It seems like the Prophet Joseph Smith used various helps in translating the Book of Mormon (and other ancient texts), such as the Urim and Thummim, the seer stone, and of course, the Holy Ghost. It has been suggested that he employed a hat to block of the light so he could better see the words that appeared on the stone (see, “Joseph the Seer,” October 2015 Ensign, by Richard E. Turley Jr., Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, Robin S. Jensen and Mark Ashurst-McGee, Church History Department).
During the translation process, one phrase, or part thereof, would appear at a time. These words were dictated by the Prophet and when the scribe finished writing them, Joseph would ask that these be read back to him to assure accuracy. At that point those words would fade, and a new sentence would appear.
Some have mocked the Prophet, for his use of the Urim and Thummim and of the seer stone in translation. The Lord gave the Nephites of old the Liahona, which functioned in a similar fashion, according to the faith of those who used it, in order to point the way. Seers of old also used interpreters during Biblical times.
For me, there is nothing more logical than the use of such instruments in order to translate a language with different characters. This is especially so for those who do not understand that language. We know that eventually the Prophet did not need to lean on such instruments as he had the gift of tongues.
I have been working on my Biblical Hebrew for quite some time, but I have multiple tools upon which to lean. Beside language dictionaries and lexicons, I also make use of interlinears and compare existing translations into both English and Spanish.
I have several electronic programs, including Logos Bible Software (from FaithLife, since 2006) and more recently, Accordance
Many of us have probably attempted some computer-generated translation of a passage in another language through our computers. Many of these translations, of course, are somewhat comical. Sometimes I read English texts that have been machine-translated into Spanish and when they do not make any sense, I have to translate the word in question back to English and try an attempt to find what the original meaning might have been. In contrast, the translations of the Prophet Joseph Smith through the seer stone were reliable.
Electronic translations, as well as those through the seer stone, seem to be more literal, that is, they preserve the way people speak in the original language. Two common examples of Hebraic constructions are the use of “rod of Iron” rather than the more natural sounding “iron rod.”
The other is “and it came to pass,” where five words are utilized to translate a single word in Hebrew: וַיְהִי, pronounced vayehi. The Prophet Joseph Smith translated this last expression literally, with all five required words to give the English equivalent, “And it came to pass.”
In my Biblical Hebrew class this Friday, my professor indicated that while the Bible translates it in a literal fashion at times, that a simple “and” will often suffice without the need for the full expression. I prefer the literal approach of the Book of Mormon.
I am so grateful for the more literal translation for several reasons. One of them is that we can delight in the way of speaking of our Book of Mormon forefathers. I also prefer literal translations because they permit us to interpret the material instead of having it interpreted for us—which is particularly important in the translation of the Bible.
It is quite fascinating that some of the Hebraic expressions in the first edition of the Book of Mormon have been smoothed into a more natural English language over time. Even so, there are numerous instances of Hebraic utterances in the Book of Mormon which attest to the antiquity of the book as translated from an ancient tongue as was reformed Egyptian.
Just as we lean on technology today in order to translate texts, why should it be a strange thing for the Prophet Joseph Smith to lean on the technology that the Lord made available to him?
I testify with all of my heart, that the Book of Mormon is true and that it testifies of the divinity of Jesus Christ and of the Restored Church.
Photo credit: The Joseph Smith Papers.