Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Translating Reformed Egyptian into 1820s English

We received an interesting comment from evidently a one-time reader named “Bill,” who evidently thought he knew enough to comment on one of our blog pages he must have stumbled on since his response is dated January 7, 2016, and the article he is responding to was dated Monday, October 4, 2010, “Words in the Book of Mormon–Part I.” 
It is always interesting to find someone with very strong opinions who lacks knowledge of the subject they so strongly want to comment upon. He wrote:
    Comment: “Are you nuts? He translated the Book of Mormon as it was on the plates. He didn't use New England slang. Your post takes away from Joseph Smith being a prophet and God himself. I understand MesoAmerica theory no longer has a leg to stand. Give up, the promised land was here in this Nation, the United States. Go to and to get the Heartland model. You'll walk away from the MesoAmerica so fast your head will spin.” 
    That this might be of benefit to other readers, let us take these points one by one:
    1. Comment: “Are you nuts? He translated the Book of Mormon as it was on the plates…” 
    Response: Perhaps whether I’m nuts or not is debatable, but we need to keep in mind that translation, all translation other than a few brief words, is never a word-for-word process, but a meaning for meaning process.
As an example, if you were translating from Spanish to English, would you translate “Zapatero a trus zapatos,” i.e, “Shoemaker, to your shoes,” which is a word for word translation, but does not convey the meaning of “Stick to talking about things you know,” which is its meaning. Or, “En boca cerrada no entran moscas,” which translates to “flies don’t enter a closed mouth,” but such a translation would not be understood. It’s true meaning is: “sometimes it’s best to keep your mouth shut.” Or, “Ojo que no ve, Corazon que no siente,” which translates to “Eye that doesn’t see, heart that doesn’t feel,” but if you translated that, the meaning would be lost for the statement means: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
    Or take the Russian word “toska,” which can mean “boredom,” “nostalgia,” “yearning,” or “great spiritual anguish.” How do you choose? Or the Czech word, “Litost,” which simply does not have an English equivalent and translates to something like, “a state of agony and torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery.” Or the Scots word, “tartle,” which more or less means what someone does when introducing a person when they have forgotten their name.” And what about “Casser les oreilles,” in French which translates to “breaking the ears,” (a loud or harsh noise) or “C’est la fin des haricots,” which translates to “the end of the beans” (that’s the last straw), or “Donner sa langue au chat,” which translates to “give your tongue to the cat,” (give it a rest), or “Les carottes sont cuites,” which translates to “the carrots are cooked,” (meaning "the outcome cannot be changed").
In a Spanish ESL class recently, the phrase was given “a lo hecho, pecho,” and asked what it means. The answers from life-time Spanish speaking adult students ranged from: “What is done is done,” to “Take it like a man,” “face the consequences and don’t regret it,” “If you make a mistake, stick up your chest, raise the head and don’t lament,” “Bite the bullet,” etc. It is interesting that the German word “blaumachen,” (Blauer Montag) which translates literally to “to make blue,” means our equivalent of “Blue Monday,” from describing the day craftsmen had to wait around for their fabrics to dry after being dyed indigo and had nothing to do in the meantime, thus Monday’s were deemed as unproductive days. In fact, many linguists claim the English word “fair,” cannot be correctly translated into another language at all.
    If you were a regular reader here, you would know from numerous articles on the matter such things as God speaks to man in man’s own language: “for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3).
The point is, a translator cannot translate beyond his own knowledge, i.e., not being an advanced Math major, etc., I could not translate a book written by an Einstein in another language, even if I knew that language since I could not understand the words and meanings he had in mind. In addition, some words are such, that translation is not possible for lack of knowledge or understanding on the subject, hence, when translating Mormon’s description of the Nephite monetary system, Joseph Smith could only use the words Mormon used—he could not transliterate (convert) them into their English equivalent—as an example, how much in American money is a “limnah” of gold, or an “amnor” of silver? (Alma 11:5-19); nor could he come up with the equivalent name of an animal the reader would know and could only use Moroni’s words for two animals “which were useful unto man” like “cureloms” and “cumoms” (Ether 9:19); or exactly what kind of metal is “ziff” (Mosiah 11:3)? And just what kind of plants or grains are “neas” and “sheum” (Mosiah 9:9), certainly Joseph Smith did not know how to transliterate these words and had to use the original words from the record.
    As for translating the words that were on the plates, exactly how would he know Reformed Egyptian? He would not. Through the prompting of the spirit, he translated the Reformed Egyptian characters from the plates into English, which we read in our Book of Mormon. And what English did he use? 
    First of all, we never equated Joseph Smith’s language to “New England slang.” Slang, as defined, means: “a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.” Slang is also not considered “part of standard vocabulary.” Joseph Smith did not use slang to my knowledge anymore than we find any slang words in the scriptural record. What he used was the language with which he was familiar, and that would have been the language of his locale—the New England area. He also used language of “thee” and “thou” because he felt it was in keeping with the scriptural tone. As an example, when I teach Sunday School or Priesthood classes, I use the language I know: English, as it is spoken in the Western United States (I have traveled to nearly every state in this country, and found that English is spoken quite different in various regions).
    2. Comment: “Your post takes away from Joseph Smith being a prophet and God himself."
It is not our blog that sets the parameters of God’s working through man, but God himself. Many people, including members, seem to think that all Joseph Smith did was sit back and the words appeared to him without any effort on his part.  However, translation takes spiritual effort, as well as mental and physical effort, in order to translate the sacred records of the Book of Mormon. As God told Oliver: “You Cannot Write That Which Is Sacred Save It Be Given You from Me” (D&C 9:9).
    Oliver Cowdery thought that all he needed to do in order to translate was to ask the Lord, but here he is told that he must also ‘study it out’ in his mind as well as to ask the Lord whether or not it is right. The Lord also gives Oliver a key so that he will know when the translation is right: his bosom shall burn within him.” Elder John A. Widtsoe wrote that Joseph Smith received revelation in different ways as he matured in his calling. At first his communications with the heavens were direct—visitations from God, His Son, and angels. Then he used the Urim and Thummim as a medium. Finally, “he learned to bring his mind into such harmony with divine forces that it became, as it were, itself a Urim and Thummim to him; and God’s will was revealed without the intervention of external aids” (Widtsoe, Joseph Smith, p. 267); however, he still had to direct all his efforts toward that effort. As God said to Oliver Cowdery, who wanted to translate and was given the chance and failed, that it took both physical and mental effort: “You must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right” (D&C 9:8).
    God, himself, has set the standard as to how we receive inspiration in order to carry out his Will. To follow that procedure and acknowledge that it is the path to success in translation does not take away from either Joseph Smith or God himself.
    3. Comment: “I understand MesoAmerica theory no longer has a leg to stand. You'll walk away from the MesoAmerica so fast your head will spin.” 
    Response: Obviously, you know little about this blog or myself since the past six years and nearly 2000 posts have shown to even the most cursory reader that we do not support in any way the Mesoamerica Theory for the Land of Promise location as written in the Book of Mormon. While I agree that Mesoamerica doesn’t have a leg to stand on, it certainly has more than the Heartland or Great Lakes, eastern U.S. theories.
    4. Comment: “Give up, the promised land was here in this Nation, the United States.” 
    Response: We have written repeatedly about the U.S. as the Nephite home written of in the scriptural record and shown where not a single physical topographical location matches the descriptions written about in the record Joseph Smith translated. It is not that people haven’t made an effort to match areas, but their failures are based upon the knowledge of the areas themselves and not people’s belief in them.
From the Great Lakes area and Western New York to the Plains of the Heartland, America is quite flat, with few hills and no real mountains “whose height is great,” yet Samuel the Lamanite spoke of the Land of Promise having mountains raised from valleys “whose height is great” 
    As an example, where are the mountains whose height is great? (Helaman 14:23). There are no mountains in Heartland U.S. or Great Lakes models. Where is the island Jacob speaks about? (2 Nephi 10:20). Where are the cureloms and cumoms?” (Ether 9:19), two animals if in North America Joseph Smith, a farmer, surely would have known about. And where are the two very important grains neas and sheum?” (Mosiah 9:9). Again, two grains of such importance that Joseph Smith, a farmer, would have known about. We could go on, but the point is the Heartland and eastern U.S. simply do not match the scriptural record!
    5. Go to and to get the Heartland model.”
    Parts of this information are correct, i.e., the Land of Promise overall extends to the entire Western Hemisphere, including the U.S., as many LDS Prophets and General Authorities have said over the years; however, it is simply not the location of the Jaredite, Nephite, Mulekite and Lamanite lands as written about in the Book of Mormon. That Nephite and Lamanite adventurers and immigrants left in Hagoth’s ships and sailed northward is without question (Alma 63:4-7).
    And, no, I will not walk away from Andean Peru as the home of the Nephtie nation since it is where the Book of Mormon events took place and we have spent six years on this blog and written four books to show in every scriptural record indication an exact match between this location and the scriptural record statements. Perhaps it might be advantagous for you to know more about that to which you address your comments than you seem to know at present.


  1. We all know from various sources.. that Joseph did not look upon the plates as the way to translate them. Most of the time they were in hiding someplace on the farm.. in the barn, in a barrel, under the hay, etc. We all know (I hope we all do) that Joseph in the beginning used a stone placed at the bottom of a hat and covering the light from entering the hat, could read the letters, words or whatever appeared on the stone as it lit up.

    We also know that at one time someone (I can not remember who) exchanged the stone that Joseph used with a different one.. and when Joseph tried to translate with it.. it did not work. I believe he exclaimed something to the effect that it was as dark as Egypt while looking into the hat. There is also the time when Joseph had an argument with Emma.. and tried to translate but couldn't. He then when and made up with Emma.. came back and the translation process began again.

    From those who had access to the original document of the Book of Mormon noticed many different things about it. One was that the words written on the paper seemed to be grouped in numbers of 5 to 8. They realized that at this time the words that appeared on the stone could have been 5 to 8 words long and Joseph would read those.. and then the next set would appear. And they could tell this due to the fact that there seemed to be a different spacing between the words at that point where a new set of words would appear.

    So there must be much more to this translation process than what Oliver had thought.. even though he was there for most of it.

    All I can say is that I am happy that Joseph accomplished the Lord's will and the Book of Mormon came forth. I have found a new way of reading it.. and that is to listen to it be read. I have retained more for some reason as I could listen to chapter after chapter after chapter... and not have tired eyes. :-)

  2. Good comment. I might add that another issue here is that Oliver Cowdery, like so many of us today, had his own ideas as to what was going on and how they were unfolding--when given the opportunity to translate, he neglected to rely upon the Lord's inspiration, but took off on his own, thinking he knew the right way to go (interpret) and found out he could not do so--it is the Lord that inspires us, not the other way around. Oliver learned that, but the question is, do we?