Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Book of Mormon Translation Puzzle

Roger Terry has written an insightful review of Brant A. Gardner's book, The Gift and Power: Translating the Book Of Mormon.


Before addressing Terry's piece, I want to highlight a sentence from the first of his notes:

Obviously, if the Mesoamerican model (in any of its specific locations) or one of the other models answered all the questions presented by the scriptural text, there would be consensus on where the Book of Mormon history actually occurred.

Now that there is a model that answers all the questions presented by the scriptural text, will Roger Terry support a consensus? We'll soon find out.


Back to this piece:

I haven't read Gardner's book, but even before I read this review, I suspected Gardner would question Joseph's translation because of Gardner's fixation on Mesoamerica. Apparently that is, in fact, the case.

Terry summarizes his conclusion about Gardner's theory this way:

"When examined carefully, Gardner’s proposed translation methodology does not hold up well. It becomes far too complex an operation, with too many pieces of the puzzle seemingly out of place."

This is no surprise; in fact, it is typical of the semantic gyrations Mesoamerican supporters go through to rationalize their theory in the face of contradictory scriptural texts, archaeology, geology, and so forth.

Here's how Terry identifies the crux of the problem with Gardner's approach:

"Gardner first presents evidence supporting a literalist equivalence, much of it from Skousen’s work, and he agrees that the evidence does support a literalist equivalence in some regards. But he argues that a functional equivalence better explains the larger part of the translation. Significantly, though, Gardner bases a fair portion of his evidence for functional equivalence (roughly a third of this chapter) on an assumption that is far from settled—namely, a Mesoamerican setting for the book. He asserts that Book of Mormon references to asses, lions, goats, sheep, harrowing, chaff, vessels with sails, land ownership, a monetized economy, debts, and swords had to originate in Joseph Smith’s time and culture because they did not exist in Mesoamerica. However, the Mesoamerican geographical model is far from proven and does not always harmonize with the Book of Mormon text.1 So it should be acknowledged that although there may be no archaeological evidence for lions or goats in ancient Mesoamerica, there is no evidence for Nephites or Lamanites either." (emphasis mine)

That last sentence is one of the best ever published by the Maxwell Institute.


Terry does a nice job summarizing Royal Skousen's approach and contrasting it to Gardner's:

Skousen proposes three possibilities for how the Book of Mormon may have been translated: loose control (in which ideas were revealed to Joseph Smith, who then had to put them into his own language), tight control (in which Joseph saw specific words in English and read them to a scribe), and ironclad control (in which the interpreters—later called the Urim and Thummim—would not allow any error, even in spelling common words). Skousen’s textual analysis easily dispatches the third possibility since spelling errors and inconsistencies abound in the handwritten manuscripts. But he also refutes the loose-control theory, leaving him with no other alternative than tight control.
While Gardner agrees with Skousen on tight control over the spelling of names and accounting for the presence of apparent Hebraisms in the English text, he does not find Skousen’s framework useful in evaluating the translation itself. Skousen’s idea of tight control “refers to the transmission of the text from Joseph to Oliver, not from the plate text to English” (p. 155). Gardner suggests a different three-option framework for analyzing the translation: literalist equivalence, functional equivalence, and conceptual equivalence. A literal equivalence would be a word-for-word translation, a practical impossibility given the vagaries of language, so Gardner uses the term literalist, meaning a rendering of the text in the target language that “closely adheres to the vocabulary and structure of the source language” (p. 156). Skousen’s tight control is roughly synonymous with Gardner’s literalist equivalence. Conceptual equivalence falls on the other end of the translation continuum. It preserves meaning without regard to specific grammatical structures or vocabulary. Functional equivalence falls between the extremes; it adheres “to the organization and structures of the original but is more flexible in the vocabulary” and allows “the target language to use words that are not direct equivalents of the source words, but which attempt to preserve the intent of the source text” (p. 156).

I agree with Skousen's conclusion, although I tend a little more toward ironclad control, except for spelling. Grammatical errors or inconsistencies could easily reflect what was on the plates. Why would we assume Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, and the various authors of quoted material always wrote in perfect grammar? If there were grammatical errors on the plates, why would we expect Joseph Smith to correct them?

Presumably Terry wrote this piece before Stanford Carmack's work on Early Modern English became known, and I'm not sure how that would have affected his analysis.

I agree with Terry's points about Joseph's limited vocabulary (that Joseph could not have known all these words and used them correctly in context). Same with the complex sentence structure, in light of the entire text being unpunctuated.

(This aspect of the translation also fits my theory that while Joseph knew where the Book of Mormon took place because of what Moroni told and showed him, he couldn't understand the geography information in the text because he didn't know chiastic structure.)

Terry writes: "Consider the fact that Joseph dictated an unpunctuated text, and this task stretches far beyond his ability to convert prelanguage concepts into the lengthy and layered sentence structure of the Book of Mormon. Without the guidance of punctuation to separate embedded clauses, this feat would have been mind-boggling. The Book of Mormon translation was not an on-the-fly translation. In many ways it exhibits the hallmarks of a text someone labored over with abundant support texts at hand (such as a dictionary, thesaurus, the King James Bible, and perhaps some Protestant writings)."

Ultimately, Terry himself likes the "Moroni-as-translator" theory, claiming that this "explains many of the difficult problems regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon that other theories struggle with, and there may be something quintessentially Mormon about imagining an angel wrestling with the concrete situation of learning a foreign language and struggling to express ideas in that language."

In my view, the Moroni-as-translator theory begs the question. How would Moroni have a larger English vocabulary than Joseph Smith? If he had studied English (for how long? Centuries?) why would have have made the "sort of random errors in second-person pronoun and third-person verb conjugation usage that we find in the Book of Mormon" that Terry considers evidence against at "machine translation" process (through the seer stone)?

Terry apparently addresses this in another article which I will review on of these days:

Roger Terry, “Archaic Pronouns and Verbs in the Book of Mormon: What In- consistent Usage Tells Us about Translation Theories,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 47/3 (2014): 59–63.

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