Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Critical Text Project or Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: An Interesting Comparison - PtII

Continuing with more of our reader’s comments and our responses, and information about Royal Skousen’s project and Webster’s monumental dictionary. 
    Reader Comment: “Joseph called the process "translation," but it would be better described in our current vocabulary as "transmission."
Transmission means to pass on from one source to another, which is not what the Lord told Oliver Cowdery about what Joseph was doing (D&C 9:8)
    Response: The word “transmission” means to transmit something, i.e., to transmit from one person to another, such as to transmit dispatches (in Joseph’s day) to “transmit power over lines” (in our day). Neither definition would be correct. This was not merely a matter of God putting words into Joseph’s mind and Joseph speaking them, otherwise what the Lord told Oliver Cowdery about how the plates were translated is, again, a lie, and therefore shows the inaccuracy of that idea.
    On the other hand to translate means to translate words or text from one language into another, i.e., to bring about a change from one form to a different form, which is exactly what was done, from Reformed Egyptian into English, after “studying it out in your own mind.” In Joseph’s day it meant to interpret; to express the sense of one language in the words of another; to explain.”
    Exactly how the translation was done has not been fully revealed to us. Martin Harris’ description concurs with that of David Whitmer, who wrote: “I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.”
    In addition to such a description, made by someone not actually seeing of which he spoke, we need to add the words of the Lord in describing to Oliver Cowdery how the interpretation took place. It might be suggested, then, that as the spiritual light appeared and showed the parchment, we do not know what was on the parchment, whether or not the actual words of the Reformed Egyptian or what, but Joseph had to have figured out what he saw in his own mind and inquired of the Lord—this was not just reading it to himself and then asking if that was correct—he had to figure something out in his own mind, or the Lord’s comments to Oliver Cowdery are not correct. And frankly, and we should not overlook this very simple but important fact, Royal Skousen does not know the answer to that, either, short of receiving a new and conflicting revelation regarding the matter.
    Reader Comment: “The Webster story and history are certainly compelling, but they are not the be-all end-all. As I stated in my last post, it is one of the important tools, but it doesn't stand alone.”
    Response: We have already covered that the Lord speaks to man in his own language; that Joseph Smith had to figure it out in his own mind before having acknowledgement it was correct; that the Lord said to Oliver that he could not just sit back and ask what something means and get a “free” translation. Now, the language Joseph knew was the language the Lord spoke to him in and he used that language as every linguist who has studied the writing of the Book of Moron has agreed—early 19th century English of the New England area—which was the language of Joseph Smith and his time. So a dictionary giving us the definitions of his time and his language, at least to me, carries a huge portion of the be-all end-all. And the fact that the 1828 dictionary was the work of more than 20 years, bringing it into publication the year before the translation work began, seals the case for me.
    Reader Comment: “I would suggest that anyone who conducts Book of Mormon research, or engages in BOM research commentary, familiarize him-herself with the critical text project and its findings. Failure to do so means that any and all conclusions are simply based on incomplete data and possibly false assumptions.”
    Response: So far, the burden of proof rests within the Webster dictionary, not the Critical Text Project. However, for the benefit of our readers who may not know of Royal Skousen's work, we will cover the Critical Text Project more fully and give more in-depth understanding of Webster and his dictionary and its place in this discussion over the next few posts.
Now, for more on the project and its comparison to Webster’s dictionary, let us look into what exactly is the Critical Text Project. It was begun by the nephew of Willard Cleon Skousen (left), a former FBI agent and a well-known prolific conservative writer of political and LDS Church literature and scripture dating back his The Naked Communist in 1958 and Communist Goals in 1963. His first book, The First Two Thousand Years, 1953, on the Old Testament, was the book and writing that got me interested in Church literature and led to a very extensive library on the subject over time.
    Cleon’s nephew, Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics and English at BYU, where he is the founder and editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, and is considered there to be the leading expert on the textual history of the Book of Mormon (ie., according to Royal Skousen, The Book of Mormon, The Earliest Text, as translated by Joseph Smith and edited by Royal Skousen, Yale University Press, 2009). He is also the founder of the analogical modeling approach to language modeling.
    It should be kept in mind that in Skousen’s work, he discusses the nature of the original text as suggested by his overall Critical Text Project. In other words, he has created the program and then tells us what it means. In this, he may be right; on the other hand, it may be wrong, since there is no other source, authority, or researcher in this work to compare his work against, nor are the original Book of Mormon scribal writings he had access to at BYU available to anyone else without difficulty in obtaining them. From the point of his view, Skousen wrote in Volume 4, page 98, “Although I myself believe that “Joseph actually saw words of English it is also possible that the English-language that he saw was in his mind’s eye rather than literally in the physical instruments. Under either interpretations the term “original text” refers to the English-language that Joseph received by revelation, but not necessarily to what Joseph dictated or what his scribes wrote down.”
    As I read this, Skousen is giving himself an escape route in his work, by telling us that “yes, Joseph Smith received the correct words by revelation, and that they were written down for him in English; however, he may not have stated them correctly, or his scribes may not have written them down correctly.” Unfortunately, in trying to accept Skousen’s work, we are left with two problems: 1) The scribes have repeatedly said that when Joseph spoke the words he saw, the scribe wrote them down, then repeated them aloud. And if they were correct they disappeared and new words appeared; however, if they were incorrect, they remained until corrected.
Emma Smith acted as Scribe for Joseph during some of the early period of his translating after Martin Harris lost the 116 pages
    2) Emma Smith, in her own words describing the scribal work she did for Joseph, stated that he dictated the translation to her word for word, spelled out the proper names, and would correct her scribal errors even though he could not see what she had written.”
    Taken as a whole, these two statements (shown by revelation and knew what she had written) show that Joseph Smith and the Spirit governing the revelation of interpretation, would catch any error being made that was not superficial (spelling of common words and grammar used).
    This, then, erases Skousen’s escape route and makes it superfluous to have stated in the first place.
(See the next post, “The Critical Text Project or Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: An Interesting Comparison-PtIII,” for more of the reader’s comments and our responses, and information about Royal Skousen’s project and Webster’s critically important and monumental dictionary)


  1. I am not following your concerns about this very well. I saw 3 youtube videos of Royal explaining his project and it was quite interesting. Even the quotes you give here give the impression that Joseph was not looking at the plates and translating them after studying them out in his mind-- but rather was being given the translation. My thinking, which of course could be wrong, is that a certain Spirit or Spirits were translating the record and giving the translation to Joseph, who also had to study out in his mind to some degree before getting it. And even though they tried hard to be careful and repeat back what he gave them, his scribes as humans still had minor errors creep into the work they were doing-- and the Spirit allowed it to some degree because humans ALWAYS do things imperfectly. Skousen never claims revelation, just that he did the best he could do using the academic methods he was an expert in. Maybe he never thought much about the reason that the 1828 Webster's edition should be used to best define BoM words. We should ask him what he thinks about this.

  2. There are several more parts of this series of posts. One cannot write everything in one or two paragraphs, or even one or two pages--Skousen's articles and discussion take over a thousand pages, so bare with it. As to Joseph's translation, most of the time the plates were not even in the same room; and when they were, they were covered. The testimony of his several scribes all agree as to how this was done, which is what I have written and am writing in this series of articles. In whatever way the sequence flowed, the information appeared and Joseph studied it out in his mind, it was spoken by him, written by the scribe, read back by the scribe and if the information was correct, the writing disappeared from view upon the seer stone; but if incorrect, it remained until corrected. Personally, I cannot conceive of the Spirit, or God, accepting wrong information to be allowed into the translation that would have altered the meaning of the writing being translated, but then this is explained more as these posts continue. Also, as written in the next post, as appeared today, God speaks to man in his own language--the language of Joseph Smith's time was somewhat different in certain ways than that of today, especially in spelling and grammar.