Before I actually get to the text of 1 Nephi 20/Isaiah 48, I’m going to pause in a Words-of-Mormon-style interlude and address the potentially thorny issue of translation. Perhaps I should have done this at the beginning, but it’s the challenge of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, particularly “Deutero-Isaiah”, that means now seems like a good time to think about how the Book of Mormon authors used Isaiah and what role Joseph Smith played in the translation.

FairMormon nicely summarises the challenge of Deutero-Isaiah as follows:

The “Deutero-Isaiah” theory is the claim that parts of Isaiah were written later than others. Specifically this theory claims that there were three individual authors, whose works were later compiled together under the name of the first author, the “real” Isaiah (known as Proto-Isaiah by adherents to the theory). The problem this presents for LDS is one of authorship dating: according to this theory, Proto Isaiah was written about the time traditionally ascribed to the book: namely ca. 700 BC. Deutero-Isaiah (“Second Isaiah”) was allegedly written around 545 BC, and Trito-Isaiah (“Third Isaiah”) around 500 BC. The big problem, of course, is that the Brass Plates of Laban quote from sections of Isaiah that this theory ascribes to Deutero-Isaiah, so how could the Nephites have these writings if they weren’t written until after they left Jerusalem?1

In the next post I’ll get to the ways in which we might resolve this challenge. But before I get there, I need to do some groundwork by considering what Joseph Smith understood his role as translator to be and how he viewed his translation work.

What did translation mean to Joseph Smith?

Firstly, let’s consider what Joseph Smith was doing with the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) of the Bible. What he wasn’t doing was poring over the original Hebrew or Greek texts and using lexicons to render a plainer translation. It seems that for Joseph, the Bible acted as catalyst for revelation. Joseph’s study of the book of Genesis, for example, prompted revelations about the lives and teachings of Adam, Eve, Moses, and Enoch, found today in the book of Moses.

Regarding the process of revelation involved in producing the JST, Robert Matthews said:

Exact words may have been given to the mind of the Prophet on occasion, but the manuscript evidence suggests that generally he was obliged to formulate the words himself to convey the message he desired.2    

That’s a concept we should bear in mind as we consider Joseph’s translation work.

Secondly, Joseph’s translation of the Book of Abraham (BoA) might also teach us something about the Book of Mormon translation. I don’t have time to go too far down the BoA rabbit hole. Instead, I’ll just refer you to the essay the Church has published on the subject. But I do want to highlight one particularly relevant passage from that essay:

Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be. Rather, the physical artifacts provided an occasion for meditation, reflection, and revelation. They catalyzed a process whereby God gave to Joseph Smith a revelation about the life of Abraham, even if that revelation did not directly correlate to the characters on the papyri.3

Similar to the JST, this hypothesis re. the BoA runs against the grain of our typical understanding of how translation works.

Finally, we might consider the revelation/translation recorded in D&C 7. D&C 7 was received while Joseph and Oliver were engaged in the work of translating the Book of Mormon and so may offer some clues as to how that process worked. Of this section, the Church’s Institute manual says:

It is not known whether Joseph saw the parchment referred to and was given power to translate it, or if its contents were revealed to Joseph without his seeing the original source. It makes no difference, since the material was given by revelation to the Prophet.4

This suggests that Joseph Smith didn’t even need a physical artefact in order to produce an inspired translation of ancient writings. In all of his translation work Joseph confounds our traditional understanding of what it means to consider him a translator.

Taken together, these examples suggest to me that Joseph understood translation to be more a genre – that is, as a *kind* of writing. I think Joseph saw himself as an interpreter rather than as a literal translator–transcriber. Importantly, as with his other revelations, he didn’t view his translations as the perfect, inerrant word of God. They were subject to (inspired) revisions like any other kind of writing. Of course, none of this to deny the divine origin of his revelations or translations.

How did Joseph Smith translate the Book of Mormon?

Before getting into the mechanics of translation, it’s worth remembering that almost all of the present Book of Mormon text was translated during a 3-month period between April and June 1829. That, coupled with Emma’s statement that “[Joseph] could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon”, should remind us what a miraculous event the Book of Mormon translation was.

I don’t have the time to get into all the eye-witness accounts of the translation process and the use of the Urim and Thummim (U&T) vs the seer stone, etc. Instead, as with the BoA translation, I’ll just refer you to the essay the Church has published.

Instead, bearing in mind what I’ve already written about Joseph’s other translation projects, I want to outline a theory of Book of Mormon translation.

I think some (maybe many) have in their minds the idea that the translation of the Book of Mormon consisted of Joseph essentially reading words as they appeared on the U&T/seer stone and his scribe then recording those words. This is backed up by some eye-witness accounts and the fact that he occasionally had to spell out certain names. However, if the U&T/seer stone did all the work and Joseph did nothing except to read off the words as they appeared, then the divine instrument is responsible for any errors and textual artefacts in the Book of Mormon (save those introduced in the transcription process). And I think this essentially assigns responsibility for errors in language to God. Furthermore, this view of translation seems to cast Joseph as an unwitting instrument of God’s ventriloquism. And that doesn’t really fit my view of how God works with His children in general, and His prophets in particular.

In contrast, a number of LDS thinkers5,6 suggest that the apparent flaws in the text, such as ungrammatical expressions and anachronisms, point to a mode of translation that was mediated by fallible humans – principally Joseph and Oliver – through an imprecise process. This model suggests that Joseph was given concepts via spiritual impressions, which he then had to clothe in familiar and appropriate language. The task was like that of an artist trying to capture a scene with paint, or of a poet attempting to capture an emotion using what Joseph once called “the little, narrow prison, almost as it were, total darkness of paper, pen and ink; and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.”7 In this view, the translation of the Book of Mormon sprang from an interaction between God and Joseph Smith; it was what has been called a “co-creative” effort.

There are several pieces of historical evidence that point towards a co-creative translation process. First, certain of the eye-witness accounts can be read to imply this mode of translation. Second, D&C 9 describes a nonvisual process. Third, as has already been mentioned, Joseph Smith did not treat the Book of Mormon text as an infallible, word-for-word revelation – he freely made revisions prior to the book’s 1837 and 1840 printings.

Then there is this fascinating, enigmatic statement by Brigham Young:

Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings.8

In summary, I believe that Joseph engaged in a “co-creative” method of translation and revelation. I think this explains why Joseph felt at liberty to update some of his revelations, including some passages in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, as his learning increased. Like all of us, Joseph’s spiritual knowledge grew line upon line. As he obtained a more correct understanding of things and as the light he received grew into sharper focus, Joseph could more clearly understand some of his past experiences and revelations and modified them to reflect a more spiritually mature perspective. While this may disrupt some of our ideas about revelation, Joseph himself was apparently comfortable working with imperfect scripture and language to convey truth. For example, in D&C 128 Joseph quoted Malachi 4:5–6 exactly as it is quoted in the KJV Bible. In verse 7 he then added: “I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands.”

In the next post I’ll draw on this theory of translation as I work through some possible explanations for how Isaiah – particularly Deutero-Isaiah – is used in the Book of Mormon. And I’ll maybe revisit some questions re. the lost 116 pages. After that I’ll get back to the text itself.

  8. Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:311