Translation of the Book of Mormon
Quite a few have asked for an explanation of my view of Joseph Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon: his eidetic memory. So here it is. As always, you should consider this my strong opinion, loosely held. I really am interested in comments about this subject. The translation of the Book of Mormon has been the subject of a lot of speculation. I think this post is some of the best speculation you will read.
TRANSLATION OF THE BOOK OF MORMON
Joseph Smith said very little about the actual translation process. There are statements from witnesses of the translation, the things they actually saw while they were translating, and, of course, there are hearsay statements by third parties who heard something about the process in which they were not involved. Still, there is no complete explanation of the process, only inferences drawn from witnesses and the manuscripts.
Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics and English at Brigham Young University, is probably the leading authority on the translation process. Professor Skousen began working on the critical-text project in association with FARMS, the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, in the late 1980’s, and has presented numerous papers about the translation process from information he has gleaned over the years. He has had, for example, possession of the original manuscript kept by the church and been given access to the printer’s manuscript by the reorganized church in Missouri, and he has assembled records from those who recorded comments about the translation process over the years. The process as presented by a paper by Royal Skousen1can be summarized as follows:
• Joseph Smith placed the interpreters (either the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone) in a hat and put his face into the hat.
• Joseph Smith dictated for long periods of time without reference to any books, papers, manuscripts or even the plates themselves.
• Unfamiliar Book of Mormon names were spelled out by Joseph Smith.
• After each dictated sequence the scribe read back to Joseph Smith what was written so that he could check the correctness of the manuscript.
• A dictation session was started without prompting from the scribe about where the previous session had ended.
• During the early period of translation, 1827–1828, Joseph Smith did copy characters from the plates and then translate his transcribed characters with the use of the Urim and Thummim. Later, the plates were not used, only the interpreters.
• Evidence from the original and printer’s manuscripts suggest that the only revealed stage in the translation process was what Joseph Smith saw by means of the interpreters. All other stages of translation, including Joseph Smith reading off the text and checking its accuracy when it was read back, potentially introduced human error into the process.
• Analysis of the original manuscript reveals errors typical of dictation; for example, mistaking and for an.
• Analysis of the printer’s manuscript reveals errors typical of copying; Oliver Cowdery’s copy for printing purposes has many of these types of errors.
• Oliver Cowdery was dealing with about twenty words during the dictation process, the original manuscript reflecting strike-outs where Oliver anticipated incorrectly what the prophet was going to dictate.
• Joseph Smith could see the spelling of names; phonetic spellings are stricken in the original manuscript and immediately replaced with a corrected spelling.
• The word chapter and corresponding chapter divisions were not part of the revealed text, but there was, apparently, some visual clue that a division of some sort was intended; indeed, Joseph Smith seemed to have no indication that a new book would be beginning, either, a realization which resulted in emendation of the original manuscript at a later time. In other words, Joseph Smith did not know in advance the structure of the text he was dictating.
• The evidence in the original manuscript suggests tight control by the Lord of the phraseology but not iron-clad. The text could be ungrammatical or eschew “proper English.” Indeed, it preserves Hebraisms that are syntactically improper in English.
Even faithful scholars struggle with the operations of the Spirit when it comes to the translation of the Book of Mormon, an unquestionably spiritual experience.2Not knowing how the Book of Mormon was created3 has provoked scholars, both those who are and those who are not convinced of its divinity, to search for an answer that explains how it was done.4These searches are fascinating, of course, but are unsatisfactory in the sense that they result in only translation hypotheses incapable of proof. But there is a collateral benefit. As with all attempts to gain knowledge: dots of understanding, like the dots of a lithograph or pixels of a digital image, are added to the picture showing the how of the Spirit’s operation. Examining individual dots of information, however, is like using a loupe to look at a lithograph or zooming in to far on the digital image. The operation of the Spirit is best understood, perhaps, by standing back and seeing its general operation, the big picture and, then, applying that general perspective to particular instances.
The larger view of the operation of the Spirit is beyond the scope of this introduction, so a summary will necessarily suffice before addressing the author’s hypothesis about the translation process. This summary requires one to understand literary devices. The metaphor, in particular.
Metaphors have been described by such luminaries as Aristotle as the hallmark of genius, providing insight into difficult subjects.5Abstractions—like what happens when a person realizes something—can often be best handled by metaphors, because the metaphor makes the abstraction concrete.6 Metaphors, however, are analogies, so they fail if they are taken too far or too literally. Shakespeare wrote in “As You Like It,” “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances.” There is a certain appeal to this, but the appeal is superficial because life and what mankind does is not scripted or directed or played before an audience, etc. One must always be careful not to take metaphor’s vehicle or figure of speech too far—too literally. It is, after all, only a device in aid of understanding the intended tenor or meaning sought to be conveyed.
The common metaphors used when describing the Spirit are well known. The still small voice.7The heart, a metaphor used in the scriptures to describe the seat of reason and understanding,8not feelings, which are described by then reins 9 or bowels or kidneys. The largest misinterpretation, however comes from the relationship between light and burning, as in a burning in one’s bosom. The ancient world of darkness, nighttime, was lit only by fire: one could not have light without a burning, but the modern-day reader misses this obvious reality because the light bulb is ubiquitous, so no one today thinks of the need for a burning to have light.10In other words, a burning in one’s bosom—the location of the heart or mind—is a metaphor the mental enlightenment that comes with knowledge and understanding.
The Oliver Cowdery revelations during the translation process use the foregoing metaphors to make the operations of the Spirit during the translation process explicit. 11Parsing these Oliver Cowdery revelations, including the hendiadyses and chiasms used, forces the conclusion that the translation was a mental process coming from within Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.12
Indeed, there appears to be a correlation between the remarkable mental powers of Joseph Smith and his translation work. Brant A. Gardner has assembled a careful overview of theories about the translation and conjoins this with a discussion of the prophets uncommon perceptiveness.13Joseph Smith, apparently, had an eidetic memory, an ability that made him the village seer via a seer stone before the sacred-grove experience.14And Oliver Cowdery shared this same talent via a divining rod. The original revelation that became section eight assured Cowdery that his work with his rod was a divine gift:
Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod [of working with the rod was changed to the current of Aaron]: behold it has told you many things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature to work in your hands [rod of nature to work in your hands changed to gift of Aaron to be with you].15
Section eight as it presently stands continues with a description of this gift:
Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the word of God. And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.16
The gift used by Oliver Cowdery requires one to step outside the penumbra of today’s religious thought to the everyday world of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Village seers were common at the time. Joseph Smith was one, and, apparently, so was Oliver Cowdery. Those like Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were known as cunning men and wise women, and they occupied an important position in the social order of the rural community.17They could see or understand things that others could not. Both Oliver and Joseph had this gift, and it enabled them to translate.18
In other words, operation of the Spirit must mean an enlightenment of one’s mind, and enlightenment means there has to be something there to enlighten. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery probably shared the same gift, an eidetic memory that enabled them to have a great facility with languages, which individuals with such memories have.[Still, they had to work at it. Joseph Smith had been working at it longer, so it may well be that he had memorized the entire set of plates and learned the language of the plates, using his seer stone as a point of focus. He must have been able to recall the images in his mind and read off the translation in his own style and vocabulary, which was heavily influenced by his eidetic recall of the bible. This explains why the King James scriptures appear in the Book of Mormon: Joseph Smith had those in his head from his reading of the bible, so he just used those when he came to those parts as an expedient and adequate shortcut to get the work done.
Importantly, his eidetic memory also explains why Joseph Smith could translate by looking in a hat where he had placed a seer stone. The seer stone in the hat allowed him to focus on what he was doing. No distractions. Distractions, like having a fight with his wife, meant Joseph Smith could not shift his mind into eidetic-memory mode. Over the years, though, he gained more facility with the switch, so he stopped using the seer stone altogether.
Oliver Cowdery would have been frustrated in his attempts to translate because his limited exposure meant he had not learned the plates and the language of the plates, so he had more work to do; indeed, he was probably being taught how to do it by Joseph Smith like a teacher teaches a pupil to understand the symbols of the alphabet, then words, then sentences and, ultimately, how to read. The Lord simply did not give the translation to either Joseph Smith or Oliver Cowdery any more than reading and comprehending a book is a gift from a teacher to a student. Joseph Smith had the engravings in his head, and he probably wrote them out on paper as part of his instruction to Oliver to learn so he could translate. The enlightenment of knowledge is the gift that Joseph Smith had and Oliver Cowdery could have had if he had worked at more diligently by putting the raw data needing enlightenment in his head first.
The foregoing discussion of the mental process of translation resolves one of the concerns many have about the quotes in the Book of Mormon from the bible, the King James Version of the bible. These quotes were not added after the translation process by copying script from a copy of the bible Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery used; there is no mention of such a sort cobbled-together process; rather, Joseph Smith’s eidetic memory would have allowed him to easily borrow this text from the bible he knew so well when he happened upon them during the translation. Still, many continue to speculate that a King James Version of the bible must have been used during the process of translation.
There are, at least, three problems with the speculations about whether Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery used as bible while translating. First, it is inconsistent with the evidence about the dictation process. Joseph would dictate the book using the interpreters or seer stone. There is no mention of a bible.
The gift of translation was probably the same for both Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith. The consistency in the operation of the Spirit demands that the gift be the same, although, like facility with reading, writing, analysis, and comprehension, the consistency of the operation of the Spirit does not mean that the Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith had the same facility with or background for it.
A second problem with the bible-used-while-translating hypothesis is the fact the surviving manuscript does not give any indication that there was some stoppage in the transcription indicating reference to another source: the text just continues on. The photograph of one of the better-preserved pages from the original manuscript quotes from Isaiah 50:1–9, and there are no significant variances between this original manuscript and the printer’s manuscript.
The third reason speculations about the use of a bible are problematic is because of the quotes from the bible that appear in 3 Nephi 11–30, the record of the Savior’s visit among the Nephites after His resurrection. There are so many parallels between the record in this part of the book and scriptures in the bible that it is hard to imagine that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery interrupted their translation process to look these scriptures up and copy them. Moreover, some of the scriptures are quoted out of verse-order or there are omissions, an unlikely occurrence if copying was being done, and the since original manuscript, now lost in substantial part, was used by the printer for this portion of the printing, it appears that the very language that appears in the Book of Mormon was just dictated by Joseph Smith without reference to a bible.
A final observation about Joseph Smith’s eidetic memory involves the visit of Moroni (or Nephi according to the earliest histories). Moroni quoted scriptures to Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was able to remember that some of the quotes were word-for-word the same as in the Hebrew Bible, but other quotations were varied from the text of the Bible.
After telling me these things, he commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament. He first quoted part of the third chapter of Malachi; and he quoted also the fourth or last chapter of the same prophecy, though with a little variation from the way it reads in our Bibles. Instead of quoting the first verse as it reads in our books, he quoted it thus . . . . He also quoted the next verse differently. . . . He quoted also the third chapter of Acts . . .precisely as they stand in our New Testament.19
It would take an eidetic memory make these observations.
- Royal Skousen, “Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Book of Mormon: Evidence for Tight Control of the Text,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol 7, no. 1 (1998)
- Many, of course, do not think the Book of Mormon is divine, that it is not something “given by or proceeding from God, having the sanction of or inspired by God,” the second definition of divine in the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009) (“OED”) s.v. divine.
- Joseph Smith never described how he translated the Book of Mormon. His most elucidating comment was recorded, apparently, at a conference of the church on October 25, 1831, in the Town of Orange, Ohio. These minutes appear in Minute Book 2 of the Far West record as copied into that minute book by Ebenezer Robinson in early 1838 from, presumably, minutes taken during that 1831 conference. The minutes, which are posted on the internet by the LDS Church as part of “The Joseph Smith Papers,”present a subject-matter and, therefore, summary record of the events at this conference and have this to say about the translation of the Book of Mormon:
Br. Hyrum Smith said that he thought the best that the information of the coming forth of the book of Mormon be related by Joseph himself to the Elders present that all might know for themselves.
Br. Joseph Smith jr.[sic] said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to related these things &c.
Thus, the creation of the Book of Mormon is left like the creation of the world: we do know the Lord did it, but we do not know how, and He is not about to tell us until His return:
[I]n that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things—Things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose thereof . . . .
- Those convinced of its divinity who have explored the how of the Book of Mormon are too numerous to list in this paper. A book by Brant A. Gardner, The Gift and Power, Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), draws extensively on the many papers and books on this subject as he deduces his own theories, which are compelling. The list of scholars who have touched this subject is very impressive: Richard L. Bushman, John Gee, Jeffrey R. Holland, George A. Horton, Jr., Kent P. Jackson, Robert J. Matthews, Robert L. Millet, Hugh Nibley, Dallin D. Oaks, Dallin H. Oaks, Daniel C. Peterson, Stephen D. Ricks, Brigham H. Roberts, Royal Skousen, John A. Tvedtnes, and John W. Welch, inter alia.
- Id. at 316.
- The source of this metaphor is 1 Kings 19:12, and it is used repeatedly in the Book of Mormon. See I Nephi 17:45; 2 Nephi 5:28–34; Helaman 5. However, few people glean from the source of this metaphor the meaning conveyed by its original use and the sometimes very explicit allusions to this vehicle.
- The Hebrew word lev (לכ), taken literally, refers to the physical organ we call the heart, and as a consequence most translations use the English heart wherever the original Hebrew has lev. But in most cases, this translation misses the meaning of the biblical authors, and in many it leads to outright mistakes in translation. Classical Hebrew has no parallel to the later Western dichotomy between the heart as the seat of emotions and the mind as the seat of thought. For the biblical authors, sentiments are a part of the process of human thought and of reason, and not something separate from it. And when human beings are thinking, or reasoning, or believing, they do so with their lev, which is most directly translated as mind. Hazony, Yoram, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
The definition of heart in the Oxford English Dictionary recognizes the complicated nature of the word:
5. a. = mind, in the widest sense, including the functions of feeling, volition, and intellect.
b. In this relation spoken of as having ears, eyes, etc., meaning those faculties of the mind, understanding, or emotional nature, that have some analogy to these bodily organs.
- The seat of passion or emotion is differentiated in the scriptures as the kidneys. Kidneys seemed a little anatomical, perhaps, to the King James translators, so the word for the kidneys is translated in the Bible as bowels, reins, or loins, as in bowels of compassion, and this convention is continued in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. E.g. 1 John 3:17; 3 Nephi 17:6,7; D&C 101?9; D&C 121:3,4; Psalm 7:9; Psalm 16:7, Psalm 26:2; Isaiah 11:5, Jeremiah 11:20; Revelation 2:23.
In the ancient system of physiology the kidneys were believed to be the seat of desire and longing, which accounts for their often being coupled with the heart.
Smith’s Bible Dictionary s. v. reins (i.e. kidneys).
l. The kidneys.
2. The region of the kidneys; the loins.
3. In or after Biblcal use: The seat of feelings or affections
- Thomas A. Edison’s electric light bulb was not invented until 1879 and not perfected with the right type of filament until the early 1880s. The invention of this filament was, putting it in religious terms, inspired.
Although the patent [for the light bulb] described several ways of creating the carbon filament including “cotton and linen thread, wood splints, papers coiled in various ways”,[footnote omitted] it was not until several months after the patent was granted that Edison and his team discovered a carbonized bamboo filament that could last over 1,200 hours. The idea of using this particular raw material originated from Edison’s recalling his examination of a few threads from a bamboo fishing pole while relaxing on the shore of Battle Lake in the present-day state of Wyoming, where he and other members of a scientific team had traveled so that they could clearly observe a total eclipse of the sun on July 29, 1878, from the Continental Divide.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Edison#Electric_power_distribution (accessed November 18, 2013).
- There were three revelations to Oliver Cowdery during the translation process, D&C 6, D&C 8, and D&C 9.
- This sentence does not imply that the Spirt was not at work to enlighten the minds of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery; indeed, just the opposite is the case. Without the enlightenment of their minds, the burning in their bosoms, they would not have been able to translate, which both of them did according to these revelations. The fact that the Spirit operates by enlightening the mind of the inspired person—that the effect of the Spirit is a mental enlightenment—is affirmed by many other scriptures.
Isaiah 11 is among the many other scriptures affirming the enlightening effect of the Spirit on one’s mind. It is one of the scriptures quoted to Joseph Smith by the Moroni when he was telling Joseph about the plates. Isaiah 11 is a Pindaric ode. It is full of hendiadyses, metaphor, metonymy, and poetic forms, so it must be carefully parsed to understand its meaning. The Spirit is defined in the first strophe of Isaiah 11: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, [and] the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” Sandwiched between wisdom/understanding and knowledge/perspective, perspective being a good synonym for fear of the Lord in this context, is the strength that comes from counseling with another or others, the refiner’s fire that separates the gold from the dross.
It is important to remember that the translation of the Book of Mormon was the result of a lengthy process that began in 1823 and culminated in 1830, seven years later. As put by one author:
For Joseph Smith the Book of Mormon translation project was a prodigious effort lasting nearly seven years, from 1823 to 1830—including what I term schooling visions he reported experiencing annually from 1823 through 1827 under the tutelage of an ancient prophet identified as Moroni, then the translation and printing process form 1828 through early 1830, and finally publishing the book itself in March 1830. Lasting as long as a university doctoral education, this project alone occupied one-third of Joseph’s lifetime by 1830, and over two-thirds of his young adult life after his first vision in 1820.
- Gardner, Brant, A., The Gift and Power, Translating the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011)
- Id. at 79–82, 86–90, 94–95. An eidetic memory is, in essence, a photographic memory, a gift often questioned. However, there are notable individuals who possessed remarkable memories. Nikola Tesla had no problem memorizing entire books verbatim, and his mind gave him the remarkable fluency in eight languages: Serbo-Croation, Czech, English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Latin. Teddy Roosevelt could recite entire newspaper pages as if he were reading them. Kim Peek was the real-life “Rainman” after whom Dustin Hoffman’s character was based, and he said he had memorized every word of every book he had ever read, some 9,000. There are a number of startling accounts, collected at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exceptional_memory#Eidetic_memory (accessed December 25, 2013), that discuss this type of phenomenon. This sort of memory means that Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon would, of course, contain verbatim copy from the King James bible of his day: Joseph Smith would have relied on his mind when he knew that the substance of the text on the plates embraced the same ideas already contained within the King James bible. The Encyclopædia Britannica even explains a unique feature of such memories that explains how it was that Joseph Smith initially used a seer stone for his translations—and Oliver Cowdery his diving rod—when it says:
eidetic image, an unusually vivid subjective visual phenomenon. An eidetic person claims to continue to “see” an object that is no longer objectively present. Eidetic persons behave as if they are actually seeing an item, either with their eyes closed or while looking at some surface that serves as a convenient background for the image. Furthermore, eidetic persons describe the image as if it is still present and not as if they are recalling a past event. The incidence of eidetic imagery is very low in children (2–10 percent) and almost nonexistent in adults.
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/180955/eidetic-image (accessed December 25, 2013)(bolding added). This sort of memory may be something that is lost if not fostered and, therefore, virtually nonexistent in adults.
- Section eight of the Doctrine and Covenants has a rich textual history with respect to the gift Oliver Cowdery had. See, generally, http://www.withoutend.org/case-cowderys-rod-gift-dc-6/ for a discussion of the various changes to this section.
The 1974 BYU doctoral dissertation by Robert J. Woodford, The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants, 3 vols. (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1980), discusses the substantial changes to section eight. The Book of Commandments (1833) uses the reference to the rod, but this reference was omitted commencing with the 1835 publication of the Doctrine and Covenants. Woodford, vol. 1 at 185–192. Woodford addresses the “gift of working with the rod” as follows:
In the current text . . .the gift is called the gift of Aaron. One of the gifts given Aaron was that of performing miracles through the use of a staff or rod. [Footnote omitted.] The rod mentioned in this revelation is not necessarily Aaron’s rod, but one that can be used in a similar way. The Book of Mormon prophesied that a rod would be available to a modern Joseph of this day, [footnote omitted] and there is some evidence that a rod was used. [Footnote omitted.] Evidently, not only did Oliver Cowdery have access to it, but also Orson Hyde. [Footnote omitted.] It may even be that there was more than one of these rods [because of testimony that Heber C. Kimball had one, too].
Id. at 188. The footnote omitted in the foregoing quote just after Orson Hyde is a reference to the April 1, 1842, edition of the Times and Seasons which, at 741, contains the following statement by Orson Hyde: “On top of Mount Olives I erected a pile of stones as a witness according to the ancient custom. On what was anciently called Mount Zion, where the Temple stood, I erected another, and used the rod according to the prediction upon my head.”
- D&C 8:8–10 (bolding added).
- “Magic in Palmyra: Diving Rods and Seer Stones” Gardner, op cit., at 65–78.
- Some do not think the gift was the same. Brant Gardner opines that the method used by Oliver Cowdery had to be “a binary confirmation of a translation already attempted . . . . I submit that it is this difference between the two media that governed how their users could receive inspiration . . . .” Gardner, op cit. at 314. Gardner thinks Smith saw the text while Cowdery had to figure it out and get a pollice verso if the translation was wrong, but Gardner cites other proposals, as well. Id. at 314–315. Gardner thinks the translation was given in mentalese—the language of thought—which Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery confirmed by different means.