Book of Mormon Translation Theory

Introduction to Book of Mormon Translation Theory

A Preface to Part Three of My Book or Mormon Translation Gospel Topics Essay Review

The last two posts about the translation of the Book of Mormon were building up to this moment where I review John-Charles Duffy's[1] review of the Church's Gospel Topics Essay about the translation of the Book of Mormon.

I was surprised that his essay focused mostly on the translation process and less on the translation tools. I feel like most of the controversy is surrounding the use of the Seer Stone. But in Duffy's essay he essentially says "Good job acknowledging the Seer Stone, but why didn't you talk more about the translation process." For those of you that, like myself, hadn't put much thought into that topic until now let me give you a quick overview of the theories for the translation process.

Mini Part 1

As I stated in part one[2] of this series, from what was in the Gospel Topics Essay, the only thing that felt like it contradicted what I learned growing up was the stuff about Seer Stone. Everything else was either perfectly consistent or seemed like new information that I had not heard about. Since I didn't really touch on translation theory I thought it might be good to talk about what I knew about translation theory before reading the Gospel Topics essay and Duffy's response essay.

The truth is I didn't know a lot about it before reading Duffy's essay. I didn't really think about it or consider any of the nuances to the translation process. After learning Spanish on my mission, I should have been more capable of thinking about it and formulating questions about it, but it wasn't anything I was curious about.

I guess my naive thought on the matter was that Joseph Smith would look through the Urim and Thummim and see the literal translation of each word on the plates and there wasn't much work to do in the translation process beyond just knowing the translation of a particular word. But anyone that has ever tried to use Google Translate, especially in the early days, knows that there are a lot more things to consider in a translation than just the literal translation of each word individually. But like I said, I had never really put that much thought into it.

I don't feel like the church ever made a big deal about it either. Mostly just the usual Urim & Thummim and "by the gift and power of God,"[3] and "it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon”[4], "study it out in your mind, then ask me if it be right, and if it is right... your bosom shall burn within you... but if it be not right... you shall have a stupor of thought" [5]

Consequently, I have always looked at translation theory[6] more as an interesting side study where the answers didn't really matter one way or the other. [7]

Most of the time that I have seen someone bring up translation theory it has been to help explain away an anachronism or a grammatical error. For example, the first time I ever heard of the different possible translation methods was when I started reading Brant Gardner's Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon As History which talked about understanding how the Book of Mormon was translated was key to understanding how a lot of it ought to be interpreted in order to extract geographical or historical significance from the book. And at the time, I thought that getting into that level of detail was pretty esoteric.

A Brief Overview

Before we get into it, one little caveat.

I don't have a lot of good sources for this, I haven't done a very in depth research into the topic yet, so all I have is what I've picked up while looking into the Seer Stone. If you are interested in learning more I would recommend the first few chapters of Brant Gardner's book, the last few chapters of By Means of the Urim & Thummim: Restoring Translation to the Restoration or Royal Skousen's work on this subject, I don't know where he published his model that we will be looking at but it ought to be easy enough to find. And I think for this level of introduction that should be sources enough.

So in the debate there are two different areas. One focuses on who translated the Book of Mormon and the other focuses on the translation ideology or paradigm used by whoever did the translation.

Who Translated the Book of Mormon?

Basically the two (faithful) opinions on this are

  1. Joseph Smith translated it by the gift and power of God.

  2. God translated it and revealed the translation to Joseph Smith.

Number 1 is how I had always envisioned it. I suppose I had never thought about the implication of that, but I think it still makes sense, or even makes more sense when you examine those implications.

Number 2 feels to me that Joseph Smith is less a translator and more an inspired first reader of the Book of Mormon. I don't necessarily have any issue with that. And to some extent I think this had to be part of the process.

This is where this Royal Skousen model comes in.

He proposed three levels of control that God had over the translation of the Book of Mormon: Tight Control, Iron-clad control, and Loose Control.

Tight control is like words would appear on the Seer Stone or Urim and Thummim and Joseph would read what was written.

Iron-clad control is like that but if it wasn't written by the scribe 100% exactly as Joseph saw it, then the old words would remain and new words wouldn't appear until the scribe had corrected the mistake.

I get the impression that he introduces the idea of Iron-clad control not because he thinks it's a viable theory, but because he thinks that most people, both critics and believers, usually think about it in this way and get uncomfortable or try and make people uncomfortable with the existence of grammatical or spelling errors in a divinely inspired text.

Lose control would be like Joseph Smith receiving an impression of the meaning of the text or the most literal translation of the text (ie my naive assumption) and it was up to him to determine how to put that impression into words that his audience would best understand. He would study it out in his mind and heart and if it would be correct his bosom would burn and he would know it was correct. If it was not correct he would have a stupor of thought.

This theory opens the door to all sorts of sub theories. If it were on a spectrum then the theories closer to tight control would include that God had kind of a target translation in mind and Joseph was studying out in his mind what that translation ought to be. On the other extreme we have that Joseph could be essentially quoting from books (whether the Bible or the works of Jonathan Edwards for example) that he was familiar [8] with that he felt like conveyed the meaning behind the text he was translating. Somewhere in the middle leaves room for Joseph's lexicon to slip in either consciously or subconsciously. For example if I was doing the translation it would not be inconceivable for me to, even by accident, throw in a reference to the Prince Bride just because I have seen it so many times that the phrases sometimes just slip out of my mouth even if they don't mean what I think they mean.

It is my understanding that the prevailing theory among mainstream church historians, (especially those that espouse the Seer Stone model) is that it was a tight controlled translation where English words would appear on the Seer Stone or the Urim & Thummim and Joseph would read those words and the scribe would write them down, and barring any scribal errors, errors when creating the printers manuscript, or errors when doing the typesetting, the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon is essentially what Joseph Smith saw on those stones.

It seems that a lot of the accounts that talk about the Seer Stone being used also talk about how they worked, and they often include descriptions of words appearing on the stone, and Joseph needing to put the stone in the hat in order to block out the light so he could see the words, much like trying to look at your smartphone screen on a particularly sunny day.

I think that the tight control theory goes hand in hand with the Seer Stone theory, I believe in large part because the same accounts back them up. I get the impression that the Urim and Thummim model works pretty well with either loose control or tight control.

If the tight control theory is correct then any fixes or changes to the 1830s text, made by Joseph Smith in his day, or by Church leadership in our day would therefore be attempts to get rid of any of those scribal errors and get the text back to as close to how they fell from Joseph Smith's mouth in 1829.

Loose control on the other hand might suggest that as Joseph Smith learned more about the English language or about the doctrine being taught in the Book or Mormon he might have made changes in the text to better reflect that increased understanding. I don't know what changes happened from the first edition in 1830 to the second edition in 1837 or the third edition in 1840 but it would be interesting to look at them through that lens and see if they look more like Joseph correcting things to bring that into harmony with how he first spoke the words or if they look like him becoming a better translator through time.

Of course there is nothing about loose control that would prevent the Book of Mormon from being essentially perfect after the first edition and the minor changes between versions were just Joseph trying to get them back to how he said it in the first place. But tight control would prohibit any modifications that weren't made in an effort to get closer to the original dictation.

I like the idea of loose control, I think that it does a good job of reconciling some of the criticisms that people make against the Book of Mormon translation, I also feel like it more closely aligns with my experience of how God works with his children, (giving instructions, but letting His children use their agency to figure out how best to follow those instructions) but I don't feel incredibly strongly one way or the other.

How was the Book of Mormon Translated

Next up, how was the Book of Mormon translated, or in other words, how closely does the translation match the original text and how do you define a close translation?

Formal vs Functional Equivalence

In translation theory there are two different kinds of equivalence, formal and functional. Formal is about preserving the exact wording of the original text and that sometimes comes at the cost of getting the full depth of meaning in the target language. Functional equivalence is trying to make the meaning of the text the same in both the source language and the target language even if that means using different wording than in the original text.

Here is a simple example:

Spanish Text: "A medida que el sol se esconde detrás de las montañas, el pueblo se sumerge en la quietud de la noche, mientras las estrellas comienzan a brillar en el cielo."

Formal Equivalent (Word-for-Word): "As the sun hides behind the mountains, the town plunges into the stillness of the night, while the stars start shining in the sky."

Functional Equivalent (Meaning-Based): "As the sun sets behind the mountains, the town becomes enveloped in the tranquility of the night, and the stars begin to sparkle in the sky."

Now imagine trying to translate a more complex thought like any sort of religious or spiritual teaching that is often hard enough to adequately express in the source language.

Take for example Alma 32 where Alma compares faith to a seed.

My wife this year leveled up her gardening skills and got some plants started from seed. She told me that it was really hard at first because she felt like an idiot going out every morning to water dirt. She had to keep reminding herself that there were seeds under that dirt, and she had to have faith that they were good seeds and that they hadn't already died. There were a lot of unknowns but she had to keep on watering or else she wouldn't know for sure, but as soon as they began to sprout, watering became more exciting. She still had to water, or else they would die. She said that the experience really gave her a new appreciation for the metaphor in Alma 32.

This introduces another complexity to the translation process. Not only do you have to consider how the readers of one language might understand something but also how readers of culture or background understand things. My wife speaks English but didn't fully understand the metaphor until she had the appropriate experiences to go along with it. Since she doesn't have a background in farming a lot of the deeper meanings of Alma's metaphor were lost on her. There could be an argument made, if the Book of Mormon was translated today, that in order to best communicate Alma's teaching about faith that a different metaphor would be best[9]. Would a comparison to using the Internet, better help those of our time understand the actual meaning of Alma's message, and if so would that deeper meaning be worth ditching the seed metaphor? Is it possible that that decision was made during the translation of the Book of Mormon? It seems likely that most of the people of Alma's time would have a lot more experience with farming than those of us on the other side of the industrial revolution, but also when talking about these poor people of Antionum it talks about not how they were working in the fields, but about how they had been the ones that crafted the synagogue with their own hands and yet were unable to worship inside. Could it be that these poor people were not farmers but rather builders? Could it be that Alma's original message compared faith to building a synagogue? Could it be that Joseph Smith or God decided that the people of Joseph Smith's time would understand Alma's message better with a farming metaphor? I'm guessing probably not, but who knows?

Deciding to switch out the metaphor is an example of a functional translation, the words might be completely different, but if it better saved the meaning of the original message, maybe that is more important that saving the original wording. But also maybe not, maybe the original wording is more important. It seems to be that a lot of people value the authentic version, word for word as close to the original as possible, and for them that seems to mean a more formal translation but who's to say that's how God thinks, or how people in the 1830s thought.

And that's only the tip of the iceberg.

When God or Joseph Smith sat down and tried to figure out how to translate the Book of Mormon they had to take a few things into account. Is this going to be a formal equivalence or a functional one? What kind of English is the Book or Mormon going to be translated into? American English? British English? Modern English, Not so Modern English, English that is prim and proper? English that is down to earth and approachable? Should it sound like the Bible, or should it sound like how normal people speak? How much are metaphors and cultural expressions and forms going to be kept and how much are they going to be exchanged for expressions and forms that are more meaningful to the target reader? Chiasmus are cool, but would a reader of Joseph Smith's time appreciate those, or would some other poetic structure resonate better with them and help them feel the intent of the author? Or regardless of the answer to that question, is it better to stay as true to the exact wording of the original text as possible even if it doesn't really make sense to the target audience? But isn't that the point of a translation to make the text make sense to the target audience? And unfortunately, since we don't have access to the original text, we have no idea how God or Joseph Smith's decision on this matter affected the translation besides any little hints that they left behind. And even then there are a lot of different ways to interpret hints.

So going back to Royal Skousen's model of Loose vs Tight control. If you ask control over what? A lot of the answer is going to be whether the Book of Mormon had a formal or a functional translation?

All together on a grid

Imagine these two questions on a grid. On one axis is how formal vs functional is the translation. On the other grid there is how much control did Joseph Smith have over the translation vs how much control did God have over the translation? I think that truth doesn't lie at a single point on that grid, I'm guessing it covers an area. I would imagine that at some points God had a pretty particular view for how the translation needed to be and so he helped guide Joseph to that very particular translation. I think that other times God trusted Joseph to make a good call on how to translate. So if Joseph felt like one way of phasing something would best convey the meaning then I'm guessing that God would let him do that. I'm guessing that at times a more formal equivalence was in order and other times a more functional equivalence was needed to really help convey the original intent of the message. That theory is made based purely off of gut feeling and my understanding of how God typically communicates with His children. I don't really know and I don't think we will ever really know until we can ask either Joseph Smith or God Himself.


  1. If you, like me, have never heard of John Charles Duffy before then you may want to read his bio that I pulled from The LDS Gospel Topics Series. "John Charles Duffy is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Miami University (Ohio), where he teaches courses on religion in U.S. History and culture. Duffy received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the coauthor of Mormonism: the Basics (Routledge, 2016) and has published articles on Mormon Intellectual and cultural history in several venues." ↩︎

  2. Book of Mormon Translation https://www.bendemann.com/2023/07/book-of-mormon-translation.html ↩︎

  3. End of the Testimony of Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon. It's not actually in the testimony of Joseph Smith, it's the part after just after where it says "For a more complete account, see Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price." ↩︎

  4. (“Minutes, Oct. 25–26, 1831,” in Minute Book 2, 13, josephsmithpapers.org). https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minutes-25-26-october-1831/4 ↩︎

  5. Doctrine and Covenants 9 ↩︎

  6. At least always since I started thinking about it ↩︎

  7. I mean, the Urim and Thummim vs Seer Stone debate answers also doesn't really matter that much (the people embroiled in that debate might think differently (Don't get me wrong, I have strong feelings about it, I really think it was just the Urim and Thummim, but I don't think that matters for your salvation)) but there seem to be faithful members on both sides of the debate so, whatever, but it does carry a certain level of controversy because the church seemed to have an official stance on it and then in recent years they have changed that official stance. But with the translation theory stuff that we are about to get into, I am not aware if the church has ever had an official stance on it. So it all feels like speculation and extra credit. ↩︎

  8. I think most of the witnesses agree that Joseph didn't have any material besides the plates as reference, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't familiar enough with some passages of the bible or another book that he had read or had had read to him that he could pull parts or phrases from them to help him best express himself. I am not saying that Joseph Smith plagiarized or composed the Book of Mormon from his memory of books he had read. I'm just saying that the books that we as humans read have a way of influencing us and shaping the way we think, talk, and write. And if Joseph Smith is trying to communicate complex religious ideas and texts from an ancient extinct language that is being revealed to him in a divine fashion then it would make sense that those books might influence how he decided to translate it. I'm also not saying that I espouse all or any of the theories on the far side of loose control. Some of them are down right heretical. But some of them are very conceivable and would still leave the Book of Mormon as a divine translation of an actual historical document of actual historical people. ↩︎

  9. For example there is a quote from Brigham Young, that I can't find right now, and I want to get this out before October is over so I'm not going to spend any more time trying to find it, but basically he said that if the Book of Mormon were to be translated again it would be a different book. I don't know how different he had in mind, or even what the full context for the quote is, but I think the point is that the thing that is sacred about the Book of Mormon is the preservation of the sacred history and teachings of Christ and not the exact wording used to convey those things. ↩︎

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