When Joseph Smith used the word “translate”, it meant something different than what we usually think of as translating. The Book of Abraham is a very intriguing example of the process that, while it still has a lot of unknowns, does provide some insight into the process. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk, Stephen O. Smoot discussed the Book of Abraham translation. What follows here is a co-post (a shorter post with some excerpts and discussion).
To start, much like the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith never left a clear statement about how he produced the Book of Abraham:
We have no firsthand account from Joseph explaining how he produced the Book of Abraham. We have vague accounts from those who assisted him in the translation, and we have clues from the surviving manuscripts, but nothing directly from the Prophet. Because of this, there has been no shortage of controversy over the years as scholars and polemicists alike have propped up theories to explain the production of the text. …
Ultimately, it was done by the gift and power of God. As with the translation of the Book of Mormon, we will probably never know all the particulars of how the Prophet translated the Book of Abraham. But what we do know is that the work was accomplished by revelation.
It sounds very much like the translation of the Book of Mormon in that regard.
Based on what we do have, though, we can make some educated guesses. As Smoot wrote:
From what we can tell, by “translate” Joseph Smith appears to have meant conveying the ancient record of Abraham written in the Egyptian language into modern English. So in that sense, he probably meant it the way the word is typically used today.
However, he also appears to have understood the method of rendering that translation to have been revelation, not secular academic training. So in another sense, the way he used the word “translate” is different than how it is usually used today….
“Translation” and “revelation” were nearly synonymous in early Latter-day Saint usage, almost to the point of them being used interchangeably.
This is very clear when you see how early Saints spoke about the production of the Book of Mormon in contemporary accounts of its origins and nature….
And why not? After all, Joseph claimed the translation of the text came from revelation as he utilized the seer stones—a process he called “the gift and power of God.” So these two things were closely linked in early Latter-day Saint conceptualizations. …
This isn’t some new way to think about the translation of the Book of Mormon. We can see it almost as soon as the book is published and missionaries are sharing it with others, and pretty quickly it takes root in Latter-day Saint discourse surrounding the text.
So, while we call it a translation, it was probably more of what we would consider a revelation, as Elder Ulysses Soares indicated a couple years ago in general conference.
Now, how does the translation of the Book of Abraham compare with other translations projects?
By situating the production of the Book of Abraham next to the production of the Book of Mormon and the Prophet’s other revelatory and translation outpourings, we can do a useful comparative analysis that helps us appreciate how these texts are similar but also how they show signs of unique differences. …
Two items that aren’t usually talked about as translations, but which can be considered in the category, can be handy in thinking about this:
Actually, we need to consider two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants: Section 7 and Section 93. Section 7 is the Prophet’s revealed translation of some heretofore lost or unknown writings of John the Beloved Disciple said to have been preserved on a physical manuscript (“parchment”).
Section 93, specifically verses 6–18, is another revelation of the writings of another figured called John, presumably also the Beloved Disciple but we don’t know for sure.
Both of these revelations purport to give a translation of these lost writings, but in neither case was Joseph actually handling an ancient record. Section 7 especially has a fascinating compositional history, as it underwent revision and expansion from its manuscript form to its canonical form, and early versions of this text go back and forth on calling it a “revelation” and a “translation.”
These two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, in my opinion, are textbook examples of how these two categories (“revelation” and “translation”) were collapsed into each other in Joseph Smith’s prophetic lexicon.
Now, one point that Smoot was keen to make is that the text is greater than its origins:
One point my coauthors and I emphasize in A Guide to the Book of Abraham is that we can best judge the Book of Abraham on its own merits, rather than on the (as of yet) unanswerable question about how it was translated.
Hugh Nibley was making this point decades ago. The inspired contents of the Book of Abraham are the best evidence for its authenticity, regardless of the method of how it was produced. So while I am always excited to explore how the Book of Abraham was translated, and I think it’s important to keep investigating this subject, I also think it’s more important not to lose focus on the truly extraordinary and inspired text the Prophet gave us.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to look more at the text itself and its impact than its origins. While this may seem to be a “pay no heed to the man behind the curtains” approach, there is value in engaging with the text on its own merits (though I personally would encourage looking at all aspects together).
Anyway, for more on the Book of Abraham translation, head on over to the Latter-day Saint blog From the Desk for the full interview.
As an additional recommendation, check out Jonathan Green’s “Putting the grammar back in GAEL” series.