Translating the ancient and strange looking writing on the gold plates was not a job that just anyone could do. Such an important work needed to be done by someone who was especially prepared by the Lord to do it.
Because of his spiritual nature and his willingness to learn the truth, Joseph Smith was tested and found worthy to be the translator of the Book of Mormon. To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.”
Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone. The translating was done at Peter Whitmer’s home, a friend of the Prophet’s where Oliver Cowdery, Emma Smith (Joseph’s wife), one of the Whitmers, or Martin Harris wrote down the words spoken by the Prophet as soon as they were made known to him.
Martin Harris said that on the seer stone “sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by [the one writing them down] and when finished [that person] would say ‘written;’ and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another take its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates.”
Even with the help of the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone, it wasn’t easy to translate the sacred record. It required the Prophet’s greatest concentration and spiritual strength.
Joseph’s friend, David Whitmer, said that sometimes when the Prophet would try to translate, “he was spiritually blind” and could not do it. Joseph explained that when that happened it was because his mind “dwelt too much on earthly things.”
One morning the Prophet was unhappy with his wife Emma over a household matter. When he went upstairs where Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were waiting to continue with the translation, he still had a bad feeling about his wife in his heart. Joseph tried to translate but not even a syllable of a word came to him; and he knew why. Joseph went downstairs and out into an orchard where he prayed to the Lord.
After about an hour, Joseph returned to the house feeling humble and repentant. He asked Emma to forgive him for his lack of understanding. Then he went back upstairs where he was able to translate without any difficulty.
David Whitmer also understood why the Prophet couldn’t translate just an hour before. He said, “Now we see how very strict the Lord is, and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in his sight before he can receive revelations from him.”