The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon


Robert K. Dellenbach
Adapted from an April 1995 general conference address.
No man could have written the Book of Mormon on his own. It could only have come from divine revelation.

The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is presently in print in 40 languages, and selections from the book in 48 languages, and it is now being translated or prepared for publication in 22 more.

Consider the Church’s current process of translating the book from English into another language. The Church contracts experienced member translators who are fluent in English as well as their native tongue, who possess high moral character so that inspiration will guide their work. Just as in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s day, the ability to translate holy writ today is a spiritual gift from God.

Unlike the Prophet’s day, however, many of our modern translators utilize computers, word processors, and books about language to help them in their sacred assignment. The work is extensive, and each step must be analyzed by Church translation experts. Even with the most competent translators and advanced technology available, the entire process requires approximately four years.

Now contrast the translation of the Book of Mormon by young Joseph Smith. Joseph was raised on a farm in upstate New York and was only 24 years of age at the time he completed his translation of this sacred record from reformed Egyptian to English.

He had little financially and was busy supporting his wife and family. Of necessity, he planted and harvested crops, chopped wood, hauled water, and cared for animals.

The conditions under which Joseph translated were less than ideal. His life was threatened. Mobs tried to steal the plates, requiring him to hide the ancient records and often move them from place to place (see JS—H 1:60). Joseph had no telephone, no dictating equipment, fax, word processor, or copy machine—not even electric light.

Joseph had little formal education, perhaps no more than three years of elementary school. There were no literary magazines or academic periodicals delivered to his doorstep. He never visited South America or the Middle East. He belonged to no professional societies, had performed no extensive research projects, nor did he have learned colleagues with whom to discuss the ancient text. He may have studied basic reading, writing, and arithmetic and perhaps a little American history. We know he read the Bible in English, but by the standards of the world, Joseph was neither a scholar nor a theologian, much less a professional translator of holy scriptures.

What skills did Joseph possess to aid in his translation? Oliver Cowdery, the principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, said that “the Prophet Joseph Smith … translated [the Book of Mormon] by the gift and power of God, by the [assistance or] means of the Urim and Thummim” (“Last Days of Oliver Cowdery,” Deseret News, 13 Apr. 1859, p. 48).

Typically a literary work undergoes extensive revisions and editing before a final, finely tuned draft is completed. For example, Abraham Lincoln rewrote his Gettysburg Address five different times, each version varying slightly from the other (see World Book Encyclopedia, 1992).

I have had the glorious experience of quietly examining several pages of Joseph’s original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which is safely protected in the Church archives. I was overwhelmed at the purity of the transcription which had only a very few, insignificant corrections, such as a misspelled word. Joseph’s original manuscript is so perfect, it could only have come from one source—divine revelation.

On Joseph’s shoulders rested not only the translation of the Book of Mormon but also the restoration and reestablishment of the Church of Jesus Christ. Even as Joseph translated, he received many revelations and visitations from heavenly messengers who gave him additional important assignments, such as the restoration of the priesthood and the revelation on baptism (see JS—H 1:68–75). Joseph’s many responsibilities often interrupted the translation process, sometimes for several months. Yet, once Joseph was free to dedicate his entire effort to translation, the work surged forward and he translated eight to ten pages a day, completing the preponderance of the Book of Mormon translation in approximately 63 working days.

Oliver, reflecting on this miraculous event, testified, “Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated … the history, or record, called ‘The Book of Mormon’” (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1834, pp. 14–16).

Joseph Smith was the first person in over fourteen hundred years to read the words of the Savior as written by Nephi, Alma, Mormon, Moroni, and the other prophets of the Book of Mormon. His ability to translate was nothing short of a “marvelous work and a wonder” (2 Ne. 25:17).

The Prophet’s original English translation, except for a few minor grammatical and textual corrections, remains the text we use today and is the standard for all other language translations of the Book of Mormon.

Could any one of us today produce such a work? Could a thousand of the world’s best theologians and scholars of ancient languages write a similar book of such spiritual value?

No other person with such limited education as Joseph has single-handedly translated in such a short period of time from ancient writings more than 500 pages of scriptural text. That translation now has 73 million books in distribution.

Joseph’s translation of this ancient, sacred scripture has withstood the scrutiny of many skeptics. The Book of Mormon stands as a miraculous work for the world to examine. All over the world people are seeking the witness of Jesus Christ as found in the Book of Mormon. They come from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. As was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name” (D&C 122:1). And why are they seeking after the name of Joseph Smith? Because the Book of Mormon testifies of the divinity and atonement of the Savior, Jesus Christ. Because Joseph is the prophet of the Restoration.

With deep appreciation for the miracle that transpired through the translation of the Book of Mormon, we sing:

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation, …
Millions shall know “Brother Joseph” again.

(Hymns, 1985, no. 27)

The translation miracle of the Book of Mormon clearly evidences that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, called to “lay the foundation of [Christ’s] church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). The Book of Mormon is the “keystone of our religion” and will bring a man “nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 194). I pray that we may appreciate this miracle, and that it will be our desire to come to know and follow the Savior through his teachings in the Book of Mormon. l

[illustrations] Illustrated by Cary Henrie

[photo] A portion of the original manuscript.