Book of Mormon Overview: Tight vs Loose Translation

 

In the past overviews, I have now covered Joseph Smith’s treasure digging, how that treasure digging influenced the story of the gold plates, and how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.

Following the translation, there are seven overviews on biblical scholarship and Mormonism along with overviews on the problems that arise from the loss of the 116 pages, DNA and the Book of Mormon, surrounding influences that find their way into the Book of Mormon, and how scholars can date the text by looking at anachronisms and problems within the text of the Book of Mormon.

If you’ve made it through those fourteen overviews, this section will hopefully help to begin tying it all back together. In this section I want to briefly examine the differences between the tight and loose translation theories for the Book of Mormon. This is important because some apologists will argue both theories, but as we will discuss below, it is impossible to switch between both a tight and loose translation, and the history is very clear that only a tight translation fits with accounts that we do have.

Definition of a Tight vs Loose Translation

For the purposes of this overview, I want to describe what I mean by “tight” and “loose” translation.

Before I give my definitions for the purpose of this overview, I want to give FAIR Mormon’s full (but incredibly short) write-up of the issue of tight vs loose translation theories:

 

"​Was Joseph Smith provided with the exact wording of every sentence in the Book of Mormon? Was he simply given impressions which he then dictated within the context of his own understanding? Was it some combination of the two methods?

 

Joseph's wife Emma related her own experience:

 

"When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time. .?. . When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation, and one time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, "Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?" When I answered, "Yes," he replied, "Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived." He had such a limited knowledge of history at the time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls."

Scholars have examined and debated the issue of a "tight" versus "loose" translation method for many years. Although it is an interesting intellectual exercise, the exact process by which words and sentences were formed has no bearing upon the fact that the book was dictated by the "gift and power of God."" (fairmormon.org)

There is a reason that FAIR Mormon is carefully avoiding taking a stand on tight or loose translation, and that is because they will often jump between the two depending on the problem that is presented for Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

Now I want to give my definitions of the two methods here, which I think is fair to both the critic and apologist with regards to how this issue is framed.

Defining a tight vs loose translation:

Tight translation: As outlined above by FAIR's use of Emma Smith’s quote above, a tight translation is where Joseph Smith is directly translating the Book of Mormon via the seer/peep stone in the hat word for word. The translation of the plates would appear on Joseph Smith’s seer/peep stone in the hat, and Joseph Smith would dictate them to his scribe. This method of translation is a literal one and does not afford Joseph Smith the ability to change or alter the words as the tight translation must be direct for the stone to reveal further words as we will see from the accounts of the translation.

Loose translation: This method of translation would give Joseph Smith "inspiration" through revelation, which allowed Joseph Smith the freedom to dictate the text of the Book of Mormon through his own milieu, putting the text of the Book of Mormon in his own words. Effectively Joseph Smith would be given the general lessons and concepts through revelations, but it was then left to Joseph Smith to weave those into a story that could be understood in his time. Some have argued that this would be a revelation of “pure intelligence” where Joseph Smith was flooded with the story itself, some say Joseph Smith could see the actual Book of Mormon events in visions, and some say he got literal translations but was then free to make changes as he saw fit.

What History Tells Us About the Translation Method:

The history from Joseph Smith's time is very clear that a tight translation was used to produce the Book of Mormon. The quote from Emma Smith above leaves absolutely no room for a loose translation. The key part of her recollection:

 

"When my husband was translating the Book of Mormon, I wrote a part of it, as he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time."

If Emma’s account is not clear enough, the only other two accounts from the witnesses leave absolutely no doubt how Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon:

David Whitmer wrote the following about the translation: “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear." (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)

Martin Harris described the translation process to Edward Stevenson, a member of the First Council of Seventy: "Martin Harris related an incident that occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone, Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin and when finished he would say "Written," and if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used." ("One of the Three Witnesses," Millennial Star, Volume 44, p 86-87)

None of these three accounts allow for a loose translation of the Book of Mormon, as the seer stone would not continue to reveal the words without the exact, correct words (and spelling) being dictated by not just Joseph Smith, but the scribe writing it down as intended. I want to be clear – there is absolutely no wiggle room that would allow for a loose translation in these accounts, and these are all people who were intimately involved with Joseph Smith during the translation process.

Why It Matters:

As I’ve gone through these overviews, I have mentioned many times that we need to look at these problems in totality. The reason is that when you try and isolate every problem as the apologetic responses tend to do, it seems possible to make them go away or at least get you to put them back on the “shelf” for a later time.

But with the translation of the Book of Mormon, it is one of the most important aspects of Joseph Smith's history to understand the process of how the Book of Mormon was created. The reason this is so important to understand is that many apologists continue to lean on the loose translation theory when they have to address the many problems with the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and Doctrine and Covenants.

Effectively a loose translation gives Joseph Smith a lot of wiggle room for errors, because it is the idea that Joseph Smith was inspired to write the general concepts in his own mindset which allows these problems to be brushed aside as a perfect gospel being filtered through an imperfect man.

However, the history tells us that a tight translation is the only translation method that fits. If you believe the witnesses, then there is no room for a loose translation, and this is a massive problem for Joseph Smith's credibility along with the Book of Mormon.

What I want to do below is to highlight the problems that simply cannot survive a tight translation, and as I mentioned them above I think this is where we can look at them in totality to understand why (non-LDS) scholars are not just certain that the Book of Mormon is not a historical text, but that Joseph Smith is the author of it.

Problems with the Book of Mormon that Cannot Survive a Tight Translation:

King James Bible Errors and Deutero-Isaiah

As we’ve covered to the point of exhaustion in these overviews, the Book of Mormon is literarily dependent on the King James Bible (KJV) throughout the text. The problem is that Joseph Smith copied the Bible chapters into the Book of Mormon, including many translation errors and italicized words in the process. This would not be possible with a direct translation from the seer stone as a tight translation requires. A very brief example of this problem can be found here:

 

MALACHI 3:10 (KJV):  ...and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it

3 NEPHI 24:10: ...and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it

In this example, there are seven italicized words added to the KJV translations that are not in the original Hebrew manuscript. The Book of Mormon was supposedly written 1,400 years earlier and has the same exact additions as the KJV. That is impossible with a tight translation, and even with a loose translation leaves some huge problems to be addressed.

Our Deutero-Isaiah overview covers this in much more detail, but in those chapters Lehi would not have even had access to the source material before leaving Jerusalem. This is a problem in that it appears in the Book of Mormon not just in direct copying of the text, but also in the themes throughout.

Again, even with a loose translation, this is an absolutely critical issue with the Book of Mormon, and it is an area where we can show that Joseph Smith’s inability to know that there were multiple writers of Isaiah allows us today to see that it is not an ancient text.
 

This problem is even further complicated by the fact that Joseph Smith changed some of the King James Version passages while completing his Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, yet has the original errors in the Book of Mormon. Take the following example:

3 NEPHI 13:25-27: 25 And now it came to pass that when Jesus had spoken these words he looked upon the twelve whom he had chosen, and said unto them: Remember the words which I have spoken. For behold, ye are they whom I have chosen to minister unto this people. Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

26 Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

 

27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

MATTHEW 6:25-27 (KJV): 25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?

27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

MATTHEW 6:28-31(JST): 28 Therefore, I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink, nor yet for your bodies, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

29 Behold the fowls of the air, for they sow not; neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? How much more will he not feed you?

30 Wherefore, take no thought for these things, but keep my commandments wherewith I have commanded you.

31 For which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?

We are told the Book of Mormon is the most correct book on Earth, yet Joseph Smith claimed to have used revelation to change verses in the King James Version of the Bible that now differ from the Book or Mormon. Those are the examples that call into question the legitimacy of Joseph Smith's prophetic abilities, especially when understanding the translation method used in the Book of Mormon itself. Here is one more example where Joseph Smith 'corrected' a part of the King James Bible that he had copied directly into the Book of Mormon:


3 Nephi 14:6: 6 Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

Matthew 7:6 (KJV): 6 Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.

Matthew 7:10-11 (JST): 10 And the mysteries of the kingdom ye shall keep within yourselves; for it is not meet to give that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls unto swine, lest they trample them under their feet.


11 For the world cannot receive that which ye, yourselves, are not able to bear; wherefore ye shall not give your pearls unto them, lest they turn again and rend you.

There is no way to reconcile Joseph Smith copying directly from the King James Bible unless we accept a loose translation, but as stated above that contradicts what we know about the translation process from the witnesses. Emma Smith also noted that Joseph Smith never had any source material to copy from, yet we know without a shadow of a doubt that he copied from the King James Bible because of the added words that are unique to the KJV Bible. This is a problem that has never had a good answer without directly contradicting the statements of those involved in the process.

Anachronisms

 

As we covered in the last overview, one of the quickest and surest ways that scholars can assess the Book of Mormon is by looking at anachronisms. With a tight translation, there would be no way to have anachronisms such as the ones in the Book of Mormon that would be unfamiliar to Book of Mormon times, but entirely familiar to Joseph Smith. Again, remember that the witnesses all state that Joseph Smith saw the exact words and spelling on his stone in the hat, so anachronisms would not be possible under a tight translation.

Apologists claim that Joseph Smith used a loose translation when he came across an animal, material, or geographic area he was unfamiliar with, but that doesn't fit the translation history nor does it explain why Joseph Smith used words that have never been used elsewhere such as deseret, curelom, and cumom. Among the most common anachronisms are:

  • Elephants

  • Cattle

  • Sheep

  • Goats

  • Pigs

  • Honey bees

  • Horses

  • Chariots

  • Steel Swords

  • Metal working

  • Silk

  • Wheat

The problem is that Joseph Smith included all of these animals, items, and plants in the Book of Mormon that did not exist during the time it claims to have taken place in. Apologists fall back on a loose translation to say that Joseph Smith had to use words he was familiar with when he saw something he did not understand, but that is in direct contradiction with the tight translation as described by Emma Smith and David Whitmer.

Because of this, apologists move to a 'loan shifting' method of trying to explain that horses aren't horses, but maybe tapirs. Apologist Brant Gardner gives this explanation: "What we probably have in this case is Joseph substituting a known animal (out of place) for an animal which was also a big cat. In other words, the underlying text would have been 'jaguar' but the translation would be 'lion.'"

The problem is that this can only work with a very loose translation that would require Joseph to see the Book of Mormon story in a visionary state, which completely contradicts the very idea of translating gold plates. Or more to the point, if it was a tight translation Joseph Smith would simply use whatever word that God revealed to him, but with a loose translation Joseph Smith would see the 'big cat' in a vision and then plug it into what he sees it as in his inspired mind.
Not only does this contradict the accounts we have, but it also creates other problems. Even if we accept Gardner’s explanation, we then have to explain how we got the words deseret, curelom, or cumom because no one had heard of them before or since.

But the bigger problem for Joseph Smith is that if he was truly translating the word of God, according to witness statements, he would have been given the correct, specific terms or else the next grouping or words would not appear on the stone in the hat. Either Joseph Smith was lying to those who were involved in the process to make it seem more magical, or the witnesses were all recounting an incorrect history independently of each other.

Given that Joseph Smith used the exact same method to translate the Book of Mormon as he did to “see” lost treasure buried in the ground for money, it would make sense that Joseph Smith was telling those around him a translation process that seemed magical while dictating the book orally to his scribe. We will get more into the process of how Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon in the next section, but it absolutely ties in to the translation method as well.

Bible Stories Being Incorporated into the Book of Mormon as Literal Events
 

As we covered in our sections on biblical scholarship, the Book of Mormon incorporates the earliest stories of the Bible directly into the Book of Mormon as if they are literal, historical events. This becomes a problem as history has shown that many of them simply did not happen.

In the case of Adam and Eve, we can show that the story was a late addition when the Pentateuch was being officially composed, and we can show through science that neither the Tower of Babel or global flood are historical events. These three stories in Genesis are etiological myths, and in ancient times they were not meant to be a literal history as they did not view history as we do today.

However, all three stories are incorporated through the Book of Mormon to the point that if any of them are not historically true, the Book of Mormon cannot stand on its own. If the Book of Mormon is a historical record translated with a “tight translation,” there is absolutely no reason that the Tower of Babel story would be mentioned with the Jaredites because it never happened.

Again, this is where we can show that Joseph Smith was dictating the Book of Mormon and using the King James Bible as a source text. Unfortunately, it is by studying the Bible and the history behind it that we can show where Joseph Smith was pulling material that either did not happen historically or was not available during the times of the Book of Mormon.

If you have not read through our sections on biblical scholarship, please do so as I believe they are more important to understanding the historicity of the Book of Mormon than just about any other problem with the Book of Mormon itself.

Changes to the Book of Mormon

There have been over 100,000 changes to the Book of Mormon with most being grammatical changes, but also some pretty significant changes after the initial 1830 edition. Under a tight translation, these changes would be impossible to make because Joseph Smith would be changing the literal word of God, but even under a loose translation it begs the question of why Joseph Smith would need to go back and make significant changes to account for the evolving theology regarding the plurality of gods. For example:

1 Nephi 11:18 (1830): "And he said unto me, Behold, the virgin which thou seest, is the mother of God, after the manner of the flesh."


1 Nephi 11:18 (Now): "And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh."

1 Nephi 11:21 (1830): "And the angel said unto me, behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Eternal Father!"

1 Nephi 11:21 (Now): "And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!"

1 Nephi 11:32 (1830): "And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Everlasting God, was judged of the world"

1 Nephi 11:32 (Now): "And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people; yea, the Son of the Everlasting God, was judged of the world"

1 Nephi 13:40 (1830): "and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world"

1 Nephi 13:40 (Now): "and shall make known to all kindreds, tongues, and people, that the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father and the Savior of the world"

Apologists argue that Joseph Smith was merely adding words to avoid confusion for readers, but as we discuss in our First Vision overview, this timing lines up with the church's evolving theology regarding the plurality of gods. In addition, Joseph Smith makes other changes that would be impossible under the tight translation as history dictates:

1 Nephi 20:1 (1830): "Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, which are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, which swear"

1 Nephi 20:1 (1864): "Hearken and hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and are come forth out of the waters of Judah, or out of the waters of baptism, who swear"

Mosiah 21:28 (1830): "king Benjamin had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings;"

Mosiah 21:28 (Now): "king Mosiah had a gift from God, whereby he could interpret such engravings;"

These changes again would not be possible with a tight translation, because as we showed above the words on the stone would not move to the next words until they were written down correctly. This then requires a loose translation where Joseph Smith is given the freedom to make changes as he saw fit.

 

Surrounding Influences
 

As I covered in the overview on surrounding influences, Joseph Smith incorporates events that are going on around him into the Book of Mormon which simply would not be possible under a tight translation.

Joseph Smith references treasure digging at multiple points through the Book of Mormon, which would make no sense to those in the ancient Americas who did not practice treasure digging with ‘slippery’ treasures that sink into the ground.

The Charles Anthon visit by Martin Harris is written directly into the Book of Mormon after the visit occurred, thus fulfilling a prophecy in the Book of Mormon that had already happened. Again, this is not something that one can reasonably explain with a tight translation.

We also have Joseph Smith writing in his father’s dream as Lehi’s dream, writing in the translation process for the Book of Mormon, and even writing himself in as the seer who will bring forth the Book of Mormon.

Again, I highly recommend reading our surrounding influences overview, because there is absolutely no way to reconcile those influences appearing in the Book of Mormon with the translation accounts that we have from Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer.

The Lost 116 Pages

The "lost 116 pages” is an area that requires a loose translation, because if Joseph Smith was truly utilizing a tight translation there would have been no harm in re-translating the lost pages. As we covered in the lost 116 pages overview, Joseph Smith claimed to have lost access to translating the plates upon the pages being lost, and that God had revealed he could not re-translate as evil people would alter the handwritten words try to make him foolish.

That is a difficult idea to believe because if Joseph Smith had re-translated the 116 pages and then Lucy came back with altered pages, it would be extremely obvious that she had manually changed the original pages written on foolscap paper. While they did not have the forensic abilities we do now, trying to white-out and copy over a page to alter the text would be extremely obvious.

Put another way, in a tight translation method the words would be identical because the words on Joseph Smith's seer/peep stone did not change until they were both written down and spelled correctly. The tight translation method, which Joseph Smith claimed to those around him, is actually the perfect safety net for a situation such as this.

An apologetic argument might be that this is not a question or a tight or loose translation since God had prepared a second set of plates thousands of years earlier knowing that Joseph would lose those exact pages, but as we outline in our lost 116 pages overview, the problems with the 116 pages go well beyond the tight and loose translation issue.

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Problems with the Book of Mormon that Cannot Survive a Loose Translation:

 

Now that we’ve covered some of the key problems that cannot survive the Book of Mormon using a tight translation, I wanted to highlight a few that cannot survive a loose translation.


DNA and the Lamanites


As we explored in our overview on DNA and the Book of Mormon, we now know the Native Americans that the church has called the descendants of the Lamanites for the last 170+ years are not from Jerusalem, but from Asia. This has forced apologists to find new theories to explain how the entire Book of Mormon can be based on a premise that has been proven false by both migration studies and DNA testing that was not available to nor probably ever envisioned by Joseph Smith.

This is actually a problem no matter which translation method is used, because even a tight translation shows that the Lamanites aren't who we were told they were, but, more importantly, in a loose translation we can see that Joseph Smith was not able to weave the vision correctly to incorporate the kind of surrounding civilizations to make the story line up with history.

Apologists now claim that there were other populations here when the Jaredites arrived, but that is not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Mormon and church leaders have been quite clear that America had been preserved solely for this group to arrive, including an article by Jeffrey R. Holland making that quite clear. From Holland:


“Such a special place needed now to be kept apart from other regions, free from the indiscriminate traveler as well as the soldier of fortune. To guarantee such sanctity the very surface of the earth was rent. In response to God’s decree, the great continents separated and the ocean rushed in to surround them. The promised place was set apart. Without habitation it waited for the fulfillment of God’s special purposes.” (A Promised Land, Jeffrey R. Holland)


A loose translation would also explain why the Book of Mormon makes the Lamanites are described just like the Indians of Joseph Smith's times were perceived, but does not allow for the idea that the Americas were heavily populated when the Book of Mormon people arrived (Jaredites or Lehites). If you believe that Joseph received the Book of Mormon story through prophetic vision, you could attempt to explain away the need for the gold plates, but then it calls into question how Joseph got so much wrong about that time period while looking directly at visionary images through the power of God.

 

Hebraisms

One of the areas of 'evidence' that apologists claim for the Book of Mormon is the use of Hebraisms - specifically chiasmus. This would require a tight translation, because not only does the language have to be perfectly translated from the records, but the sentence structure would have to be preserved as well. There is no way to reconcile a loose translation with chiasmus as evidence for the Book of Mormon being an ancient text, although there are many works that have chiasmus from Joseph Smith's time and afterwards that are not scriptures such as The Late War, which was written in a style of King James English and available to Joseph Smith growing up.

This is important to note because a large problem with the loose translation theory as a whole is that the plates were never used, so if Joseph was writing through revelation (as opposed to translation), how would he know to use chiasmus in these visions? On the other hand, if Joseph was using a tight translation which would bring us chiasmus, it opens the door to all of the other problems with the Book of Mormon we listed above.

 

In other words, the Hebraisms have to be the result of a tight translation that preserves the sentence and grammatical structure of ancient times, but the moment you then cite them as evidence, you have to answer all of the problems that simply cannot exist with a tight translation. That is where this problem becomes very tricky to deal with.
 

New Names of Plants, Animals, and Money
 

This might go without saying, but if Joseph Smith was using a loose translation where he applied his own vocabulary for everything he saw in a visionary state, then where did the terms he created within the Book of Mormon come from?

The Book of Mormon introduces new words for animal (“curelom” and “cumom”), plants (“neas” and “sheum”), metal (“ziff”), and monetary units (“senine,” “seon,” “shum,” “limnah,” “senum,” “amnor,” “ezrom,” “onti,” “shiblon,” and “leah”) throughout the text. In addition you have words like "liahona" and "deseret" which have no ancient or modern connection even though both of those words are frequently used in church materials.

In a loose translation, the only way these words could appear is if Joseph Smith simply made them up. An apologetic response would be that Joseph Smith was given these specific names during the visionary or revelatory process, but then you would have to answer why Joseph Smith was not given the correct names for everything else that is now know as an anachronism that is listed above.

Put another way, if the apologetic response is that Joseph Smith saw an animal so unique that he couldn’t name it “bear” or “turkey” so the vision told him it was a “curelom,” then we have to explain why Joseph Smith did not get the correct names for animals that we are told must have looked like horses, elephants, or sheep.

This is an area where you need to have both a loose and tight translation method, but the history and accounts tell us that Joseph Smith cannot have it both ways. In this case, we can illustrate this problem with a single verse from Ether:

 

Ether 9:19 “And they also had horses, and asses, and there were elephants and cureloms and cumoms; all of which were useful unto man, and more especially the elephants and cureloms and cumoms.”
 

It becomes very difficult to argue that Joseph Smith could switch between a tight and loose translation when a single verse in the Book of Mormon requires both methods of translation. If Joseph Smith was translating directly off the gold plates, you would not have the anachronistic words horses, asses, and elephants. On the other hand, if it was a loose translation that allowed Joseph Smith to see animals in a vision, you would not have made up words such as cureloms and cumoms. In this single verse, however, you need both a tight and loose translation to make it work, and that is highly problematic given the accounts that we do have for the translation process.

Summary

The tight vs loose translation theories will continue to be a point of contention going forward, but as I stated at the beginning, the history is very clear that Joseph Smith used a tight translation process for the Book of Mormon. There is absolutely no way to reconcile the idea of a loose translation with the history from Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer. I do not want to belabor the point, but here are the accounts from Emma Smith, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris again:

 

Emma Smith: "As he dictated each sentence, word for word, and when he came to proper names he could not pronounce, or long words, he spelled them out, and while I was writing them, if I made a mistake in spelling, he would stop me and correct my spelling, although it was impossible for him to see how I was writing them down at the time... When he stopped for any purpose at any time he would, when he commenced again, begin where he left off without any hesitation." (Edmund C. Briggs, “A Visit to Nauvoo in 1856,” Journal of History, Jan. 1916, p. 454.)

David Whitmer: “Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear." (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)

Martin Harris's Account via Edward Stevenson: "Martin Harris related an incident that occurred during the time that he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the Prophet possessed a seer stone, by which he was enabled to translate as well as from the Urim and Thummim, and for convenience he then used the seer stone, Martin explained the translation as follows: By aid of the seer stone, sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by Martin and when finished he would say "Written," and if correctly written that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates, precisely in the language then used." ("One of the Three Witnesses," Millennial Star, Volume 44, p 86-87)

 

This presents massive problems for the credibility and authenticity of the Book of Mormon as outlined by the different issues above. Joseph Smith unquestionably used the King James Bible as source material while the Book of Mormon was being written, which is impossible under a tight translation method. If Joseph Smith put his seer/peep stone and hat down when he recognized that he was dictating parts of Isaiah and just grabbed his copy of the King James Bible, by his own account the stone would not just pick up where he left off unless the preceeding text was exactly correct.

Furthermore, Joseph Smith incorporates Bible stories as literal events which we now know did not happen in a literal sense, including Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, and a global flood. This becomes a problem with either translation method, but is especially damning for a tight translation since there would be no room for Joseph Smith to incorporate his own worldview that these were literal events into the text.

The anachronisms in the Book of Mormon require a loose translation to try and explain why Joseph Smith constantly relied on animals, plants, and metalworking that just did not exist in Book of Mormon times but ones that Joseph was familiar with from his own milieu and study of the Bible. A loose translation is also required to account for the changes made to the Book of Mormon - especially given the historical account from Emma that even spelling errors would keep the seer stone from revealing new words in Joseph's hat.

While the tight vs loose translation theories might seem like nitpicking at this point, it is very important to understanding that not only is the Book of Mormon not historical, but that Joseph Smith was the author. In order to even attempt to make the problems above seem plausible, apologists have to switch between the tight and loose translations depending on the problem. However, this not only is contradicted by the accounts we have from Emma Smith, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, but shows an inconsistency in the translation process that gives us insight into how Joseph Smith created the text.

One last note I want to make here is that the loose translation theory did not become popularized until apologetics were forced to make the change. This is the same problem we saw with the Book of Abraham: Once the source papyrus for the Book of Abraham was recovered, there was no doubt that Joseph Smith got the translation completely wrong. At that point the church switched from a literal translation of Egyptian to a “catalyst theory,” which is the exact same idea of the loose translation.

In other words, for both the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham we are no longer told that Joseph Smith was able to translate ancient languages, but that he was given revelatory and visionary experiences by God and then he filtered them through his own abilities to put them into words.


On one hand, this helps to explain away errors by attributing them to the errors of man. On the other hand, this method is indistinguishable from outright fraud, which is why church leaders were unwilling to make this shift until the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore. As Elder Ulisses Soares conceded in his April 2020 talk:
 

“This sacred ancient record was not ‘translated’ in the traditional way that scholars would translate ancient texts by learning an ancient language. We ought to look at the process more like a ‘revelation’ with the aid of physical instruments provided by the Lord as opposed to a ‘translation’ by one with knowledge of languages.”
 

To say that this is a completely different explanation of the Book of Mormon than I was given as an investigator 25 years ago is an understatement, but it shows how the church realizes that the idea of a tight translation is impossible to defend against the evidence.

And that leaves the church with a loose translation theory, which is disputed by the historical accounts in every sense and is no different than outright fraud. This is a problem that doesn’t really fully materialize until you take everything in totality, and that is why this is now the fifteenth overview page on the Book of Mormon on this site between biblical scholarship and the Book of Mormon itself.

As I’ve said on many of these overview pages, it is important to look at these topics in totality to understand why scholars can state with certainty that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text, but a 19th century production by Joseph Smith. From Joseph Smith's days as a treasure digger until this section on the tight vs loose translation methods, all of the overviews help to connect the dots on how Joseph Smith was able to do it.

And in our next and final section on the Book of Mormon, I will explain how Joseph Smith could have authored the Book of Mormon, and why the translation timeline and circumstances are not nearly as miraculous as the church and apologists have proclaimed it to be.

Next section: Writing the Book of Mormon

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