Translation or Revelation?

I posted about Book of Abraham translation a couple weeks ago as part of a co-post on an interview with Stephen O. Smoot. This time, we’re looking at a different interview with Michael Hubbard MacKay, who had a different perspective about Joseph Smith’s translation projects. The interview on Book of Mormon translation is over at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, so what follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).

Michael Hubbard MacKay is the author (along with Gerrit J. Dirkmaat) of the recently-published Let’s Talk About the Translation of the Book of Mormon. One of the key differences in opinion between MacKay and Smoot is their thoughts about the term “translation”. If you recall from the previous post, Stephen O. Smoot expressed that:

[Joseph Smith] 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.

As evidence, Smoot cited that in the Doctrine and Covenants:

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.

Moving to the actual interview that this post is focused on, Michael Hubbard MacKay took a different view on the same issue:

Joseph Smith and his colleagues also used the word translate to emphasize that the text of the Book of Mormon came from the gold plates. Some might wonder if terms like revelationvision, or inspiration might be better at representing the process, but Joseph and his colleagues insisted on the term translation.

They were aware of the difference between his translations and his revelations; this distinction is clear because he did not call the book of Moses a translation, and he differentiated between Doctrine and Covenants 7—which was a translation—and other Doctrine and Covenants sections that were considered revelations, not translations from an original record.

On the other hand, he did call the book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon translations from ancient records. Joseph Smith apparently used the term translation to describe the change from one language and record to another language and record. This usage was meant to demonstrate the origins of the original text and the process by which it came forth.

Both Smoot and MacKay are faithful Latter-day Saints who have done a lot of research into Joseph Smith’s translations, and both have come to different conclusions on whether translation is roughly synonymous with “revelation,” including in their views about the specific case of Doctrine and Covenants, Section 7. Which, I think, ultimately points out that while we know some things about what “translation” meant to Joseph Smith and to the early Latter-day Saints, there is a lot we don’t know about it as well.

Now, when it comes to the process of translating the Book of Mormon, MacKay summarized some of the main theories about how the Book of Mormon came to be through translation:

  1. Textual linguistic. Royal Skousen suggests that Joseph read the translation from seer stones. This theory involves a “Tight Control” level of involvement.

  2. Metaphysical. Samuel Brown argues that Joseph transformed human beings and worlds in his translation. This theory involves a “Loose Control” level of involvement.

  3. Realist/Naturalist. William Davis argues that Joseph was capable of producing the text himself. This theory involves a “Secular” level of involvement.

  4. Anti-Naturalist. John Welch explains that the Book of Mormon can be viewed as a demonstrable miracle, suggesting that Joseph was incapable of producing the book in 72 days. This theory involves a “Tight Control” level of involvement.

  5. Cognitive. Brant Gardner thinks the Book of Mormon could have first come to Joseph naturally, and then emerged as a series of thoughts and language. This theory involves a “Tight/Loose Control” level of involvement.

  6. Automatic Writing. Ann Taves suggests that the Book of Mormon text came to Joseph automatically and rapidly. This theory involves a “Tight Control” level of involvement.

Each of these theories have various advocates. The “textual linguistic” seems to be the theory most strongly represented in the Gospel Topics essay on the Book of Mormon translation, while the “cognitive” one seems most similar to what Elder B. H. Roberts advocated for Book of Mormon translation, for example. “Realist/naturalist” is probably the most common approach in circles where the Book of Mormon isn’t thought to be an ancient record. As above, many people have approached the issue and come to drastically different conclusions.

For more on the translation of the Book of Mormon, head on over for the full interview with Michael Hubbard MacKay at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk. There are some interesting details and some links out to what a couple general authorities have said on the matter.

1 comment for “Translation or Revelation?

  1. I am with MacKay on this. Revelation, IMO, is God speaking to man. Translation is from one language to another. BoM and BoA were clearly thought as translations in the day, not revelations.

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