Tuesday, April 26, 2016

An Interesting Thing About Translation – Part I

There are so many attempts by theorists and scholars who want to explain away the simple translation of the scriptural record of the Book of Mormon that perhaps we might want to take a look at the difference between normal translation and that accomplished by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon.
The Popol Vuh, the so-called Quiche Mayan book of creation and the Dawn of Life and the glories of Gods and Kings. Originally written in Mayan, it begins with the deeds of Mayan gods in the darkness of a primeval sea and ends with the radiant splendor of the Mayan lords who founded the Quiché kingdom in the Guatemalan highlands
    First, let’s take a look at normal translation. As an example, and strictly for the sake of this illustration, let’s say the Book of Mormon was merely a sectarian work someone found of an ancient people, such as those found in Mesoamerica, like the Popol Vul, the Mesoamerican corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic K’iche’ kingdom in Guatemala’s western highlands, written between 1554 and 1558, though it is questionably credited to be of the pre-Classic period, around 300 B.C.
(The following is basically a description of a Mesoamericanist regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon; however, we will deal with that later, since the premise is inaccurate—but for the sake of this discussion, we will use their descriptive argument to show the problem with normal translation)
    First, it would be important to remember that the book is not an ancient text–it’s a nineteenth-century translation of an ancient text. When we, as modern readers, read texts from ancient or foreign cultures, we often misunderstand what the ancient or foreign author was attempting to convey. Some of the things that seem “plain” to us are not so “plain” upon further investigation or once we understand the culture that produced the text.
    Words only have meaning as they relate to the social system of the speakers of a language. The same word can mean different things according to the era, language, and culture. One Hebrew word, for instance, can mean ram, deer, ibex, or mountain goat depending on the dialect and differing ecological zone. Similarly, the Hebrew word parash can mean “horse” as well as a human “horseman” depending on context. Even in English we can “catch” a nap as well as “catch” a fish or "catch" a cold–but the word “catch” means something different in each example. Most languages have words that can have multiple meanings depending on context. Our English “brother,” for example, can mean older brother, younger brother, male member in our Church, or a modern colloquialism for comrade or friend.
    To exacerbate the problem is the fact that all languages have certain words that are “untranslatable,” i.e., an untranslatable word has “no one-to-one equivalence between the word, expression or turn of phrase in the source language and another word, expression or turn of phrase in the target language.” For example, in Japanese there is no single word for “brother” or for “sister.” Instead there are words for “elder brother,” “younger brother,” “elder sister,” and “younger sister.” Imagine trying to translate the “brother of Jared” into Japanese–was he the older or younger brother?
    As a reader interacts with a text, he automatically and unconsciously conjures mental pictures based on his own culture and experiences. This is called recontextualization. When a text is written in a different culture or in a different era, our mental images may not accurately reflect what the original author had intended to portray. In Alma 11:1-20, for example, we read of a Nephite proto-monetary system with exchanges for differing weights of pieces of metal. According to more than a few modern readers, the “plain” reading suggests that the Nephites had coins. Several decades ago, the Church began to add notes, cross-references, and chapter headings to the Book of Mormon text. To modern readers it seemed obvious that Alma 11 was describing coins, so the chapter heading including a note that this chapter detailed a system of “Nephite coinage.” The Book of Mormon text, however, never mentions coins and recent Book of Mormon editions have corrected the chapter heading to read “Nephite monetary system.”
Did Zeezrom offer Amulek six onties of silver, or did he offer six onties worth of measures of grain—just because coins have not been found in Mesoamerica does not mean the Nephites did not have coins of some type
    Zeezrom, in a show of confidence and to win over the crowd offered Amulek six onties of silver—while Mesoamerican theorists want us to believe this was not six coins, but rather measures of wheat or some grain, it makes little sense that Zeezrom would have had on his person such an offer to warrant the words “Behold, here are six onties of silver.”
(As an interjectory note, it should be noted here that there is no justification of the modern belief among especially Mesoamerican scholars, that the actual scriptural record doesn’t suggest that the Nephites had coins—when Zeezrom said to Amulek “Behold, here are six onties of silver, and all these will I give thee if thou wilt deny the existence of a Supreme Being” (Alma 11:22). The term “Behold, here are” denotes their actual existence, which should suggest some type of coinage, for in no way could Zeezrom have been carrying sacks of grain or six lumps of gold in his pocket for this was a sizable amount of money, meant to tempt Amulek and also to impress the crowd to whom Zeezrom was playing; however, this is another issue to be dealt with later).
    Once we recognize that words don’t always easily translate from one language to another, and once we understand that not all languages delineate categories in the same way as English-speaking people, we find that there are at least two possible resolutions to the “horse” problem in the Book of Mormon: (1) definitions were expanded to include new meanings and (2) horses were present but their remains have not been found.
1. Definitions were Expanded to Include New Meanings. In the Bible the Hebrew word for “horse” is sus and means “leaping,” but it can also refer to the rapid flight of swallows and cranes. Typically our English Bibles translate the word “sus” as “horse,” but twice it is translated as “crane,” and twice as “horseback”–referring to a rider. 
(For accuracy sake, the Hebrew word sus is considered of foreign origin and not actually Herbew in its meaning of “horses” and is translated as horses 100 times, horse 32, horseman
2, horseback 1, and possessive (horse’s or horses’) 3 times. Sus in Hebrew more literally means “exult,” “rejoice,” “delight,” “glad,” “rejoice greatly.”)
The Book of Mormon uses the term "reformed Egyptian" in only one verse, Mormon 9:32, which says that "the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, [were] handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech" and that "none other people knoweth our language.” It also might be of interest to know that both Hieratic and Demotic are consider by some as ancient shorthand versions of Egyptian Hieroglyphics
     The Book of Mormon authors tell us that their written language, reformed Egyptian, was different than their spoken language. The Nephites would have liked to have written in Hebrew but they used reformed Egyptian instead because it took up less space on the plates (Mormon 9:32-33). Reformed Egyptian was probably a more compact script than Hebrew and it’s possible that it also consisted of a more limited vocabulary. Moroni tells us that if they could have written in Hebrew instead of reformed Egyptian there would have been fewer mistakes. Maybe he understood that at least some reformed Egyptian characters only approximated a concept. As we investigate the Book of Mormon text, we discover that, indeed, reformed Egyptian appears to have had a very limited vocabulary.
(As another interjectory note, this obviously places an extreme burden on the translator to know and understand what he is translating, as we will point out later Joseph Smith had help in this process that would not have been available with any normal translation)
    LDS researcher Benjamin McGuire has noted that while the Book of Mormon is roughly 270,000 words long, it has a vocabulary of only about 5,500 words. If we compare this to contemporary books of Joseph Smith’s day we find that Warren Ramsey’s The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution had roughly as many words as the Book of Mormon but had a vocabulary 2.5 times greater than the Book of Mormon. Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days has only 1/3 as many words as the Book of Mormon, but has a vocabulary nearly 25% larger. Solomon Spalding wrote a novel that some critics claim was the original source for the Book of Mormon. That claim has been soundly refuted, but it’s interesting that Spalding’s manuscript is just under 15% the length of the Book of Mormon, but it has about the same sized vocabulary. The limited Book of Mormon vocabulary becomes even smaller when we remove the unique Book of Mormon names.
Some might suggest that the Book of Mormon’s vocabulary was limited because Joseph Smith’s vocabulary was limited. The evidence, however, contradicts such a theory. In the Book of Mormon, for example, we find a single word for a moving body of water–a “river.” In the D&;C, however, Joseph Smith uses “river,” “stream,” “rill,” and “brook.” Critics frequently claim that Joseph copied the language of the Bible when translating the Book of Mormon. The Bible, however, contains not only “river,” but descriptors such as “stream,” “creek,” and “brook”–none of which are in the Book of Mormon. Reformed Egyptian’s apparently limited vocabulary had only a single word for all moving bodies of water.
(See the next post, “An Interesting Thing About Translation – Part II,” for a better understanding between normal translation and that accomplished by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon—the difference, though seemingly lost on the theorists make all the difference in the world in understanding the translation and accuracy of the Book of Mormon)


  1. Some of these big book writers amaze me. Surely a "senine of gold" given for work done is talking about something made of gold and used as money. But don't you think since the word "coins" is not used, they may be different than our experience with coins? Possibly they had no markings on them, but were recognized by shape, size, and material. We must not assume things that the book does not say, but on the other hand we often can make reasonable conclusions beyond what it says.

  2. I started to answer this and the answer became so lengthy, it will appear in a separate article shortly.