The Translation Process of the Book of Mormon

The Zarahemla Centric Heartland Model (ZCHM) of Book of Mormon geography is based first and foremost directly upon the text of the Book of Mormon — and as close to the original text as possible for technical accuracy. This is made possible by Royal Skousen’s study of the original manuscripts which has resulted in the publication of The Book of Mormon – The Earliest Text. Understanding the Book of Mormon translation process reveals that it was a “tight” translation, which is technically important to know when analyzing the text for geography. A “tight” translation means there should be great respect for the accuracy and the sacred nature of each and every word of the Book of Mormon.

There is much of controversy and conflicting testimony when it comes to the actual translation process. Most of the conflicting information comes from disaffected former members of the Church with a personal agenda to push (like Emma Smith) and with accounts that vary widely from one telling to the next, depending on the audience (like David Whitmer). In truth, only Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had direct experience with the translation process. Fortunately their testimony is consistent, clear and concise, as in the Wentworth letter5 and other authoritative statements1. Therefore the testimony of Joseph and Oliver must be paramount. They testified the translation was: 1) Done by the power of God; 2) Included reading the golden plates; and 3) Involved the use of the Urim and Thummim — also called the Holy Interpreters. The only real question in my mind is the role of the Urim and Thummim had in the translation process.

One fact we do know based on testimony and examination of the original manuscripts is that the translation was a one-time dictation1a,1b,1c. Some have argued that a young Joseph Smith had the necessary biblical vocabulary to dictate the Book of Mormon. However, I don’t believe this is correct — and almost no one does.

It is also argued, for good reason, that the young Joseph Smith studied2a the language2b of the plates for at least three months2c, was tutored by angelic messengers3 and could actually understand the language on the plates2b based on his own study2d. I do believe this is true based on the historical record and also Section 9 of the Doctrine and Covenants4. However, the idea that Joseph Smith could understand the Reformed Egyptian characters on the plates does not explain a one-time dictation into a complex Biblical style English with no revisions. This is where, in my opinion, the role of the Urim and Thummim5 comes in. I believe that Joseph Smith had a gift of translating the written meaning from the plates into his own mind and then the role of the Urim and Thummim (also called “Interpreters”6) was to interpret (consecutive interpreting) those thoughts into the precise Hebrew-like language constructs and Bible-like vocabulary that is now found in the Book of Mormon.

This concept also explains why it was a one-time dictation instead of the normal multiple attempts required “to get the words right”. Multiple attempts and revisions would be needed (double interpretation) for interpreting such a complex text without the aid of the Urim and Thummim. Nobody but nobody, on their own, would get the wording exactly right the very first time with no revision. Only God could do that7 and I believe God did do this via the Urim and Thummim. This was a blessing not only to Joseph Smith but also fulfilled prophecy given by the Lord to the ancient Nephite prophets8.

Thus, I believe the original text of the Book of Mormon to be the ultimate “tight” translation. Every word and every spelling is significant and precise as it came from the lips of Joseph Smith. That is also my experience and testimony as I have studied the text in regard to the geography of the Book of Mormon.

1 See the Wentworth Letter, also Doctrine and Covenants 3:19, 5:4, 10:38-45

1a The work of translation proceeded haltingly through 1828. Joseph’s wife, Emma, and others served as scribes until the spring of 1829, when Oliver Cowdery took over, recording the bulk of the 275,000-word text from Joseph’s dictation, concluding near the end of June 1829, a period of about 60 to 90 days. (see Church History,

1b These were days never to be forgotten-to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth as he translated” (Messenger and Advocate 1 [Oct. 1834]:14)

1c All witnesses of the translation stated that Joseph Smith dictated the text of the Book of Mormon. This claim is supported by certain errors in the original manuscript which clearly resulted from the scribe mishearing what Joseph had dictated. … Evidence from the original manuscript supports the traditional belief that Joseph Smith received a revealed text by means of the interpreters. … In fact, the occurrence of non-English Hebraisms such as the if-and construction strongly suggests that the text was tightly controlled down to the level of the word at least. This tight control is also supported by the consistent phraseology in the original text. And the spelling of names such as Coriantumr suggests that control could be imposed down to the very letter. (How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon, Royal Skousen, pp 25,30)

2a …Joseph began to make arrangements to accomplish the translation of the Record; And the first step which he was instructed to take in regard to this matter, was, to take a Fac-Simile of the characters composing the alphabet: which characters were called reformed Egyptian… (Lucy Mack Smith History, 1845, pp 117,122, Joseph Smith Papers)

2b for truth is a matter of fact — and the fact is, by the power of God I translated the book of Mormon from hieroglyphics; the knowledge of which was lost to the world. In which wonderful event, I stood alone, an unlearned youth, to combat the worldly wisdom and multiplied ignorance of eighteen centuries. (James Arlington Bennet letter, Joseph Smith Papers)

2c I commenced copying the characters of all the plates. I copyed a considerable number of them and by means of the Urim and Thummin I translated some of them which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father in the month of December, and the February following. (Lucy Mack Smith History, 1845, pp 117,122, Joseph Smith Papers)

2d With “true alphabet” languages, like English, one needs to generally speak the language in order to read it. However, for Pictographic and Logographic writing systems, this is not the case. See below. The “Reformed Egyptian” (Mormon 9:32) of the plates was likely a altered/customized form of the Egyptian Hieratic. The beautiful Egyptian Hieroglyphic’s was used for monuments and Hieratic was the everyday “cursive” form, much simpler to write – and designed for parchment. Mormon explains that he used “Reformed Eyptian” that had been altered by the Nephites. One reason it had to be altered is that it was designed to be engraven on metal plates rather than parchment. That it also had to be logographic is clear when Mormon explains it was shorter than the Hebrew (Mormon 9:33).

In context of the Book of Mormon it is useful to understand the basics of the following writing systems

Pictographic/ideographic writing systems:

    • There is no single way to read them, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between symbol and language.
    • Only the author of a text can read it with any certainty, and it may be said that they are interpreted rather than read.
    • Such scripts often work best as mnemonic aids for oral texts, or as outlines that will be fleshed out in speech.
    • – Examples: Aztec, Mixtec, other Mesoamerican writing systems with the exception of Maya Hieroglyphs.

Logographic writing systems

    • Glyphs (A symbol, such as a stylized figure or arrow on a public sign, that imparts information nonverbally) represent words or morphemes (meaningful components of words, as in mean-ing-ful), rather than phonetic elements.
    • No logographic script is composed solely of logograms (A written symbol representing an entire spoken word without expressing its pronunciation; for example, for 4 read “four” in English, “quattro” in Italian.). All contain graphemes that represent phonetic (sound-based) elements as well.
    • Many glyphs are purely phonetic, whereas others function as either logograms or phonetic elements, depending on context.
    • Consonant-based logographies
    • – Examples: Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic – the writing systems of Ancient Egypt.
    • Syllable-based logographies
    • – Examples: Cuneiform, Chinese, Japanese, Mayan.

Abjad writing systems

    • Script containing symbols for consonants only, or where vowels are optionally written with diacritics.
    • – Examples: Arabian, Aramaic, Hebrew.

True Alphabets writing systems

    • A true alphabet contains separate letters (not diacritic marks) for both consonants and vowels..
    • – Examples: Coptic Egyptian, Cyrillic – Eastern Slavic languages, Greek, Latin-Roman (current western and central European languages).

3 And when Joseph Smith was raised up a a Prophet of God, Mormon, Moroni, Nephi and others of the ancient Prophets who formerly lived on this Continent, and Peter and John and others who lived on the Asiatic Continent, came to him and communicated to him certain principles pertaining to the Gospel of the Son of God. (John Taylor, Journal of Discourses, April 8 1875, Vol 17, p 374)

4 (revelation given through Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery)
Doctrine and Covenants 9
7 Behold, 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.
8 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.
9 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.
10 Now, if you had known this you could have translated; nevertheless, it is not expedient that you should translate now. (Doctrine and Covenants, 9:7-10).

5 “With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called ‘Urim and Thummim’, which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breast plate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God” (Joseph Smith, Wentworth Letter, History of the Church, 4:537).

6 5 Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord. (Book of Mormon, Ether 4:5).

7 2 And also, that I may remember the promises which I have made unto thee, Nephi, and also unto thy father, that I would remember your seed; and that the words of your seed should proceed forth out of my mouth unto your seed; and my words shall hiss forth unto the ends of the earth, for a standard unto my people, which are of the house of Israel; (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 29:2).

8 Ether 12:
23 And I said unto him: Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; for Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith, but thou hast not made us mighty in writing; for thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them;
24 And thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. Behold, thou hast not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty even as thou art, unto the overpowering of man to read them.
25 Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words.
26 And when I had said this, the Lord spake unto me, saying: Fools mock, but they shall mourn; and my grace is sufficient for the meek, that they shall take no advantage of your weakness; (Book of Mormon, Ether 12:23-26).

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