Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Joseph Smith and the Translation of Words of Fundamental Doctrinal Significance: A Quest for Purity of Meaning

Where the salvation of the human family is at stake, neither scholarly "translation" nor scholarly bafflement will do. The difference between all others who translate from dead languages and the Prophet Joseph is that living touch with living mind, with living idea, with gospel truth, which requires neither dictionary nor grammar. The God of Abraham is not the God of the dead but of the living. Joseph translated the languages of the Living, and with living tongues of fire.

Not that the merely human endeavor deserves despite. Joseph Smith studied Greek, Hebrew, and German; he also pondered and preached from Elias Hutter's old polyglot New Testament (Nuremberg, 1602): Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German. A convert had given Brother Joseph the Testament in Nauvoo, and he seemed to treasure it in the same way he treasured the papyri. He naturally tried his hand as student translator, and even at emending unclear places (an irresistible game for any student of Biblical languages), and he made his mistakes, as all students must. But even while wrapped in study, he sought the further inspiration of God.

Study weds faith in the journal entry of 19 January 1836: "Spent the day at school; the Lord blessed us in our studies. This day we commenced reading in our Hebrew Bibles with much success. It seems as if the Lord opens our minds in a marvelous manner to understand His word in the original language." A breathtaking prayer follows: "And my prayer is that God will speedily endow us with a knowledge of all languages and tongues" (see Joseph Smith Papers: Journal I:164). "All languages" evokes Mosiah's "all records which are of ancient date"; it also points to the Prophet's powerful desire to bring the Gospel to all people.

The Nauvoo discourses show several translations, emendations, or transcendent explanations of Greek, Hebrew, and even German words and phrases. Salvation becomes a matter of heaven and hell; yet "salvation," "heaven," and "hell" bear interpretive cargoes of connotation and comment. Joseph sought to set words free. He wondered about the origin of paradise: "find the origin of Paradise--find a needle in a hay mow" (11 June 1843, Willard Richards report, The Words of Joseph Smith, 211). The word comes from either the Avestan pairidaeza or Old Persian paradayadam or paridaidam, but Joseph didn't need to know that to translate. Knowledge of Persian, could he have attained to that grace, would have availed nothing. Translation required translation: Joseph, like Paul, knew a man who had been caught up to the spiritual world--and that rapture more than sufficed. Paradise signified "a world of spirits," not heaven, as the divines would have it (Roland Kent, Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon [1950], 195: Av. an enclosure, walled garden; OP "perhaps 'pleasant retreat'"; "that which is beyond or behind the wall"; Gr paradeisos "park").

Words like paradise and hell--and perhaps a dozen other English words in the Authorized Version--with all their accumulated signatures, were, at essence, made-up words: "a modern word," he says. They were signifiers pointing to nothing a seer might glimpse yonder. "Five minutes" scanning heaven would overthrow all dusty books, he claimed. Uninspired translators foisted such words on the language, and in the language they were destined to remain as stumbling blocks to truth.

To get at inspired translation requires cutting new channels of thought. "You must study it out in your mind," while waiting on the Lord (Doctrine and Covenants 9). We encounter Sheol, a word which the eager Hebrew student translates, well, Sheol. . . or grave or pit. "Sheol--who are you? God reveals. means a world of spirits--I don't think so says one. Go to my house I will take my lexicon" (211). We go with Joseph and look at his lexicon: "the lower world, the region of ghoststhe orcus or hades of the Hebrews" (Josiah W. Gibbs lexicon; see Journals I:107 n. 159). Note the marriage of lexicon and revelation, "by study and also by faith" (Doctrine and Covenants 88). "A world of spirits," in place of graveor pit, may not seem an earthshaking translation of Hebrew Sheol, but it opens onto a brave new world. Sheol is not hell; Paradise not heaven--both signify another place along the way to immortality and eternal life. Joseph saw Sheol, knew Sheol--and that seeric certainty, now confirmed by the lexicon, is what he translates for his auditors; it remains for us to wrestle with the implications. And note how such concern for Hebrew words of fundamental doctrinal significance, words to be grasped in their purity, matches the attention he gives to the Hebrew words in Book of Abraham Chapter 3 and in the explanations of the Abraham facsimiles. For Brother Joseph, use of a lexicon serves to carry the seeker beyond translation by tradition; it's a first foray into a purer realm of language, a realm free from the splintered light show of learned commentary, a realm where signifiers point at what seers saw--then God reveals.

Many Germans congregated at the grove where he preached. But that only encouraged Joseph to translate Luther's Bible in startling new ways. He would boldly ask his German hearers to weigh-in, even on his pronunciation, and they would respond.

Joseph never claimed mastery of German, though he daringly read from the Hutter polyglot before thousands; neither did he fuss over the possibility of contradiction from some crotchety grammarian. There is some fun in it all--yet, without hesitation, he shared his surmisings about this or that verse. He is clear, when so discoursing, about the two-step act of prophetic translation; even when the second, spiritual step, interwoven as it is with sessions of prayerful thought, can neither be reached nor replicated, unless his listeners also work by faith.

The method remains mysterious, as mysterious as thought itself, though the result of such translation recalls the lost-wax technique of casting precious metal objects. The treasured wonder alone remains, a substantial idea that can be weighed, tested, admired. The Prophet simply could not rest with the fragmentary knowledge and imaginary flights of scholarship; he sought greater light and knowledge; worked at it until he got it; then shared his revelations and translations with a spiritually thirsting world (see Neal A. Maxwell, "How Choice a Seer," October Conference 2003; For the Hutter polyglot, see

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