Tight vs Loose Translation Theories
In this section we want to briefly examine the differences between a tight and loose translation of the Book of Mormon. This is important because some apologists argue both both theories, but as we will discuss below, it is impossible to switch between tight and loose translation, and the history is very clear that only a tight translation fits with what we know historically.
Definition of a Tight vs Loose Translation
For the purposes of this page, we want to describe what we consider to be a brief definition of the two translation methods.
First, we will give FAIR's page on the topic:
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)
Quick definitions of tight vs loose translations:
Tight translation: As outlined above by FAIR's use of Emma Smith, a tight translation is where Joseph Smith is directly translating the Book of Mormon via the seer stone in the hat word for word (Emma was the scribe for the initial 116 pages that were lost. It is unclear *how* Joseph translated the Book of Mormon in that time beyond the quote above, but for the Book of Mormon as we have it, Joseph translated by putting the seer stone in a hat and reading the words). The words would appear on the 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.
Loose translation: This method of translation would give Joseph Smith "inspiration" through revelation, and he could then put the revelation in the context of his own mindset. Effectively Joseph Smith would be given the general lessons and concepts through revelations, but it was up to him to weave those into a story that could be understood in his time.
What History Tells Us:
The history from Joseph Smith's time is very clear that a tight translation was used. 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."
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 LDS 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)
Neither of these accounts allow for a loose translation, as the seer stone would not continue to reveal the words without the exact, correct words being dictated by not just Joseph Smith, but the scribe writing it down as intended.
Why It Matters:
This is one of the most important aspects of Joseph Smith's history to understand when looking at not just the Book of Mormon, but the Doctrine and Covenants as well, because Joseph Smith used the seer stone for many early revelations as well.
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 mindset which is why the problems can be explained away.
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.
Problems with the Book of Mormon that do not survive a tight translation:
1. King James Bible Errors and Deutero-Isaiah
The Book of Mormon uses the King James Bible in many areas, most notably the Isaiah chapters but in many other chapters spread across the Book of Mormon as well. 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.
Deutero-Isaiah is covered in more detail here, but in those chapters, Lehi could not possibly have even had access to the source material before leaving Jerusalem. Even with a loose translation, this is an absolutely critical issue with the Book of Mormon, and is irreconcilable no matter how apologists argue that Joseph Smith translated the book.
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 6:25-27 (JST): 25 And, again, I say unto you, Go ye into the world, and care not for the world; for the world will hate you, and will persecute you, and will turn you out of their synagogues.
26 Nevertheless, ye shall go forth from house to house, teaching the people; and I will go before you.
27 And your heavenly Father will provide for you, whatsoever things ye need for food, what ye shall eat; and for raiment, what ye shall wear or put on.
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 contradicting the statements of those involved in the process.
One of the biggest problems with the Book of Mormon is the constant problem of anachronisms -- the things that are mentioned in the book but were not actually a part of the Americas until after the Book of Mormon times. This is complicated by the fact that these anachronisms are things that Joseph Smith was familiar with, which adds fuel to the fire that he created the Book of Mormon using themes and elements he was familiar with from his time.
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 glaring anachronisms are:
King James scriptures from the Bible, especially Deutero-Isaiah
The problem is that Joseph Smith included all of these elements in the Book of Mormon that did not exist during the time of the book. 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. LDS 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 vision, which completely contradicts the very idea of translating gold plates. Or more to the point, if it was a tight translation you 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. So if this is the case, we would never have the words deseret, curelom, or cumom because no one had heard of them before or since.
Clearly Brant believes it was explained to Joseph well enough that he would know what to change it to, but if this is the case you would think that would only help Joseph's record as a prophet in really declaring what was and wasn't in the Americas during Book of Mormon times. This does not fit with a tight translation, which is what those close to Joseph Smith tell us what happened, and the only method that could even be explained by seeing words appear on a seer stone in a hat.
But the bigger problem is that 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. Why would God set his prophet up to fail the test of time by giving him so many ideas that just can't be backed up by history? Again, a loose translation just does not have any good answers here, but a tight translation is clearly not possible given the errors.
3. DNA and the Lamanites
As we explored in our annotated DNA essay, we now know the Native Americans that the church has called descendants of 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 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 in a tight translation it just shows that the Lamanites aren't who we were told they were, and in a loose translation it shows that Joseph Smith was not able to weave the vision correctly to incorporate the kind of landscape necessary to make the story line up. 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 early LDS leaders were quite clear that America had been preserved solely for this group to arrive.
A loose translation would also explain why the Book of Mormon makes the Lamanites sound just like the Indians of Joseph Smith's times, but again comes with a lot of other problems regarding the Book of Mormon's authenticity. If you believe that Joseph received the Book of Mormon story through prophetic vision, that would negate the need for gold plates but also calls into question how Joseph got so much wrong about that time period while looking directly at it through the power of God.
If it wasn't clear enough that the Book of Mormon premise is that the Native Americans were descendants of Lamanites, early revelations from God declared that the 'Indians' around Joseph Smith were Lamanites. There is no confusion to be made here - both the Book of Mormon and revelations from God point to Indians being descendants from Jerusalem.
4. Changes to the Book of Mormon
There have been over 100,000 changes to the Book of Mormon: Most of which are grammatical changes, but also some pretty significant changes after the initial 1830 edition. Under a tight translations, 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 annotated essay, 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, so they require a loose translation too make the changes work in a way that does not undercut the credibility of the Book of Mormon.
5. The 'Lost' 116 Pages
The "Lost" 116 pages is an area that requires a loose translation, because if Joseph Smith truly was doing a tight translation there would have been no harm in re-translating the lost pages. Of course, Joseph Smith claimed to have lost those plates upon the pages being taken by Lucy Harris, and that God had revealed he could not re-translate as evil people would try to make him foolish. That is a difficult thing to believe for two reasons: The first is that 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. 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. The second reason is that God already showed Joseph to translate incorrectly as his Book of Abraham translation is completely, 100% incorrect. If God was truly concerned with Joseph Smith looking like a true prophet as we are told after Joseph lost the 116 pages, why would he have him translate the Book of Abraham in a way that could be proven 100% false a century later?
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 summary of the lost 116 pages, it just doesn't add up.
Thus in our opinion the only way the lost 116 pages can be accounted for is with a loose translation, but as we've outlined already with the witness statements that is not the way the translation happened.
6. How Specific It is
There are a lot of areas in the Book of Mormon where the text is almost too specific. Some of the more common examples given by critics are the use of honey bees as opposed to just bees, or in Jacob chapter 5 where the specifics of olive horticulture is given. That particular chapter is even more difficult given that the discussion is about what the ancestors did, making the idea that such specifics would still be known all the more unlikely. Loose translation could explain it by using what he had read about olive horticulture in the Bible, but it is so specific it is hard to understand why it would be in the Book of Mormon especially given that olives did not grow in the new world.
This is also the case when the Book of Mormon discusses geography, battles, and other areas where we now are looking to find evidence that it actually took place. Part of the problem with some of the specifics in the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith's discussions afterwards is that they just do not stand up to the history of the world as we now know it, and the lack of evidence from these battles and civilizations has troubled apologists for over 170 years.
7. The Golden Plates
If you believe there were plates, you have to believe in a tight translation because otherwise what purpose could they possibly serve? The plates were engraved with the Book of Mormon, so the only translation that makes sense is a tight translation - otherwise God could have just given Joseph Smith inspiration through his mind to fill in the story via a loose translation similar to his Book of Moses. If you don't believe there are plates, of course, the entire foundation of Mormonism comes crumbling down.
This is important to note because a large problem with the translation as a whole is that the plates were never used.
One apologetic response is that the plates served as evidence of the Book of Mormon to the witnesses, even though they were never used during the translation of the Book of Mormon as we have today (minus the lost 116 pages). Often times Joseph would dictate the Book of Mormon as the plates were buried outside or they were wrapped in cloth for no one to see.
The problem is that if Joseph Smith never used the plates to translate the Book of Mormon, what witness could they give when seen through a cloth? Keep in mind that the witnesses did not see the plates with their eyes, but with their "spiritual eyes." Even the statement from the eight witnesses comes with a lot of problems, and I highly recommend Dan Vogel's videos on the witnesses for much more information. You can view his videos on the three witnesses and part two on the eight witnesses.
One of the few areas of 'evidence' that LDS 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 as well. There is no way to reconcile a loose translation with chiasmus, 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 the King James Bible style and available to Joseph Smith growing up.
This is important to note because a large problem with the translation 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? 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.
The tight vs loose translation theories will continue to be a point of contention going forward, but to us the history is very clear that Joseph Smith used a tight translation. There is really no way to reconcile the idea of a loose translation with the history from Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer. This presents massive problems for the credibility of the Book of Mormon as stated 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. He also included parts of Isaiah (Deutero-Isaiah) unavailable to Lehi when he left with the gold plates, which further complicates any ability for apologists to explain away these issues with a loose translation theory.
The anachronisms all require a loose translation to try and explain why Joseph Smith constantly relied on animals/plants/metalworking that just did not exist in Book of Mormon times but he was familiar with from his own time. It also is required to give cover 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.
These are very critical elements to consider when researching the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. Please keep them in mind as you read the annotated essays, Joseph Smith other translation issues (Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible), or any of the other historical problems for both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. I know it is difficult to read about these problems, but it is always better to discover the truth and to be able to look at resources beyond church approved manuals and articles. Please contact us with any suggestions, comments, or questions. Thank you for reading!