Part II: Joseph as Translator & Writer
In the First Part I mentioned the Book of Mormon’s strong oral rhythm. Thinking about the oral rhythm has influenced several of my conclusions, my overview. I may add other topics, and make digressions and side trips from time to time, but the oral rhythm is not the first thing I plan to write about. Dennis Clark’s suggestion that we think about Joseph Smith as a translator is well taken.
Like any good translator Joseph chose a diction and style, and the changes he made in the 2nd and 3rd editions tell us something about his choices. The most common changes he made in the 2nd and 3rd editions were saith to said, which to who/whom, and hath to has. Though he didn’t convert other -th endings to -s, he did drop instances of “it came to pass.”
I believe he used saith so much in the translation because he chose to use the formal archaic-even-in-1610 style of the King James translators and thought saith was the King’s English (so’s the Queen). Joseph likely didn’t realize that saith is a present tense form. However, Reformed Egyptian was apparently a hieratic language–a language used for sacred purposes, like Latin is for Catholics. It is possible that some of Joseph’s grammatical errors represent the original writers’ errors working in a second language.
Like any good writer Joseph polished and revised his work, but he felt such
urgency to get the book published that he waited till the 2nd and 3rd editions to make the changes. Some verge on hypercorrectness. With a few exceptions Joseph changed all personal pronoun uses of which to who or whom, where the King James translators used both which and who for people, or for our father which art in Heaven. Or maybe it is not hypercorrectness. Maybe in 200 years English usage had shifted somewhat so that who related to people and which to things. But whose is still the possessive of which.
Joseph needed to polish and revise the work because the Lord allows scribes and prophets and copyists and printers to make mistakes, and in his time sends someone along to correct the mistakes. “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection,” Moroni said in finishing his father’s record, “neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Mormon 9:31).
And what translator, considering the richness of any language, and the
difficulty of conveying all that richness in another language, won’t resonate
with these words: “I might have rendered a plainer translation to this, but it
is sufficiently plain to suit my purpose as it stands” (D&C 128:18).