A number of years ago in my undergrad work at the University of Utah, I attended a small gathering of professors and students who there to meet and listen to a prominent Israeli poet. After the poet was done reading in Hebrew, the translator then read the English translation of the poem. This set off a heated debate about why the English version differed so much from the Hebrew version that it literally did not resemble the original Hebrew. The professors went back and fourth and no one ever really agreed on what the proper translation was.
How could a translation differ so much from the original text and still be called a translation? This is indeed the question that arises when talking about Joseph Smith and the translation that he made of the Book of Abraham, the Book of Mormon, and some New Testament passages. How could his translations differ so much from the original text?
In any translation, there are interpretations that have to be made. There is no such thing as an exact translation. The translator will have to make assumptions and judgment calls. These questions include some of the following:
- Should a literal or contextual translation prevail?
- From what culture is the text being translated?
- In what time period did the culture exist?
- What were the culture’s norms and values?
- Who is the audience?
- How is the audience supposed to interpret the translated material?
- What are the implications of a literal VS contextual translation?
These are serious questions to consider in any translation. For example, in the Hebrew Bible, the word “Elohim” is problematic from a translation point of view. According to the rules of Hebrew, it should be a plural masculine noun. However, this is not always the case and in fact, more often than not it is treated a singular masculine noun. The implications of this are huge. If in fact, ‘Elohim’ is translated as a plural masculine noun it changes the religion of two world religions(Christianity and Judaism) from monotheistic to polytheistic. God would not have created the earth. The Gods would have done it.
Most people today would translate the Spanish word “Adios” as “goodbye”. However, the actual word means “to God” and was originally used as a blessing. It derives from the old Spanish phrase “a dios vos acomiendo” which means “I commend you to God”. Why do we then translate it as “Goodbye?” This is because the audience in English does not express itself in the same way that Spanish speaking people do and it would not convey the same meaning. English Culture is different and therefore contextual meaning is important in translation.
Joseph Smith’s use of the word translate took into account the above questions. The only difference is that he did not have knowledge of ancient languages and culture. At best he had a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew, Egyptian and Greek languages and cultures. Joseph Smith never claimed to have this scholarly knowledge. He always claimed that he translated by the gift and power of God.
When translating the gold plates of the Book of Mormon he never translated word for word. He translated by the use of a seer stone by looking at in a hat. Many times the plates were not with him but in another room. He never claimed to translate the Book of Abraham, New Testament passages, or the Book of Mormon by scholarly methods. He claimed it was by the gift and power of God. Orson Pratt explained
The prophet translated the part of these writings…thus you see one of the first gifts bestowed by the Lord for the benefit of His people, was that of revelation – the gift to translate by the aid of the Urim and Thummim, the gift of bringing to light old and ancient records – Journal of Discourses, 20:65
From the very beginning, the act of translation was viewed as revelation, not a scholarly work. It was a gift from God through the Urim and Thummim. In the 1828 version of Webster’s dictionary, the word ‘translate’ means to convey or to explain. I believe it was in this sense that Joseph Smith used the word translate. To convey the meaning of the revelation he received. Therefore, a translation of a text can be through revelation. That is the way it appears, that Joseph Smith used the word as well as his contemporaries.
The reason why the English version of the Hebrew poetry could differ so much from the original text is that the meaning was being conveyed. The spirit and essence of the poetry were conveyed to an English audience in terms they could understand. It matters little whether or not the original text resembled the translated text if the essence was conveyed properly. So too with Joseph Smith’s translations. He conveyed the essence and spirit of what the Lord wanted to be written. His use of the word translate should never be taken as a scholarly work. He translated by the gift and power of God.