Translation Methods

Posted: May 5, 2008 in Education

Translation Theory and Methods

The eye witness evidence and the manuscript evidence

The current work being on the manuscript versions of the Book of Mormon are yielding interesting insights into the construction of that sacred text. Royal Skousen is in charge of the critical text project that has been examining these manuscripts. As part of that process, Skousen has suggested that the manuscripts can provide particular insight into the translation methodology. In an article describing those insights, Skousen notes the general correspondence between various eye witness descriptions of the translation method. They are worth repeating here for clarity:

Joseph Knight (autograph [between 1833 and 1847]):
But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous.

Emma Smith (Edmund C. Briggs interview, 1856):
When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while Iwas 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.

Martin Harris (Edward Stevenson’s 1881 account):
By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, “Written,” and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appeared in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used.

David Whitmer (Eri B. Mullin interview, 1874):
… the words 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.

David Whitmer (James H. Hart interview, 1884):
Sometimes Joseph could not pronounce the words correctly, having had but little education; and if by any means a mistake was made in the copy, the luminous writing would remain until it was corrected. It sometimes took Oliver several trials to get the right letters to spell correctly some of the more difficult words, but when he had written them correctly, the characters and the interpretation would disappear and the interpretation would disappear, and be replaced by other characters and their interpretation.
(Skousen, Royal. “Translating the Book of Mormon.” In: Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited. FARMS 1997, p. 65-66)

The first remarkable observation on these accounts is that they have reasonable consistency, both in the general information, and over time. With this eye witness background we must approach the text, and Skousen uses these statements as a springboard for his discussion of the qualities of the original manuscript. The importance of the statements for the translation method, however, is one of the nature of the translation, with each appearing to support what Skousen has termed “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). (Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 65.)

Skousen sets up his discussion of the evidence with a final example:
“A similar example advocating iron-clad control is the secondary witness of Samuel W. Richards (in a statement recorded over fifty-eight years later, on 25 May 1907). According to “Richards, Oliver Cowdery explained to him during the winter of 1848-49 how Joseph Smith had translated:

Every word was distinctly visible even down to every letter;
And if Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the “interpreter” until it was copied correctly.
As we shall see, the first statement is apparently true, but the second one is definitely false.
(Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 66.)

That the second is definitely false is inescapable from the evidence he examines. For instance:

“Errors in the original manuscript (O) are based on the scribe mishearing what Joseph Smith dictated rather than visually misreading while copying from another manuscript. Consider, for instance, the difficulty the scribe had in hearing the difference between and and an. In 1 Nephi 13:29 of O the scribe (designated as scribe 2) wrote down the following:

& because of these things which are taken away out of the gosple of the Lamb & exceeding great many do stumble

Obviously, scribe 2 misheard “an exceeding great many” as “and exceeding great many.” The use of the ampersand (&) shows that the error was not based on visual similarity. Hearing an, the scribe interpreted it as the casual speech an’ for and. (Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 67.)

This is certainly a correct reading of the evidence. What does it mean for the eye witness accounts? First that their observation that the text was dictated is certainly correct. Second, their expectation of iron-clad control is not correct. With an error of this kind, we have an understandable process, but not one nearly so miraculous as the witness accounts seem to say. We have not a spelling error being corrected, but an incorrect word that is allowed to stand. Skousen gives other examples of mishearing, with some that appear to have been corrected immediately, while others were not. Thus the idea (as Skousen had noted) that the words would remain on the interpreters until the written text was absolutely correct cannot be an accurate description of the translation process.

Nevertheless, Skousen does find evidence that the accounts of correcting the spelling of names did occur:

“Frequently the first occurrence of a Book of Mormon name is first spelled phonetically, then that spelling is corrected; in some instances, the incorrect spelling is crossed out and followed on the same line by the correct spelling, thus indicating that the correction is an immediate one.” (Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 75.)

While such information underscores the correctness of the statement that names were spelled, the subsequent allegation that long words were also spelled correctly has no such corroboration:

“There appears to be no firm evidence in what remains of the original manuscript to support this claim of Emma Smith and David Whitmer. Long English words found in what remains of the original manuscript are frequently misspelled.” (Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 77.)

The next general category of the accounts of the translation method deal with the process whereby the scribe would read back the text to Joseph. In Whitmer’s account, this becomes:

“He did not use the plates in the translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes and cover his face with a hat, excluding all light, and before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment, on which would appear the characters of the plates in a line at the top, and immediately below would appear the translation in English, which Smith would read to his scribe, who wrote it down exactly as it fell from his lips. The scribe would then read the sentence written, and if any mistake had been made, the characters would remain visible to Smith until corrected, when they faded from sight, to be replaced by another line. (Whitmer in an 1881 interview published in the Kansas City Journal. Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p,. 83).

Skousen notes that the manuscript does show evidence of such a response-correction process, and notes also: “Most of the undetected errors that remain in the original manuscript could not have been caught when read back because there was little if any difference in pronunciation.” (Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 83-84.) The key word here is most for he also notes: “We should also note that there is also evidence that some corrections were done considerably later, that is, some time after the repetition sequence. In fact, a few of these later corrections in the original manuscript were apparently made when the printer’s manuscript was being copied from the original or even later when sheets of the 1830 edition were being proofed. Sometimes the change was by a different scribe or in a different medium (such as pencil.). In virtually every case these few corrections eliminated difficult readings in the original manuscript.” (Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 84.)

The evidence thus far leaves us with a conclusion and a question. The conclusion is inescapable; the assertions of the eye witnesses that the Book of Mormon is the result of iron-clad control are incorrect, and the translation method cannot be described in such terms.

The question is perhaps more interesting, and that concerns the statements of the witnesses themselves. Why do they uniformly assert iron-clad control, and features of the translation that are not accurate? Does this impugn them as witnesses?

The answer is no, and all this does is suggest that we must do our homework, and forgive them for their humanity. The most telling of the statements is actually that of Joseph Knight: “but if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous.” (cited in Skousen, p. 65.) His statement on the accuracy of the spelling may be demonstrably wrong, but it is his conclusion that is important. Knight’s interest is not precisely in the accuracy of spelling, but rather in the “so we see it was marvelous.” I suggest that the imperative to see the Book of Mormon as “marvelous” underlay the specific types of factual errors in the eye witness accounts. All of the accounts follow the actual events by a number of years. All of the accounts are by people who were part of the “marvelous work and a wonder” and the desire to further sacralize the Book of Mormon took the form of adding the miraculous to process of translation.

This is a very human process of transformation, where that which is sacred takes on even more sacred connotations or attributes. For instance, baptism was the seminal and transformational rite of the early church. The particularly sacred nature of that rite naturally attracted even more sacred trappings in some writers. In the apocryphal “Barlaam and Ioaseph” we find:

“And they that were baptized not only received health in their souls, but indeed as many as were afflicted with bodily ailments and imperfections cast off all their trouble, and came up from the holy font pure in soul, and sound in body, reaping an harvest of health for soul and body alike.”

Similarly, we have the text called “The Avenging of the Savior ”

“Then said the Emperor Tiberius to Velosianus: Velosianus, hast thou seen any of those men who saw Christ? Velosianus answered: I have. He said: Didst thou ask how they baptize those who believed in Christ? Velosianus said: Here, my Lord, we have one of the disciples of Christ himself. Then he ordered Nathan to be summoned to come to him. Nathan therefore came and baptized him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Immediately the Emperor Tiberius, made whole from all his diseases, ascended upon his throne…”

The ties between the waters of baptism and the waters of healing are understandable (Christ was a healer, and the story of Elisha and Naaman reinforce the immersion/cleansing miracle – 2 Kings 5:8-14) but this is an addition to the rite not part of the testamental doctrine. It is certainly an addition of sacrality, just as the absolute control over the Book of Mormon text was an addition of sacrality to an already sacred subject.

The internal manuscript evidence

Skousen presents three ideas that might support what he terms “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.” (Skousen, Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 65.)

His first point; is brief, as it was covered in an earlier section. Skousen suggests “Of course, the spelling out of name definitely suggests that a theory of loose control must be revised in some way; Joseph Smith had some view of the specific spelling for names, in particular, names with impossible spellings for English literates.” (Skousen, p. 87.) There is definite evidence for corrected spelling of names, but how well does that translate into a tight control over the text on the plates?

The most interesting example for a name in the Book of Mormon may be Nephi, first because it is not an expected Hebrew name, where the rest of Lehi’s sons clearly have names acceptable to Hebrew tradition, and secondly, the name appears to have roots in Egyptian. After a lengthy analysis of attested variations, John Gee notes:

“The name element NPY seems to be the Semitic (i.e., Aramaic, Phoenician) transcription of the Egyptian nfr, a common element of Egyptian personal names. The medial p in the Semitic form would have been taken as a /f/, so the vocalization of NPY as Nephi poses no problem.” (Gee, John. “A Note on the Name Nephi.” In” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (Fall 1992) FARMS: p.189.)

This example is carefully chosen, first because it provides evidence that there is a connection between the ancient plates and the modern translation. The second reason is that it tells us something about the nature of the that translation, and particularly the point Skousen is making about the “tight control” between ancient and modern text.

The problem of the name Nephi is in English rendition of the medial /ph/. This is a grapheme with a phonetic value of /f/. That is, it is written with “ph” but pronounced as “f.” Now we have to examine the translation process that might create the form /Nephi/ rather than the form /Nefi/ (as indeed it must be rendered into other languages that do not use the /ph/ grapheme, such as Spanish). To follow Skousen’s theory of tight control, there must be some correlation between the /ph/ structure and something from the plates.

However, the Egyptian form would have had a character better represented by /f/ according to Gee’s research. We might have some correspondence between the Semitic grapheme that would be rendered /p/ and pronounced /f/ as Gee notes, but this would require that the text be written in a Semitic character set, rather than an Egyptian character set. Nothing in the Book of Mormon suggests that the Semitic character set was used, and if there is any hint as to script, it leans more to the Egyptian. Therefore, the script of the plates, under a “tight control” should have produced /f/ rather than /ph/.
The English grapheme /ph/ comes from loan words from Greek, and while it is not uncommon, it is relegated to such loan words. On that model, Nephi could be seen as a loan word, but it has no relationship to Greek, and the underlying Egyptian/Semitic forms have no historical relationship to an aspirated stop that might also explain the form.

What might we conclude by looking at Nephi as opposed to Skousen’s example of Coriantummer->Coriantumr? (Skousen, p. 76.) We can conclude that Joseph was able to see or visualize a spelling and transmit the spelling to the scribe. We cannot conclude, however, that this ability to visualize and transmit the spelling was directly dependent upon the script of the plates. This first argument for “tight control” is not convincing.

The second evidence for “tight control” is the identical production of two passages in different parts of the Book of Mormon (Skousen, p. 88, referencing work by John W. Welch and Tim Rathbone):

1 Ne. 1:8
8 And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.

Alma 36:22
22 Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.

This is certainly better evidence, though not necessarily conclusive because the identical passage is too short to be clearly beyond the ability of a person to recreate. The “numberless concourses” phrase is not absolutely unique to these two verses, as it is found also in 1 Nephi 8:21 in a different context. While the phrase of “attitude of singing and praising their God” is unique to these two passages, the conceptual rendition of singing and praising is not an unusual representation of an idea. Thus once again, the evidence best suggests a relationship between the plates and the modern text, but not necessarily a tight control over the English words used to create the modern text.

However the text was rendered, it is also abundantly clear that the conceptual relationship of the words to the text of the plates was one that was not constrained by a tight relationship, as the editorial process of the English text indicates. Were there a tight control between plates and modern text, one might assume that such a control would be required and sacralized to the point of not allowing changes. This is clearly not the case, and the editor(s) felt quite free to make reasonable changes for the clarity of reading, as even Skousen notes (Skousen p. 84.)

Skousen’s third argument for tight control rests on the alteration of a non-standard “if>and” into a standard “if>then” construction:

“One of the interesting complexities of the original English-language text of the Book of Mormon is that it contains expressions that appear to be uncharacteristic of English in all of its dialects and historical stages. These structures also support the notion that Joseph Smith” translation is a literal one and not simply a reflection of either his own dialect or the style of early modern English found in the King James Version of the Bible.

For instance, in the original text of the Book of Mormon we find a number of occurrences of a Hebrew-like conditional clause. In English, we have conditional clauses like “if you come, then I will come.” With then being optional. In Hebrew this same clause is expressed as “if you come and I will come.” In the original text of the Book of Mormon, there were at least fourteen occurrences of this non-English expression.” (Skousen, p. 88.)

For this evidence to hold for a close translation, it would certainly mean a direct connection to the text of the plates, as it hinges upon the word “and.” Not only is this an awkward construction in English, but the focus of the conditional clause on a rather simple conjunction would mean that the translator was closely working with an underlying script that produced grammatical structures in variance with their usual translation.

The biggest problem for Skousen’s analysis is that while the if>and construction might be non-standard, and is certainly rare, it is not unattested in the writings of Joseph Smith (though it does appear only in the earlier writings, and disappears later.)

<1833> Dec.18 “… behold he is blessed of the Lord for his constancy [p. 32] and steadfastness in the work of the Lord wherefore he shall be blessed in his generation and they shall never be cut off and he shall be helped out of many troubles and if he keep the command=ments and harken unto the <council of the> Lord his and [and] his rest shall be glorious.” (The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 23 – 25)

The phrasing here is somewhat awkward, but the final phrase is clearly a conditional, and in the location of the expected then we have “and.” Certainly this is a rare occurrence in the extant writings, but the simple attestation indicates that it was not unknown, and secondly, that it might perhaps have been an older construction that Joseph learned to correct later.

The internal evidence from the manuscript shows that there is a probable connection between the plates and the English text where the same citation shows in two different places. This supports a connection to the plate text, but not necessarily a tight control over the English words used to reflect that plate text. Even more interesting from a methodological standpoint is the contrast between the foundational argument for tight control based on the spelling of names and Skousen’s argument for an archaic grammatical structure.

As noted above, the control over the spelling of names appears to be correct, but cannot be demonstrably related to a tight control over the text from the plates (the counter example being the spelling of Nephi, as noted). The argument for an archaic grammatical structure, however, depends upon a tight connection between the plate text and the English text. Thus Skousen’s arguments themselves propose two different types of “control” ranging from a control from the plate text to a control over the English representation of the text.

Both of these types of control find counter examples when the Isaiah texts in the Book of Mormon are examined.

The evidence of the Isaiah variants

The location where we have the best textual control over the translation method is in the variations found in the Isaiah passages in the Book of Mormon. In these texts we have not only an English potential source in the KJV, but we also have a section where the ultimate original is known to have been Hebrew (though the script of the brass plates required a knowledge of the language of the Egyptians to read – Mosiah 1:4). Additionally, there is a documentary trail of textual variants against which we might make comparisons. The Isaiah variants therefore present an excellent opportunity to examine the nature of the translation method.

The important beginning point is: “the base text for the Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon is indeed the King James Version of the Bible.” (Skousen, Royal. “Textual Variants in the Isaiah Quotations.” In: Isaiah in the Book of Mormon. FARMS, 1998, p. 373.) Basing some of his conclusions on the work of his student, Andrew Stewart, Skousen notes: “he then compared those readings with the Book of Mormon text. Not surprisingly, in every case except one Stewart found that the Book of Mormon agreed with the unique readings in the King James Version.”(Skousen, 1998, p. 376.)

Above and beyond this noted correspondence, he also finds that “the original Book of Mormon text is closer to the King James Version.” (Skousen, 1998, p. 378.) To what extent was the King James Version (KJV) the basis for the changes rather than an artifact of convenience in translating?

The answer to this question comes on several different grounds. The first evidence for the source of the Book of Mormon text is subtle, because it deals not in the variants in the KJV, but rather in those places were there is no variation but perhaps should be. The KJV provides not only an archaic form of English, but at times a less than accurate representation of the intent of the manuscripts:

“Another manifestation of the BM Isaiah’s roots in the KJV is its preservation of numerous errors and defects of that translation. The following is a list of readings, found in the BM, where the KJV is clearly or very likely wrong…The description of the following cases is abbreviated, with just enough information to point out the difficulties in the KJV. Readers may refer to the modern versions, commentaries, and dictionaries for sample translations, discussion, and documentation.


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