enough for the face-in-the-hat scenario, it does nothing at all to explain why Joseph Smith went through that phase of copying out the characters from the plates and studying them while he translated. It seems clear that there was some kind of arc involved here -- a learning curve? -- in which Joseph Smith at first was closely tied to the plates and later was able to work better without them (assuming, for rationality's sake, that he always used the optimum method as soon as he discovered it).
Clearly he was getting something when his face was buried in the hat; clearly what he was getting allowed his dictation to be a faithful translation that preserved the original language as much as possible in English. And, just as clearly, it is on precisely this point that divine intervention must be assumed, for to translate the plates without referring to them requires that something other than the ordinary process of translation must be going on.
For Skousen, as for Whitmer and the others that Skousen relies on (despite his proof of their unreliability as guessers) it seems obvious that Joseph Smith was simply being shown the words he dictated.
But to those of us who regard D&C 8 and 9 as an insurmountable obstacle to this particular speculation, supported by the Prophet's early use of characters from the plates (and other indications that I will come to later), there must be an alternate way to account for a faithful translation that does not rely on the actual reading of the original text. This need is further affirmed by the fact that the Book of Abraham was translated using, as a starting point, a manuscript that does not contain the precise text that Joseph Smith came up with (though, as Hugh Nibley has demonstrated, it certainly is a related text); and that the Book of Moses and the Book of Matthew material had no starting manuscript at all, and yet were called "translations" by Joseph Smith and by the Lord.
Skousen and his company seem to have given up on the idea that God and Joseph Smith knew what the word translation meant, or what was implied by making Joseph Smith the subject of sentences built around the transitive verb to translate. There are times, of course, when in receiving revelation Joseph Smith had to use words in new ways to cover concepts for which there were no English words -- the words intelligence and intelligences were pressed into service to represent concepts that were only partially able to be communicated in the cultural context of Joseph Smith's time. But there would have been no lack of words to express the idea of Joseph Smith receiving dictation from the Lord, or Joseph Smith acting as the Lord's mouthpiece in transmitting God's translations to his children.
In other words, the Lord did not have to change the meaning of the word translation in order to describe what Joseph Smith was doing, if in fact Joseph Smith was merely reading off the Lord's translations. The word already existed: revelation. The Lord could have talked about these scriptures being revealed to the prophet.
But translation is used precisely for those products of Joseph Smith's prophetic labors that were based on texts written by others and translated through Joseph Smith's own laborious mental processes. When the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith and quoted revised versions of known scriptures, the prophet never claimed that the result was a new "translation" of those passages. When a new version of scripture was dictated to him word for word by an angel, and he merely passed it on to us, he said so. And when he spoke of translation, he knew what the word meant and I see no basis for assuming he was deceiving or misleading us.
Whatever process Joseph Smith went through, and the Lord describes in D&C 8 and 9, it is not described by any of the three levels of "control" that Skousen enumerates in his article. That is, Joseph Smith was not getting general ideas and casting them in his own language, and he was not being shown already-translated English-language text which he merely read off without any need to study it out in his own mind. All three of Skousen's little men are made of straw.
So ... does this remain a mystery? In a sense, yes -- for if God thought we needed to have precise knowledge of the methodology, he would have seen to it that it was explained to us. All we can hope for, at present, is a speculative explanation that accounts for all the evidence we have. There may be more than one plausible explanation; but there should be at least one.
The "Trance" of the Composer of Language
I have done very little translation, but I have done some; and I have done a considerable amount of prose and poetic composition, and have done so in different levels of language and different narrative voices. Compared to Joseph Smith, I have done these things with a considerably larger background in reading and in literary theory, but there are some aspects of my own writing process that might help illuminate some aspects of Joseph Smith's process of translation.
It is because of my own experience that, whenever the few months in which the translation of the Book of Mormon took place is offered as "proof" of divine help, I have to shake my head. Because this simply is not among the many evidences of the divine assistance Joseph Smith received. The fact is that regardless of Joseph Smith's literary training and background, the speed at which he worked is not at all beyond the reach of anyone with a talent for language -- which Joseph Smith had. For when a writer concentrates on a straightforward narrative, he can get into a state of heightened mental alertness, a sort of trance, if you will, in which language lies very "close to the surface" and words and phrases present themselves far more readily than in ordinary conversation.
This trance applies as surely during those few times I have translated or interpreted as during the many hours of my life I have spent writing original work, and it applies as much when I am writing fluid narrative in an oral style as when I am composing lyrics or verse that require many tries before I find language that both conveys meaning and fits the form. My available vocabulary becomes far richer than normal; my memory is sharper; my awareness of language expands beyond the immediate phrase to embrace, not just the sentence, but the paragraph, and to hold many details in mind at once. Many different levels of language also become available to me in this state of heightened awareness, and I can draw upon them all in creating the voices of different characters. Again, I am not unique in this -- every successful writer with whom I have discussed this phenomenon reports similar or identical experiences.
But this concentration comes at a cost. When I break away from composition (or, far more rarely, translation or interpretation), I may seem to be my normal self, but as my family can attest, I am not. I am physically present, and even respond to trivial questions normally, but in fact I am greatly distracted, still immersed in the work that I am writing; and when called upon to pay close attention to some unrelated problem in family life, I either rebuff the intrusion or flee it -- or, when I can't avoid it, I go through a wrenching process of disengagement from the project I'm working on, and then can have a very hard time getting back into that same mental state of heightened concentration in order to resume work.
I can write when not in that trance, but it is harder to do and not as smooth in process or result; I need to revise more; I make more mistakes. Not that I am free of errors when in that trance -- words that I have recently used are closer to the surface and are more likely to be used again, resulting in repetition of phrasing. I sometimes begin a sentence anticipating one grammatical outcome, then end it as if I had begun a different way, or fail to end it at all. But, flaws and all, the difference between my "trance" writing and my "labored" writing is clear, both to me as I write it, and later as I and others read the results.
Furthermore, the trance also permits me to take on a "voice"; it is rather like taking on a character with an accent. This is most clear in my Alvin Maker novels, where I narrate much of the text in a folksy (and completely fake) frontier American accent. By contrast, in writing this review my voice is elevated, precise, formal, and literary, while in my fiction the voice I put on is far more oral, colloquial, and personal, though from novel to novel and character to character the voice has some variation.
(This is not to say that my "voice print" would necessarily change between these voices. I suspect that certain tracking devices -- my propensity toward beginning sentences with conjunctions, for instance -- are consistent across all my work. But everyone has different levels and kinds of language they use, depending on audience and rhetorical purpose; if you doubt me, listen to what happens when a person you are conversing with picks up the telephone and starts talking to someone else.)
I have gone on about my personal writing process at some length because I think it is relevant to what other people saw Joseph Smith doing. By no means am I suggesting that my writing process is somehow "inspired." On the contrary, I am suggesting that some aspects of Joseph Smith's translation process are explainable as the natural process of language composition in a heightened state of awareness. The smoothness of his translation; his use of language at a consistent level of formality that was "above" the language he ordinarily used; his heightened alertness that may have led him to notice when Emma paused in her transcription so he could offer her help with spelling -- all of these are perfectly consistent with the experience I've had when composing an extended passage of prose.
This is a function of coming up with language, not of coming up with the events the language recounts. When I am inventing story, the language has interruptions, it comes in fits and starts as ideas become clear to me. But when I am writing scenes that I have long envisioned and which have been well-prepared-for in the previous text, the language of the scenes flows from me with the fluidity that is described for Joseph Smith's translation -- in fact, it is often much faster and smoother than what they describe, for the Prophet was never making it up, but was always having to study it out in his mind.
My point is that such "study" might well be virtually undetectable, especially to those who had never themselves written in such a trance. The mental process at such times is very, very quick. Alternatives present themselves and are discarded and replaced with others so rapidly that there is no pause in the flow of words through my fingers onto a keyboard -- or, in the Prophet's case, the flow of language from his mouth, within the units of thought that he was translating.
Translation is harder than mere composition, but practiced translators also get into a trance which produces a steady rhythm of output, stopping only when there is an unfamiliar word or usage in the original text, or when the original text contains errors or inclarities so that the sense is not obvious, or when the difference between languages presents a puzzle that takes some elaborate effort to solve. This is one area where it seems obvious to me that Joseph Smith received divine help -- for he seems never to have come upon a passage whose meaning was so unclear that he had to stop the onward flow of his translation. The "studying out in his mind" may have been limited entirely to coming up with accurate-enough English language to convey the meaning of foreign text that he understood readily; indeed, this aspect of the experience he was having is similar to many reported incidents of the "practical gift of tongues" (i.e., not glossolalia, but Day-of-Pentecost experiences in which people speaking in their own language are understood by others who do not ordinarily comprehend that language).
The intensity of concentration Joseph Smith required may also go a long way toward explaining his use of the hat. If the Prophet was struggling to concentrate, shutting out all visual distractions would be very helpful; the hat may have been used, not to allow him to see luminous writing on a stone, but to allow him, while his eyes were open, to nevertheless see nothing at all, except what came by revelation to his mind -- whatever that might have been.
Confidence vs. Self-Consciousness
There is another phenomenon that I have observed often in my writing students. In many classes and workshops there has been a student (and sometimes more than one) whose writing (as opposed to story creation) was excruciatingly bad. Spelling is atrocious. Grammar is twisted and convoluted, full of errors and often incomprehensible. Sentences stand utterly alone, bearing no rhetorical relationship to the sentences around them. Paragraphing is done by methods no one can guess at.
Over the years, I have learned that the writers who do such horrible work are invariably the writers who want most desperately to write "well" and who feel themselves most hopelessly inadequate to do so. Lacking confidence, they question every sentence that comes to mind. Every word they write looks misspelled to them. They second-guess themselves constantly. Every idiotic thing they've ever read about what constitutes "good style" is constantly badgering them as they write, so that they worry about beginning too many sentences with the subject, or varying sentence length, or avoiding passive voice or the words said or I, or writing with brevity and precision at all times. The tortured result is language that bears no relation to human speech.
I cure such writers very quickly by giving them an assignment to "jot down" the "idea" for a story. "Just tell what happens and why," I say. "No scenes. This isn't writing, it's just notes to yourself to get the main idea down on a three-by-five card."
What happens is remarkable. As soon as they understand the assignment, they relax. This isn't writing. It doesn't have to be good. It's just for their own use. It won't be judged. Immediately they begin to write in a way much closer to the way they speak, and the result is improvement in every category. Their grammar makes sense. Their rhetoric flows. Even their spelling improves. Why? Because they're not self-conscious. They're not second-guessing themselves. Their writing has moved closer to human speech.
Joseph Smith's personal letters and other writing throughout his life show him to have, in my opinion, a mild case of hyper-conscious writing. He was keenly aware of his lack of education and remained humble about it throughout his life. Just as Moses believed himself to be so slow of speech as to need a spokesman, Joseph Smith believed himself to be so bad at writing as to need a scribe. And he might seem to us to have been rather bad at writing and spelling, until we realize that insofar as scribes were transcribing his speech accurately, he must have been remarkably fluid with the spoken word -- verbally gifted, in fact. Why didn't this translate to his written prose, which was halting and awkward and inconsistently spelled?
He never wrote as badly as my most tortured students, of course, because he was trying, not to "write well," but merely to avoid embarrassing himself; but the results were similar in kind if not in degree. For this reason I see no problem in the idea that Joseph Smith, when writing "as himself," wrote self-consciously and therefore rather awkwardly, but when composing language from a heightened state of awareness, and with full confidence that he was speaking the Lord's words, or the words of other prophets in divinely aided translation, he did not cripple himself with second-guessing. He would speak more smoothly, in an elevated language that he ordinarily could not use fluently; on the rare occasions when he wrote a few words, he might even spell better.
"Biblical" Language and Grammatical Errors
Which brings us to the "biblical" sound of the language of the Book of Mormon. Doesn't this suggest that the language of the translation must have been given to him instead of coming out of his own work as translator? Not to me, it doesn't. On the contrary, it was precisely because Joseph Smith was composing the English language of the translation that it had to be in language reminiscent of the King James version -- but with flaws that no King James translator would have come up with.
He had read in the King James version of the Bible, both as a child and during the years between Moroni's first appearance and the beginning of translation. That language was therefore in his head. He would never have used it in ordinary speech, nor would he have heard it readily and fluently used by others. But as written language, it was available to him when, in the trance of translation or receiving revelation, he needed to draw upon it. That was the "highest" language he knew -- the only language appropriate for scripture. Therefore this was the language Joseph Smith drew upon when composing the language of revelation -- when casting either foreign-language text or the pure knowledge of direct revelation into English for others to read.
In the trance of composition, writers often write "above" themselves, using vocabulary and formal constructions that they would never come up with in ordinary speech. But, like Joseph Smith, they often use words and forms that they have not correctly internalized. Just as little children regularize words that should be irregular (e.g., "She eated before us"), so also writers often think they know a rule when in fact they don't. For me, this completely explains the grammatical errors in the Book of Mormon in a way that the luminous-letters model does not. The errors invariably come in usages that would have been familiar to Joseph Smith only in the King James version -- in rarely used tenses and persons and moods.
Thus, as Joseph Smith studied out his formal-English version of the original text, he would receive spiritual confirmation when the meaning was accurately and correctly conveyed, and a stupor of thought until that time; but he would only be able to come up with language that was within the language set that he was using (i.e., scriptural English) and constructed according to the rules that he had internalized, which were not always accurate. Just as people speaking above their education use cringe-worthy phrases like "between you and I," or end their church talks with "in the name of thy Son ...," showing that they have no idea that they are using the second-person singular, so also Joseph Smith -- rarely, but often enough to show a pattern -- reveals in his translation the fact that despite the heightened language ability of his trance of composition, there were some arcane rules of grammar that he didn't get.
This is no problem for those of us who believe in D&C 8 and 9. But those who trust instead in David Whitmer's account are forced to resort to the lame explanation I was once given, that these grammatical errors "express nuances and convey subtle meanings." This is, of course, ludicrous, since nuances and subtle shades of meaning are always better expressed using grammatical forms -- indeed, that's what grammar is for. Errors only cause confusion; I would challenge anyone making such claims to show how any ungrammatical forms in the Book of Mormon increase clarity over the available grammatical forms.
Let me make it clear that I am not speaking of situations where Joseph Smith may have been trying to faithfully reproduce grammatical constructions that exist in the original language but not in the target language. For instance, future subjunctive had already largely disappeared by the time of the King James version, but in 2 Ne. 2:13, Joseph Smith uses it to translate Lehi's words:
"If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness." Note that present indicative is used in the implied quotation of what "ye" shall say. "And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery." Note the double use of future subjunctive on both sides of the logical assertion, where ordinarily in King James-era English the translator would use the past-subjunctive/conditional opposition: "And if there were no righteousness there would be no happiness." Joseph Smith's translation does not rely on models he would easily have found in King James English, but may be his own bending of English future subjunctive to fit a usage in the original language. Anyone who has deeply learned a foreign language is aware of this phenomenon, where you bend your birth-language to accommodate forms acquired from the later-learned language.
Another excuse sometimes offered is that with these errors the translator of the Book of Mormon was somehow preserving errors in the original. For instance, in Alma 9:16, where the presence of the word because and the word caused are ungrammatically (not just stylistically) redundant, there is no reason not to assume that it might have been Mormon, Alma, or Alma's scribe who made the error, which Joseph Smith faithfully translated. Or it might have been a feature of the original language, in which causality might have markers which are redundantly used, like "ne" and "pas" as negative markers in French. Then again, there is also no reason not to think that the redundancy might have arisen in the process of translation, for the meaning is perfectly clear, even if the grammar is flawed, and so the Spirit might have permitted Joseph to use this translation of the passage because, semantically, it is "right."
But what feature of the original language could have been involved in the case of 2 Ne. 3:24, which ends with "... and do that thing which is great in the sight of God, unto the bringing to pass much restoration unto the house of Israel, and unto the seed of thy brethren"? Grammatically, in English, you could either go for bringing as a gerund, in which case "much restoration" would need to be the object of the preposition of -- "unto the bringing to pass of much restoration" -- or bringing would be the verb in a present participial phrase, in which case it may not be preceded by the -- "unto bringing to pass much restoration...." What you can't do is have it both ways. Yet the meaning is not affected in any way.
Similar grammatical oddities that have no effect on meaning are found in other spots. For instance, in 2 Ne. 1:30 and 2:1, Lehi begins his blessings to Jacob and Joseph by addressing each individual with the plural you, but addressing them with the singular thou from then on in the blessing. Are we to believe that the process of using plural second person for singular as a sign of respect was also taking place in the original language, as in the languages of western Europe during the middle ages? If so, then why was it used only in the initial sentence of each blessing? There might be some nuance expressed, but the theories I've heard are more amusing than illuminating.
Likewise, when in 1 Ne. 22:1, Nephi's brothers asking him "what meaneth these things," it might be that there was a subject-verb disagreement in the original text, or there might be some subtle gradation of meaning being suggested; but to me, at least, there's no problem in supposing that Joseph Smith, who would never have used the archaic -eth ending in ordinary speech, simply misapplied it in this case. The only reason this would cause a problem is if you imagine that he was reading God's translation off a stone. Then we would have to wonder why God couldn't handle subject-verb agreement in English. Fortunately, because we have D&C 8 and 9, we don't have to wonder any such thing. The error was Joseph Smith's -- and it was not stopped by the Holy Ghost because the meaning was being accurately conveyed.
In 2 Ne. 32: 3, when Nephi says, "... for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do," it is quite believable that within the rules of Joseph Smith's personal grammar, this construction was perfectly allowable -- but I believe it would be forbidden in formal speech of his time and in the formal language of the King James version. If God were providing the words, why would he insert such a solecism? Or are we to think that the original language had the same double-duty use of what as both interrogative and relative pronoun that who has in English?
Perhaps we are getting too subtle in Mosiah 4:16, to assert that putteth should have been put, since subjunctive is called for. But in Mosiah 8:4, there can be no debate that the word that is mistakenly doubled, performing the identical functions on both sides of an adverbial clause: "And it came to pass that after he had done all this, that king Limhi dismissed the multitude...."
Even if, as some have asserted, every case of bad or awkward grammar can be accounted for as either faithful translation of an error in the original or a nonce method of conveying some unimaginably subtle nuance of meaning, we are still left with some problems for the translated-by-God-and-merely-read-by-Joseph-Smith theory. For instance, what about has and hath? The Book of Mormon is pretty consistent about using the old -th/-eth method of marking third person singular verbs in the present tense: "Partaketh" instead of "partakes," and so on. This is entirely a matter of option, coming from the identical word in two separate dialect traditions in England. (Eventually the use of -s/-es triumphed and the old th method became so utterly lost that now in movies and television it is tossed in without regard for the tense and person of the verb, merely to suggest archaicness or scripturalness in language.) Even in Joseph Smith's day, the only shade of meaning conveyed by using -th instead of -s in these cases was that the -th made language sound formal, archaic, and scriptural. Since the Book of Mormon not only was scripture, but had to be presented as such to the people of Joseph Smith's (and our) day, it was perfectly appropriate that this form be used. But why, then, is the verb (and auxiliary) pair has/hath almost unique having both forms used, with has seemingly more common than hath?
For instance, in King Benjamin's address, he makes one of the rare uses of hath at Mosiah 3:27: "... Thus hath the Lord commanded me." And again at 4:8, we have "And there is none other salvation save this which hath been spoken of." But only a moment later, at 4:9, we're back to the normal has: "... believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend." Remember that the overwhelming majority of third-person-singular-present verbs in the Book of Mormon use the -th ending, as with doth in the verse just quoted, where within the same sentence we switch from -s to -th. Has is the only verb that regularly uses the -s, though occasionally it shows up with others -- see persists and goes followed immediately by remaineth and hath in the same verse at Mosiah 16:5.
There is no semantic difference between these particles. It is solely a matter of tone, and it is extremely unlikely that the original language has an identical distinction, which in English grew out of the influence of Danish upon one region of England. Furthermore, since mixed uses of has and hath occur both in Mormon's abridgment, written several centuries after Christ in a language that no one but the Nephites knew, and in Nephi's writing, presumably in Hebrew or Aramaic and written in a reformed Egyptian script, are we to believe that this subtle distinction of tone existed in both of the original languages, separated as they were by nearly a thousand years of linguistic transformation? And that some serious purpose is being satisfied by dropping in the -s usage for only a word or two at a time, often in the midst of verses where the -th usage predominates?
Of course, if you realize that Joseph Smith really was translating the Book of Mormon, and not just reading the Lord's translation off the stones, then not one of these facts causes even the slightest problem. Joseph Smith generally used the -th construction because it conveyed the scriptural tone he wanted, but he was not completely consistent in using it because it was not part of his natural language, and when his concentration was imperfect he inadvertently used the -s form that was absolutely the rule in his ordinary speech, and (more rarely) misused the -th form in places where it was ungrammatical (i.e., where plural or subjunctive was called for).
In my view, these flaws and/or inconsistencies in English usage in Joseph Smith's translation merely prove -- as if we needed more proof -- that God works with human beings, not puppets, and he requires our prophets to do their human best to convey to human beings, in our imperfect language and to our inadequate understanding, the pure knowledge vouchsafed them by God. The agency of humankind is untrammeled. The God who waits until the Brother of Jared comes up with the plan to let the sixteen stones be touched by God's finger is the same God who requires Joseph Smith to work out the translation in his own mind and dictate it in the best formal, scriptural English that the Prophet's finite, human understanding, however sharply concentrated, could manage. The Lord made sure that the translation was semantically faithful; he did not take away Joseph Smith's natural human tendency to make occasional errors, awkward constructions, or inconsistencies of usage.
What Did Joseph Smith See and Hear?
Now we move away from the realm of evidence into the very uncertain land of speculation. (But at least I'm aware when I'm going there.) Though at first the Prophet worked with the characters, copying them from the plates (so he didn't have to deal with reflections off metal which could obscure fine markings?), through most of the translation he wasn't looking at the plates. And in translating the books of Moses, Abraham, and Joseph Smith-Matthew, he obviously was not working from original manuscripts at all.
An interesting passage in the Book of Mosiah might shed some light on this question. Limhi has asked Ammon (the commander of the scouting party sent to look for Zeniff's people, not Mosiah's son of the same name) whether he knows of anyone who can translate the twenty-four gold plates that some of Limhi's scouts had found at the site of an ancient battle. Says Ammon: "I can assuredly tell thee, O king, of a man that can translate the records; for he has wherewith that he can look, and translate all records that are of ancient date; and it is a gift from God. And the things are called interpreters, and no man can look in them except he be commanded, lest he should look for that he ought not and he should perish. And whosoever is commanded to look in them, the same is called seer." (Mosiah 8:13)
At first glance, this passage might seem to affirm the David Whitmer view that it is the stones that are the interpreters, while the seer merely looks and reads. If that is, in fact, what Ammon meant, that would prove only that Ammon, who was not himself a seer, thought the stones worked that way. However, what Ammon actually says is that, while the stones are called interpreters, the seer, to use them, must "... look, and translate all records...." It is still the seer doing the translation, even in this version.
What is useful to us, however, is a little later in Ammon's speech, where he says, "... a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known." (8:17) This does not sound as though seers were limited to reading, and even though the stones might be called interpreters, it is obvious that the seer who possesses them is able to do far more than translate.
So here is my speculation: What God placed in Joseph Smith's mind was the text of the original document in its original written form -- "records that are of ancient date" -- and perhaps the sound as well. Along with this, the seer was given the practical gift of tongues. That is, as he read and/or heard the original writing, he was able to understand it. However, the understanding flowed into his mind as pure knowledge, not as English translation, and so to render it into English, Joseph Smith had to study it out in his mind, searching for English words that would faithfully convey, phrase by phrase, the meaning that he had received so perfectly.
The more Joseph read the original language and/or heard it spoken, the more he would be able to understand without the intense intervention of the Holy Ghost; he might, by the end, have been able to read the other language fluently, needing help only now and then when an unfamiliar term or construction was used. Or he might have relied on the gift of tongues all along. Either way, he would in every verse have to study it out in his mind in order to render a translation, and would have to concentrate intensely in order to perform this very complex mental operation. The gifts of the Spirit would still have left an enormous amount of work for the Prophet to do in creating the translation that we now have.
Spelling of Proper Names
The one remaining problem is the fact that Joseph Smith spelled out the proper names and the occasional foreign words (presumably such words as curelom, cumom, ziff, and deseret.] Skousen seems to take it for granted that he could do this because he was reading them in that form off the stones. I see no such necessity. If Joseph Smith was seeing the original text, rendered syllabically or phonemically or some combination thereof (as with Hebrew and Egyptian), the original spelling was there to see, and whatever conventions Joseph Smith himself developed for rendering these orthographs into the Roman alphabet would of course be consistent -- especially (but not necessarily) if he also could hear the words as the original writer would have pronounced them.
Besides, the spellings may not have been absolutely consistent, or the pronunciation perfectly renderable in English, as shown by a pattern of error that Skousen goes to some lengths to demonstrate in his article. Pages 80-82 are devoted to showing us every instance of the spelling of the name Amalickiah, which is spelled that way the first two times, then spelled Ameleckiah the next two times, but the with e's overwritten with a's and i's, and then is spelled with the incorrect e's and without correction at least ten times in the next fourteen instances, with a pattern of consistent misspelling and inconsistent correction thereafter. Skousen correctly points out that this proves that it was quite possible for the scribe to spell incorrectly without the Lord causing Joseph Smith to correct it. Skousen also concludes that it shows that Joseph Smith was only spelling out the names on their first occurrence, and not necessarily on later occurrences. (Emma seems to say he spelled out only the proper names he could not readily pronounce.)
Skousen also believes, however, that this suggests that Joseph Smith was accenting the name incorrectly, on the first syllable, so that the next two syllables were reduced to schwas which could easily be misunderstood. In fact, however, there is no guarantee that a flat short a sound would be clearly pronounced even in an accented syllable; or it might be that Joseph Smith himself changed his pronunciation because the name was written in the original without vowels, or with ambiguous voweling, or with vowels that don't exist in English, and, having made a first decision on the spelling based on revelation or "studying it out in his mind," he simply forgot that original decision and pronounced the vowel slightly differently (many languages make no distinction between the flat short a of American English and the flat short e that the scribe was writing). Furthermore, pronunciation might be made even more difficult if Joseph Smith had heard it in the original language and his English approximation had been bent somewhat to fit the vowels he heard.
For instance, Skousen reports that the manuscript shows that the scribe first wrote "Coriantummer" but then corrected the name (presumably because of Joseph Smith's prompting) to the correct Coriantumr. Since in English both spellings are pronounced the same, this correction might seem to indicate that Joseph Smith was reading the names spelled out in the Roman alphabet. But it seems just as likely to me that Joseph Smith was reading a text in another syllabic or phonemic alphabet in which a liquid r could be a syllable by itself, and so required no vowel to accompany it. Or, also quite possible, Joseph Smith was hearing a language in which retroflexion could attach to a nasal, or in which a final vowel (in this case u) could be both retroflex and nasal, a combination impossible to render in English without closing the nasal, in which case Joseph Smith would have insisted on having no vowel between the m and the r because both letters represented sounds that were part of the final syllable "t[r]." (The most similar Book of Mormon name, Moriancumer, has the vowel, but in Mahonri, the nr may represent a similar nasal retroflection.) Or Joseph Smith was merely rendering a transliteration of the Nephites' best attempt at rendering the Mulekites' best attempt at pronouncing Coriantumr's Jaredite name.
My point is that when transliterating names and other words from one writing system to another, and from one language to another, there are often phonemes in the source language that simply cannot be pronounced by speakers of the target language and that therefore can only be approximated in the writing system of the target language. Arabic gutturals and the clicks and inhaled sounds in some African languages are a case in point. Even languages that share a common alphabet have this problem -- you should hear how Americans have to struggle to learn to hear the difference between the words céu, seu, and seio in Brazilian Portuguese, or to render the final am sound in such Portuguese words as falam and melhoram, or to distinguish between the open and closed o (though British natives already make the distinction in, for instance, shown and shone; to most Americans, shown and shone are homophones; to most Englishmen, they aren't.)
So are the spellings of names and other transliterated words Joseph Smith's best approximation of the sounds he heard or of the orthography he saw? Or are they divinely-given "perfect" renderings in the American writing system of names arising from several different languages and passing through various pronunciations along the way? Are we getting Coriantumr's pronunciation of his own name, or the Mulekites' pronunciation of it, or the pronunciation of the name by Nephites in Mosiah's time, or the pronunciation in Mormon's language three centuries later? When a Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saint says "neffy" instead of "nee-fie" is he wrong? Or is he closer to the original than we Norteamericanos are? Did Joseph Smith pronounce the words correctly or merely make the best sense he could out of an alien orthography? It is impossible to guess.
Someday, when linguists are able to study these lost languages, we'll know more; but considering that we still don't know for sure how Egyptian vowels were pronounced, or to what degree the fronting and palatalization of c permeated the Latin-speaking world at any given point in Roman history, it is certain we won't get any definitive answers on pronunciation of transliterated names and words in the Book of Mormon without vastly more information than we have now.
The King James Version "Problem"
Where does this speculation lead? It certainly doesn't lead to truth -- it's only speculation! But it can lead us away from error, and my version -- actually, versions -- of the translation process have the virtue of not contradicting the Lord's plain statements about it in D&C 8 and 9. They also have the virtue of applying equally well to the translation of the books of Abraham and Moses. There may be processes involved that I cannot guess at. All I have proven is that there are other ways of looking at translation than the "three" that Skousen finds "possible" (p. 64), and that it is not necessary to believe the "witnesses" who, in fact, never witnessed any part of the actual process of translation that took place between Mormon or Nephi writing words on plates in their language and Joseph Smith speaking words with as nearly the same meaning as possible in his.
My speculations are not the "loose control," ideas-only method that Skousen sets up and burns down as a straw man. In my version, the seer is seeing, and possibly hearing, the original text in the original language, exactly as set forth by Nephi, Jacob, Mormon, Moroni, or any of the others who wrote. He is closely tied to that original document. But the English words are his own, and depend upon whatever language was available in his own mind.
In the trance of intense concentration, blessed with the seer's knowledge of "things which are past ... hidden things," it is no wonder that whenever Joseph Smith came across a passage or phrase that had a one-for-one correspondence with passages in the King James version, he would draw from his own preternaturally sharpened memory the exact language that he had already read, varying from it only where the meaning of the original text would not have been faithfully conveyed. This would not carry even the slightest implication that the King James version is perfect -- so perfect that God would cause the identical words to show up on a stone in Joseph Smith's hat. Rather it means that a man, translating by the gift and power of God, made use of preexisting language that was already in his mind as the best language he had available to convey the same ideas.
This also explains why other ideas in the Book of Mormon are cast in language that sounds (to hostile readers) "suspiciously" like terminology used in the Bible or in religious discourse in Joseph Smith's time. If Joseph Smith came upon a passage whose meaning could be well conveyed by a familiar phrase, he would use that phrase, and as long as the meaning was being faithfully translated, the Spirit would not intervene and cause a "stupor of thought."
By this speculative model of the work of a translator-seer, some of the anti-Mormons' favorite bugbears disappear: the "Shakespeare quote" (always a laughable complaint anyway), the long passages of word-for-word quotes from the KJV Isaiah, the use of Pauline language here and there.
But if we are forced to imagine that God translated the Book of Mormon and Joseph merely read the result off the stone, most of these problems come back in full force, along with the others I have mentioned before. If it was Joseph Smith mixing up his -eths and his -eses, it is a meaningless inconsistency from an imperfect mortal. But if it was God doing it, we have to wonder what in the world he meant by such apparently pointless confusion. If it was Joseph Smith drawing upon his memory of the King James version, while his mind, so concentrated upon the task, was functioning at peak form, it does not mean that the King James version is "perfect"; but if it was God, in a divinely perfect translation, who used the KJV language, then we have to wonder if the KJV translators were also seers; and then we must wonder why their translation of Isaiah so butchered the Hebrew prosody in pursuit of English sonority, while the non-KJV translation elsewhere in the Book of Mormon so faithfully preserved it.
I believe that the Book of Mormon shows us Joseph Smith as a translator, receiving the original text and its meaning by divine revelation, and then working out as literal and faithful a translation as possible. There are, I believe, thousands of markers of such a translation in the book -- word and syntax choices that seem to come from a foreign language that slightly deforms or awkwardizes the English version. This invariably happens in a translation that is striving to convey meaning above form, and which is not trying to be a great work of art in its own right. The King James translators, by contrast, were definitely trying to write beautiful English and, being much better educated than Joseph Smith, generally did a better job of that. However, it cost them in the realm of accuracy, for they lost or hid many of the forms of the original, and sometimes lost meaning as well. Joseph Smith's translation is called the "most correct," not the "most beautiful" and -- most tellingly -- never "perfect"; a good thing, since by definition a perfect (i.e., identical) translation is not possible.
Just as Mormon tells us that if there are flaws, they are the flaws of men, while the message of the book is perfect, so also the Book of Mormon's text shows that Joseph Smith's translation was similarly limited in its flaws to errors introduced by mortal imperfection, even as the message of the book was correctly conveyed. Such errors do not diminish his achievement as translator -- they affirm it.
And now, since this essay began as a review, let me end it the same way, by reminding you that even though I have devoted so many pages to refuting a single error in a single article, both the book and the article are important and valuable, and it behooves Latter-day Saints to become aware of this strong authentication of the Book of Mormon as a translation of an ancient document.
Return to Vigor Issue 16
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