Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon

Part II: Joseph as Translator & Writer

In the First Part I mentioned the Book of Mormon’s strong oral rhythm. Thinking about the oral rhythm has influenced several of my conclusions, my overview. I may add other topics, and make digressions and side trips from time to time, but the oral rhythm is not the first thing I plan to write about. Dennis Clark’s suggestion that we think about Joseph Smith as a translator is well taken.

Like any good translator Joseph chose a diction and style, and the changes he made in the 2nd and 3rd editions tell us something about his choices. The most common changes he made in the 2nd and 3rd editions were saith to said, which to who/whom, and hath to has. Though he didn’t convert other -th endings to -s, he did drop instances of “it came to pass.”

I believe he used saith so much in the translation because he chose to use the formal archaic-even-in-1610 style of the King James translators and thought saith was the King’s English (so’s the Queen). Joseph likely didn’t realize that saith is a present tense form. However,  Reformed Egyptian was apparently a hieratic language–a language used for sacred purposes, like Latin is for Catholics. It is possible that some of Joseph’s grammatical errors represent the original writers’ errors working in a second language.

Like any good writer Joseph polished and revised his work, but he felt such
urgency to get the book published that he waited till the 2nd and 3rd editions  to make the changes. Some verge on hypercorrectness. With a few exceptions Joseph changed all personal pronoun uses of which to who or whom, where the King James translators used both which and who for people, or for our father which art in Heaven. Or maybe it is not hypercorrectness. Maybe in 200 years English usage had shifted somewhat so that who related to people and which to things. But whose is still the possessive of which.

Joseph needed to polish and revise the work because the Lord allows scribes and prophets and copyists and printers to make mistakes, and in his time sends someone along to correct the mistakes. “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection,” Moroni said in finishing his father’s record, “neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31).

And what translator, considering the richness of any language, and the
difficulty of conveying all that richness in another language, won’t resonate
with these words: “I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it
is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands” (D&C 128:18).

8 thoughts on “Gadianton the Nobler, Reflections on Changes in the Book of Mormon”

  1. .

    In reading this post, I first had a gut reaction of Hey! Maybe he didn’t make those word choices. Which is funny because my view of the translation actually matches your quite closely.

    Of course we don’t know how the translation was accomplished, not really; we can only speculate. But it seems to me that these discussions, while technically mysteries as far as faith and testimony go, are useful among the faithful who wish to apply the potential lessons to our own pursuits inasmuch as they resemble Joseph’s.

    Or something like that. I can’t tell if I’m being clear.

  2. No, I think that’s right, Theric. This:

    “Joseph needed to polish and revise the work because the Lord allows scribes and prophets and copyists and printers to make mistakes”

    applies to any creative endeavor. Even if an artist is inspired (by whatever definition of that one wants to use), the Lord still allows him or her to make mistakes. And those mistakes can affect tone, clarity, etc.

  3. .

    I just have to say: I love the God of Mormon theology. I’m so glad he’s the one I know and worship.

  4. I’ve never really considered the translation of the Book of Mormon from this angle before, but it makes complete sense to me that Joseph would need to “polish and revise the work” even though it sprang from inspiration. God can only do so much when he’s working with his imperfect children through an imperfect medium (language).

    And I second Th.’s witness: the God of Mormon theology is far more liberal with us than my conservative Mormon upbringing previously allowed me to believe. And I’m very grateful for that.

  5. Theric and William, thanks for your comments. A good overview of what we know about the translation, or of what Joseph’s scribes said about how he worked, is Steven C. Walker and Richard S. Van Wagoner’s “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing,” Dialogue 15 (Summer 1982), 2:49-68. Go to and click on Free archive of Vols. 1-37.

    As for my comment, “the Lord allows scribes and prophets and copyists and printers to make mistakes,” I might have phrased that differently but it was sufficiently clear for my porpoises.

    There’s an implication in that word allow which becomes quite interesting if you ask if God could have prevented John H. Gilbert from making typographical errors.

    I’m not asking if God could have stood over Gilbert’s shoulder and pointed out errors as Thomas S. Monson, printer by trade, noticed an error in one of the forms when he was touring Cambridge University’s print house while the new LDS edition of the Bible was being printed in 1979. (See “The Coming Forth of the LDS Editions of Scripture,” by Wm. James Mortimer, August 1983 Ensign.) I’m asking if God could have physically controlled Gilbert’s movements to prevent a typo.

    I suspect the answer is no, because Joseph taught in the King Follett Discourse that our spirits are co-equal with God’s, or co-eternal, depending on whose amalgamation you read (I really like Stan Larson’s Newly Amalgamated Text in BYU STUDIES 18:1, reprinted in Signature Books’ The Essential Joseph Smith). That is, God did not create us out of nothing and does not directly control our matter.

    I’ll be discussing this philosophical question after I post part three of the Overview then a two-part post talking about printing practices as a source of textual variants. I wrote a draft of the post in NoteTab and when I went to edit it the next day, I got a “The file is corrupt” error, so I’ll have to rewrite it.

    I’ll be discussing an error that has persisted through more than 20 editions. (How’s that for a teaser?)

  6. Tyler and Theric, thanks for your comments about the God of Mormon theology. That’s worth discussing at length.

    I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that language is an imperfect medium. I’ve certainly had enough experience with my own language being imperfect, but I believe language has far more capacity than we often think. It can wound deeply, but can also heal, the body as well as the soul.

    John’s quote of the opening words of Genesis is not simply a trope. If the Word really was God then language has all the power of God, and the imperfection is in our understanding and willingness rather than in language itself.

    That probably sounds glib, or at least like it ought to be argued at length, but I’ll just say I love puns, partly because little things amuse little minds, and partly because puns allow us to do two things at once, to recognize two or many meanings of a sound simultaneously.

    Hugh Nibley starts his classic essay “Zeal Without Knowledge” by observing that the mind can only attend to one thing at a time, but that there’s no physiological reason for that. Since we can only think about one thing at a time we choose each moment what is important to us by choosing what to think about, Nibley says.

    But puns do allow us to attend to more than one thing at a time, giving us a glimpse of the power of language, if we know what we’re glimpsing.

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