Brant A. Gardner discusses 2 Nephi 8:19 (= Isaiah 51:19); agrees with David P. Wright that it is in error, but it is due to Joseph, on a translation level, interacting with the italicized words of the King James Bible.

Brant A. Gardner

Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford, 2007), 2:152-55

Greg Kofford Books
Brant A. Gardner, David P. Wright
Reading Public

Translation: This verse is perhaps one of the most important in illuminating Joseph Smith’s relationship to the English text as he translated. Because I accept that Joseph translated by the gift and power of God, I assume that his translation is based on an original l text that was on the plates. However, the evidence suggests that what was produced as the English translation was not precisely a linguistically faithful representation of the language on the plates. A contrasting position is represented by H. Clay Gorton, a former mission president, who voices a very common assumption about the Book of Mormon: “it is possible that the Brass plates were indeed an early document even in Lehis time and were a prime source of the Old Testament as we know it today. Therefore it is assumed in this work that any differences between the Book of Mormon Isaiah and other Isaiah versions represent changes made to the Hebrew scriptures after the Brass Plates had been removed from their midst.”

The problem with this position is that it assumes the very issue that needs to be proved. Are the Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon an authentic early version, or are they modifications of the KJV Isaiah text? That is an important question, and it should not be answered by a simple faith-declaration that the Book of Mormon must be a better or more authentic translation. The Book of Mormon is a wonderful work, but it does not require us to create myths to explain it. What we need to do is understand it.

David P. Wright has written extensively about the issue of Joseph Smith’s use of the KJV Isaiah texts. While he concludes that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text—a conclusion I do not share—I find his data sound and draw from them significant information about the nature of Joseph Smith’s translation.

Wright’s analysis of the variations between the Book of Mormon Isaiah and KJV Isaiah notes that while only 3.6 percent of the words in the KJV Isaiah passages corresponding to those in the Book of Mormon are italicized, they represent between either 22 or 38 percent of changes made in the Book of Mormon version of the Isaiah passages. The lower percentage includes the removal of the italicized word, and the higher percentage includes variants that retain the italicized word, but that word may have influenced the variant.

The King James Version translators italicized words implied in the source text, but not explicitly stated. Joseph appears to have understood that these “added” words were not in the Hebrew. Many of the Book of Mormon variations in the Isaiah passages either simply remove those words of rewrite the text in a way that continues to make sense without that particular word. Wright also notes other cases where the evidence suggests that Joseph Smith was using only the King James Version of Isaiah, rather than Isaiah in any other language.

These date constitute evidence, but evidence for what? Wright interprets them as evidence against the authenticity of the Book of Mormon because they indicate that Isaiah was “translated” from English, not from whatever language was on the plates. Unfortunately, that requires just as strong an initial faith-declaration as does Gorton’s. The evidence can only suggest that the Book of Mormon isn’t a translation if one begins with the assumption that it is a literal translation.

In contrast, I see these data as explaining something crucial about the Book of Mormon language that clearly depends on the King James Version. Joseph Smith’s translation method allowed for the insertion of King James language. This is hardly surprising. When someone translating from another language comes upon a passage that he or she recognizes, the recognized version forms the basis for the translation.

What is more important for our current text, however, is the fact that Joseph interacted with his text. We do not have the opportunity of seeing this interaction except in cases of close correlation with the KJV. Such cases illuminate the Lord’s explanation about the translation process to Oliver Cowdery: “You must study it out in your mind” (D&C 9:8). The translation process was not automatic; it was participatory.

I conclude that David Wright’s analysis of the italicized passages shows Joseph Smith interacting with his text. He thought it out and produced his translation. While the resulting “translation” does not fit our current definition of the word, it does fit what Joseph understood himself to be doing. When modern translations approach the task of translating documents such as the Bible, one of the methods used is variously called dynamic or function equivalence. The intent of such a translation is not to retain precision in the representation of the ancient words, but rather to retain ancient meanings. As Mark L. Strauss (associate professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary, San Diego) suggests, a freer translation has the potential of capturing more of the meaning, since it has the freedom to add explanatory words or phrases. This looser connection between translation and source appears to the model Joseph Smith used. We know that Joseph Smith edited both the Book of Mormon text (For the 1837 edition) as well as the revelations he gave (compiled into the Book of Commandments and later the Doctrine and Covenants). Very clearly he understood the words he dictated to represent the meaning; and if the meaning were not sufficiently clear, he could improve the language so that the meaning was communicated more effectively.

In the examples of the variants under consideration here, the larger sense of the passages suggests that Joseph Smith’s substitution of “sons” for “things” wrenches the sense of the text. It is perhaps understandable by reference to the “sons” in verse 18, but that simply tells us that Joseph made his “translation” as a result of focusing on a narrow part of the text rather than seeing the passage in a fuller context. This error is more likely to be committed by a modern translator than an ancient copyist. This narrow focus, rather than the larger conceptual focus that made sense of the two “things,” coupled with the fact that “things” is in italics—which Joseph apparently paid particular attention to—tells me that “sons” is Joseph’s attempt to make sense of the text, not a reflection of the underlying text. This evidence directly contradicts Gorton’s hypothesis.

However, does this conclusion mean that Joseph did not actually translate the plates? Only by the narrowest definition of “translation” and then only in cases where KJV texts are clearly inserted. Perhaps this conclusion might be an indictment of the whole text if there were no evidences of antiquity in any other aspect. Such evidence exists, however. I therefore understand that Joseph is passing on information from antiquity, but “studying it out” as he does. Does this mean that there might be mistakes in the text? Of course. As Moroni2 declares in the title page: “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” This same caution applies to our understanding of Joseph Smith.

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