Writing out the translation
Question: how did Joseph know the words the scribe wrote were misspelled? Joseph had his head in the hat to exclude enough light that he could read the faint writing in the Urim & Thummim or the seer stone. There is no possibility that he could watch how they spelled the words, and he was no great speller at that time so he would probably have made many more errors than the scribes had he watched them. So how did he know? The words in the stone did not change until the scribes had finished, so some external means of monitoring the scribe’s writing had to exist.
One could just state that 'the gift and power of God' did it, but as a curious scientist I would like more details. The easiest explanation is that someone was watching. Neither Joseph nor the scribes mentioned any other presence in the room, but I think all of us have heard of times when others were present that we did not see. The servant of Elisha was allowed to see the hosts of the spirit world arrayed to protect them. Then, who would be watching? Moroni was given the keys of the record of the stick of Ephraim; (D&C 27:5), and he knew the English language as he was able to converse with Joseph and quote scripture. Someone else could just as well been given the assignment from his Bishop in the spirit world (the job was important enough that the assignment probably came through one of the original apostles), but I will call him 'Moroni' in quotes to indicate that it is not a positive identification.
An interesting incident that happened during the translation process was recorded by Oliver B. Huntington in 1897, recording a statement from Sarah (Sally) Heller Conrad:
I conversed with one old lady 88 years old who lived with David Whitmer when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were translating the Book of Mormon in the upper room of the house, and she, only a girl, saw them come down from translating room several times when they looked so exceedingly white and strange that she inquired of Mrs. Whitmer the cause of their unusual appearance, but Mr. Whitmer was unwilling to tell the hired girl, the true cause as it was a sacred holy event connected with a holy sacred work which was opposed and persecuted by nearly every one who heard of it. The girl felt so strangely at seeing so strange and unusual appearance, she finally told Mrs. Whitmer that she would not stay with her until she knew the cause of the strange looks of these men. Sister Whitmer then told her what the men were doing in the room above and that the power of God was so great in the room that they could hardly endure it; at times angels were in the room in their glory which nearly consumed them.Joseph McConkie, in the 2001 Education week, commented that the people involved with the original Book of Mormon would be interested in watching the translation, to ensure it was correct.
The translation process, then, would proceed with Joseph dictating and the scribes writing. The Urim and Thummim or the seer stone Joseph was reading from would probably be described today in terms of a computer display. When they made a spelling error, 'Moroni' may have had means of enhancing the misspelled word in the text Joseph was reading so that Joseph would spell it out. When it was correct, to 'Moroni's' satisfaction, he would advance the display to the next frame (like the weather men do on TV, and 150 years ahead of his time). 'Moroni' had the job of getting the Book of Mormon translated as quickly as possible. We know that the names in the Book of Mormon were corrected the first time they appeared, but after that the spelling seemed to be left to the scribes best effort. 'Moroni' rightly assumed that the printer would spell them correctly in the printed copy. Other spelling errors were obvious, or not important enough to take the additional time to correct during the translation. Thus 'Moroni' would have been the arbitrator of the translation.
Translation into English
That brings up the next question: who actually translated the plates? As before, 'the gift and power of God' needs more details if possible. We see the planning of God reflected in the scriptures, and have an idea that he plans at least 6000 years ahead, so he would have assigned the translation to someone (Moroni?) in plenty of time to get it done. The scriptures quoted in the Book of Mormon were based upon the familiar King James Version of the Bible (KJV), the same source of the quotations that Moroni used in talking to Joseph. So we know that Moroni was familiar with English, the KJV, and the message of the plates. I would think he would make an excellent translator. If that is the case, all the anomalies that Royal Skousen and other experts have found in the Book of Mormon would be attributed to 'Moroni' who oversaw the translation, the dictation to Joseph, and the copying by the scribes.
There is no evidence that Joseph did any thinking or editing of the words he dictated. In fact the opposite is true. The scribes wrote, and wrote, and wrote, and Joseph concentrated on dictating. Only after he saw errors on the written manuscript would he have realized that he could, nay must, make changes to the text in the original manuscript. Before that reality hit him, I believe that he would not dare change one word.
‘Moroni’ would have used the gold plates as the basis for his translation. And he would have used the Isaiah as written on the gold plates as the basis for the Isaiah passages. He would have been instructed to use the KJV as the form of the scripture, and had to make corrections to that translation as needed. When reading from the gold plates, the italicized words that are found in the KJV would stand out as their meaning is included in the Hebrew/reformed Egyptian words that have no direct equivalent in English. This probably was troubling to ‘Moroni’. As a native speaker of the Hebrew-like language, he probably had a better understanding of the implied thoughts than the translators of the KJV. Thus he felt it necessary to make numerous changes to the implied/italicized words. He may have even settled for an awkward English usage, perhaps not being as acquainted with English as a native English speaker would have been. Note also that the chapter divisions in the original manuscript are at different places than the KJV. This indicates that the original for the translation of the Isaiah passages was different than the KJV, and that the translation was made to fit the KJV English as closely as possible.
Royal Skousen, after further research into the original manuscript, has identified words that had meanings in the 1600s that had changed by the time of Joseph Smith. One example from Royal Skousen’s paper:
To counsel, meaning 'to counsel with'
In the original text of the Book of Mormon we have two cases where the verb counsel is used without the expected preposition with: "counsel the Lord in all thy doings" (Alma 37:37) and "take it upon you to counsel your elder brothers in your undertakings" (Alma 39:10). In the first case, Alma is speaking to Helaman; in the second, to Corianton, the wayward missionary son. In no way is Alma advocating that Helaman counsel the Lord or that Corianton counsel his two righteous brothers. The editors for the 1920 LDS edition recognized that the preposition with was necessary in those two passages so that readers would not misinterpret the language; thus in both cases counsel was emended to counsel with. One could assume that somehow the preposition with was accidentally lost during the early transmission of these two passages. Yet the OED, under definition 4, lists the now obsolete meaning 'to ask counsel of; to consult' for the verb counsel. Citations date from 1382 to 1547, the last one coming from John Hooper: "Moses . . . counselled the Lord and thereupon advised his subjects what was to be done." Clearly, Moses is counseling with the Lord, not giving counsel to the Lord.
FARMS Insights Volume 25 Issue 5
The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon, by Royal Skousen
Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2005. P. N/A
Bro Skousen concludes:
In chapter 5 of Ether in the Book of Mormon, Moroni gives instructions to the translator. In verse one, Moroni begins:
These new findings argue that Joseph Smith was not the author of the English-language translation of the Book of Mormon. Not only was the text revealed to him word for word, but the words themselves sometimes had meanings that he and his scribes would not have known, which occasionally led to misinterpretation. The Book of Mormon is not a 19th-century text, nor is it Joseph Smith's. The English-language text was revealed through him, but it was not precisely in his language or ours.
And now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me, according to my memory; and I have told you the things which I have sealed up: . . .This could indicate that the final translation of this chapter of the Book of Mormon by Moroni was not finished until shortly before it was given to Joseph Smith.
I feel it is logical to assume that the assignment ‘Moroni’ was given was to translate the plates into English, ensure that the biblical quotes were doctrinally correct, and expedite the copying of the plates as much as possible without impairing the final product, realizing that the proofreaders and typesetters would catch spelling and punctuation errors. Certainly the conclusion of Royal Skousen agrees with the conjectures of this article.
References, as given in Opening the Heavens, Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844, BYU Press, 2005
Emma Smith (Bidamon): Joseph Smith III, “Last Testimony of Sister Emma”, Saints' Herald 26 (October 1 1879): 289-90.
Isaac Hale: Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio: 1834) 264-65
Michael Morse: W. W. Blair, Letter to the editor, Saints’ Herald 26 (June 15, 1879):191
David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ: By a Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon (Richmond, MO.: By the author, 1887): 6, 10-11, 12, 30, 32, 55-56.
Martin Harris: Andrew Jenson, ed., “The Three Witnesses,” Historical Record 6 (May 1887) 216-17
Joseph Knight: Dean C. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies 17, no. 1 (1976): 33-36
Oliver Cowdery: Samuel W. Richards Statement, May 21, 1907, holograph, 2-3, Church Archives.
Oliver B. Huntington, “History of the Life of Oliver B. Huntington,” typescript, 49-50, Perry Special Collections. For Conrad’s granddaughter’s recollection, see Pearl Bunnell Newell, interview by Carma deJong Anderson, Orem, Utah, January 1970, copy of transcript in Perry Special Collections.
Royal Skousen (Ph.D. in linguistics, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana) is the researcher for the Book of Mormon Critical Text project at BYU.