Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What We Need to Know About Translation – Part III

Continuing from the last post regarding how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, and the language known to him at the time as recorded in Noah Webster’s 1828 “American Dictionary of the English Language,” we find that certain words as we understand them today had different or clearer meanings in 1829 when Joseph accomplished the translation, and is the key to understanding the Book of Mormon language.

As an example, understanding certain words as used by Mesoamerican or Great Lakes/Heartland theorists are quite simple when comparing them to Joseph’s language of his day, rather than trying to complicate matters by trying to see what such words meant in ancient Hebrew, for the Lord speaks to us in our language for our understanding—and that language in Joseph Smith’s time was well understood.

Take the word “sea.” It matters little what the ancient Hebrew word “yam” meant because 1) the record was not written in Hebrew but reformed Egyptian, and 2) Joseph knew only the word as the Spirit directed him to know, and he used the English equivalent in the translation, and 3) the Spirit verified the word, or it was to be re-translated into another word (see last post).

• SEA. Thus, the word “sea” in Joseph’s language meant “Ocean; a large body of water that is a branch of the ocean and upon the same level.” Webster also wrote: “Large bodies of water inland, and situated above the level of the ocean are lakes.” Thus, we cannot try and make Joseph’s word “sea” as used in the translation into something else like a lake, no matter how large it might be—such as Lake Erie. This means that 2 Nephi 10:20, could just as easily be translated as “The Lord has made the ocean our path, and we are upon an isle in the midst of the ocean.”

• ISLE. The word “isle.” This means “a tract of land surrounded by water, embosomed in the ocean, lake or river.” Embosomed means “enclosed or surrounded,” thus an “isle surrounded by water.” Webster also says that the word “island” is: “an absurd compound of isle and land—“land-in-water land,” or “ieland-land.” Naturally, we see why Joseph used “isle,” when today we would use “island,” for the word “island” was simply not an appropriate word in Joseph’s time. Thus, we could say “The Lord has made the ocean our path, and we are upon an isle surrounded by the ocean.”

• WILDERNESS. The word “wilderness” means “a tract of land uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings.” Also, “In America, the term ‘wilderness’ is only applied to forests.” Thus we see that when Mormon describes a “narrow strip of wilderness” (which was divided from the land of Zarahemla by a narrow strip of wilderness, which ran from the sea east even to the sea west, and round about on the borders of the seashore) between the Land of Nephi and the Land of Zarahemla (Alma 22:27), it does not necessarily mean a mountainous area—it could have been a flat plain, desert, or forest. Obviously, when that narrow strip reached the seashore, it was not mountainous.

• SEASHORE. The word “seashore” literally means “shore of the sea,” and is defined as “the coast of the sea—the land that lies adjacent to the ocean.” Thus, again, we cannot say that “they were spread through the wilderness on the west, in the land of Nephi; yea, and also on the west of the land of Zarahemla, in the borders by the seashore” (Alma 22:28), means that they were along Lake Erie or some other inland waterway—but adjacent to the ocean. Nor can we say that “in the place of their fathers' first inheritance, and thus bordering along by the seashore.” (Alma 22:28) means that the area of First Inheritance was on a lake shore, such as Lake Erie, but rather it was adjacent to an ocean.

• LAKE. The word “lake” means a “large and extensive collection of water contained in a cavity or hollow of the earth—it differs from a pond in size.” Webster also goes on to say “North America contains some of the largest lakes on the globe, particularly the lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior.” Thus, it would be impossible to say that the West Sea was Lake Erie as the Great Lakes’ theorists do, for Joseph knew the different between a sea (ocean) and a lake, for the Great Lakes were well known in New England in 1829.

• UP. The word “up” as used today can mean up in elevation or up the block or in a northerly direction as "up to Salt Lake" from Cedar City (which is actually downward in elevation). But as used in the record “they would go up to battle against their enemies” (Mormon 3:10), referring to going up to the Land of Nephi to battle the Lamanites in their own land, is defined In Joseph's day as “in a state of climbing or ascending, such as in ‘we went up to the city or town’ which was at a higher elevation.”

• DOWN. The word “down” as used in the record “the Lamanites were coming down to battle against them” (Alma 51:13), referring to the Lamanites coming down from the Land of Nephi to battle the Nephites in the Land of Zarahemla is defined as “From a higher to a lower place; a descending direction.”

Since Noah Webster gave us an inspired dictionary of the meaning of words in New England in Joseph's day, it seems that before someone wants to tell us what a word or phrase means in the scriptural record, they ought to make sure what the words meant to Joseph Smith when he used them to translate the unknown reformed Egyptian into English.

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