Monday, October 24, 2011

What We Need to Know About Translation – Part II

Continuing from the last post regarding how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, B. H. Roberts said that “it should not be supposed that this translation, though accomplished by means of the Interpreters and Seer Stone, was merely a mechanical procedure; that no faith, or mental or spiritual effort was required on the Prophet's part; that the instruments did all, while he who used them did nothing but look and repeat mechanically what he saw there reflected. It required the utmost concentration of mental and spiritual force possessed by the Prophet, in order to exercise the gift of translation through the means of the sacred instruments provided for that work.”

Regarding this, David Whitmer said: "At times when brother Joseph would attempt to translate he would look into the hat in which the stone was placed to exclude the light, he found he was spiritually blind and could not translate. He told us that his mind dwelt too much on earthly things, and various causes would make him incapable of proceeding with the translation. When in this condition he would go out and pray, and when he became sufficiently humble before God, he could then proceed with the translation. Now we see how very strict the Lord is, and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in his sight before he can receive revelation from him."

Thus, we can understand that any attempt by scholars and theorists to conclude that what is written in the Book of Mormon is in error, is not interpreted correctly, is in a language other than what we use today (that is, in era of 1829 when translated and the local in which it was translated), or meant something entirely different than what we know and understand is completely without merit.

It would do well for those scholars who like to claim certain statements were only political, that had meaning then but not now, that the scriptures were merely a text written by scribes, etc., or that original Hebrew meanings must be understood today, to take into account who wrote the various books of the Book of Mormon, under what condition they were written, who translated the writings, and under what conditions that translation took place. To try and alter those sacred writings to agree with personal views, or to detract from the purpose and intent of the writing, or to suggest the writers were satisfying a personal, narrow view of their land of promise is, again, totally without merit.

There can be no doubt, either, that the interpretation thus obtained was expressed in such language as the Prophet could command, in such phraseology as he was master of and common to the time and locality where he lived; modified, of course, by the application of that phraseology to facts and ideas new to him in many respects, and above the ordinary level of the Prophet's thoughts and language, because of the inspiration of God that was upon him. This view of the translation of the Nephite record accounts for the fact that the Book of Mormon, though a translation of an ancient record, is, nevertheless, given in English idiom of the period and locality in which the Prophet lived; and in the faulty English, moreover, both as to composition, phraseology, and grammar, of a person of Joseph Smith's limited education; and also accounts for the general sameness of phraseology and literary style which runs through the whole translated volume.

This, then leaves us to understand the language known to Joseph Smith in 1829, when he translated the record. What language was that? It was the English language of New England as spoken by Americans of the day. So when Joseph used a word, it is important that we understand what that word meant to him at that time, not what it means to us 181 years later, or might have meant thousands of years earlier.

And it is very fortunate for us that the language of his day was recorded in an “American Dictionary of the English Language” published by Noah Webster in 1828. Webster, who claimed inspiration guiding him in his work, grew up about 112 miles from where Joseph Smith grew up in New England. As Webster, who had mastered ten languages, put it, “the keynote of this work is the identification of an American language as distinct from that of England.” He also said that “the New England style of pronunciation was preferred by Americans, and that the daily language of the yeomanry, or common man, was the preferred manner of speech.

Thus, it can be seen, that an understanding of Webster’s dictionary of the American language in 1828 is a fundamental requirement in the interpretation or understanding of the words Joseph used in his translation.

(See the next post, “What We Need to Know About Translation – Part III,” for the final segment on the meaning of the worlds known to Joseph at the time of translation)

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