I propose that there is an essential continuity of method connecting all of Joseph Smith’s translations of ancient texts, from his 1828-29 translation of the Book of Mormon to his 1843 encounter with the Kinderhook plates, and that this method was both expansive and linguistic. To demonstrate this continuity, I will begin with the latest of Joseph Smith’s translation efforts and work backward, heedlessly stomping through a few minefields along the way.
4. The Kinderhook plates
The Kinderhook plates provide the clearest example of Joseph Smith attempting to integrate a newly encountered ancient record into his previous experience. As Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee have shown, when attempting to make sense of these plates in 1843, Joseph Smiths identified the meaning of one symbol by comparing it to a visually similar character in the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language” (GAEL), which had been created in 1835 in connection with the translation of the Egyptian papyri that led to the Book of Abraham. (My thoughts on the insights offered by this episode are here.)
3. The Book of Abraham/“Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”
There is ongoing controversy over the relation between the translation of the Book of Abraham, the Egyptian papyri acquired in 1835, and the GAEL. Reading Brian Hauglid’s latest contribution on the topic, I find myself largely nodding in agreement with his conclusions; the GAEL is intrinsically connected with the translation of the Book of Abraham. I do think much of the current controversy largely misses the point: the creation of the GAEL is not prior or posterior to the translation of the Book of Abraham; it is the translation of the Book of Abraham. You cannot translate the literature of another language without exploring the structure and potential of that language, and you cannot systematically explore the structure and potential of another language without study of its literature. The two are so closely interconnected that separating them is impossible.
All the hoopla about ha-e-oop-hah, so to speak, has obscured some of the most interesting features of the GAEL. The GAEL cannot be reverse engineered from the Book of Abraham—any more than it can be used to generate the Book of Abraham—because it is no mere glossary. What looks at first glance like a tabular presentation of characters and their definitions in fact sketches out the rudiments of a theory of language, and therefore a theory of translation. According to the introduction to volume 4 of Joseph Smith Papers Revelations and Translations, “In the language system found in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, each character contained five different degrees of meaning, and the definition of the character in each successive degree was more complex or detailed than in the previous degree.” However, not only the depth of meaning is involved, but also syntactic complexity. In its simplest degree, each character represents a sentence. Each character could potentially include as well any “connecting parts of speech,” including “verbs, participles, prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs” (the spelling and punctuation of the GAEL has been normalized throughout). Through variation, combination, and other forms of augmentation, characters could be increased or lessened in signification and syntactic complexity, and there are also allusions to comparing, qualifying, multiplying, connecting, and compounding the meaning of a character.
The GAEL presents two series of characters with definitions in their first through fifth degrees, starting with the fifth. Thus the canoe-shaped character similar in appearance to one found on one of the Kinderhook plates appears in the GAEL with the name “Ha-e-oop-hah” and the definition, in its fifth degree, of “honor by birth; kingly power by the line of Pharaoh; possession by birth; one who reigns upon his throne universally; possessor of heaven and earth, and of the blessings of the earth.”
I do disagree with Hauglid on one point. He sees the GAEL’s linguistic theory as “misguided”; I see it as an essential intellectual contribution to a revealed translation, and an invaluable insight into Joseph Smith’s approach to translation.
I would also begin the chronology of the GAEL’s theory of language, with its five-fold hierarchy of signification, several years before Joseph Smith’s encounter with the Egyptian papyri. Like the Kinderhook plates, the GAEL continues and builds on Joseph Smith’s prior prophetic and linguistic work.
2. The Specimen of Pure Language
In May 1835, prior to the summer 1835 acquisition of the Egyptian papyri, William W. Phelps recorded a “Specimen of Pure Language” in a letter to his wife. David Golding has provided an excellent overview of Joseph Smith’s quest to recover divine language. I differ from Golding somewhat in seeing the scant documentation of the “pure language project” as an integral part of a much larger undertaking that both looked back to Joseph Smith’s earliest work as a seer and served a very practical purpose for him.
The table below (based on table 14.1 in Golding’s article) compares the “Specimen” with a series of characters of the fifth through first degree from the second sequence of the GAEL.
The significance of this comparison lies not in any similarity of definitions, but in the similarity of organization using a five-fold hierarchy; the clear similarity of visual signs; the same progression through augmentation and variation of graphic elements; and similar progressions of variation in words and their definitions. The GAEL was not developed ex nihilo or strictly in response to the Book of Abraham and associated papyri. Instead, it incorporated and extended a pre-existing theory of language and systematization of characters, words, and meanings.
The “Specimen of Pure Language” in turn is related to the “Sample of Pure Language” of 1832, which provides words similar to those of the “Specimen,” although no characters or sounds. In addition, “Zomar,” a word that reappears in the GAEL as a synonym for Zion, is recorded in use with identical meaning in 1831.
Just as each step from 1831 to 1835 and 1843 builds and expands on the prior one, the essence of my proposal is that this expansive theory of language and augmentative systematization of characters and meaning continues and expands on Joseph Smith’s experience translating the Book of Mormon.
1. The Book of Mormon
I propose that the translation process for the Book of Mormon anticipated the process Joseph Smith attempted with the Kinderhook plates, in that the characters mediated and controlled the translation; that it involved the unfolding of a character’s full meaning and syntactic articulation similar to the system that motivates the “Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language”; and that it was based on interpreting visual indications of augmentation, diminishment and combination as seen in the “Specimen of Pure Language” and the GAEL. The translation process did not involve Joseph Smith narrating a vision or repeating an auditory dictation. It entailed the textual rendering into English of ancient characters.
As a proposal, this outstrips what the evidence dictates, and it faces at least a few challenges.
- To understand the translation process of the Book of Mormon, the first fundamental step in the Restoration, my proposal turns to later documents and incidents that have largely been regarded as marginal curiosities.
- It flies in the face of the emergent consensus that Joseph Smith made little use of the plates in translating the Book of Mormon (discussion of which must again be deferred to a later post).
- It requires robust commitment to Joseph Smith’s calling as a seer without offering much in the way of external confirmation.
The proposal is not entirely without support or benefit, however.
It provides for continuity in translation methods. For an event as foundational as translating the Book of Mormon, we should expect to see substantial effect on Joseph Smith’s future translation efforts, especially those involving ancient records. This is far preferable to a complete breach in translation method between the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, as if his experience with the plates would have no effect on his approach to the papyri. Instead, the proposal calls for both translation projects to involve studying the visual differences between graphic signs and expressing their full potential meaning through a process of semantic and syntactic exponentiation.
It would explain at least part of what Joseph Smith was “studying out in his mind,” which the April 1829 revelation to Oliver Cowdery (now D&C 9) suggests as an essential step in the translation process. Rather than merely observing a vision or beholding an English sentence, Joseph Smith’s translation process involved contemplating the characters, their distinctions from, connections to, and relationships with other characters, and how their exponentially expanding significance might be fully rendered into English.
It is consistent with some aspects of some eyewitness accounts. I’m dissatisfied with the approach of citing one favored account, especially late accounts, and particularly the accounts of David Whitmer, which are all over the place. But two of David Whitmer’s accounts (both recorded in the 1880s) claim that Joseph Smith would see one character on or through the interpreter(s), under which would appear as little as one word or as much as two lines of text. This would at least accord with the proposal that while the translation could be quite expansive, it was directly connected to single characters. Even early accounts, however, do attest an initial focus on transcribing and studying the characters themselves before any ability to translate them was granted.
Additional evidence comes by way of the “Caractors” document, now dated circa 1829-31, and which seems to have been treated by Joseph Smith and other translation witnesses as an accurate depiction of characters found on the gold plates. Linguistically speaking, the “Caractors” document remains a puzzle. There are far too many characters for it to be an alphabetic representation of language, while too many of its signs are too visually simple and repetitive for it to represent a workable ideographic system. (I’m making an unsubstantiated claim here.) There are, however, several examples of what look like the same type of visual augmentation and variation as those found in the “Specimen of Pure Language” and the GAEL. This includes not only the use of some of the same characters, but also the same inventory of techniques, as found in the two later documents, for visually marking, augmenting and distinguishing characters.
A final bit of evidence comes from two sets of two characters recorded by John Whitmer in 1835-36 (and existing in a second copy from Frederick G. Williams).
These two-character sequences, glossed as “The Book of Mormon and “the interpretation of languages,” seem only modestly expansive in their translation. But they are visually similar to characters found in both the “Caractors” document and the GAEL, and they use similar means of visual augmentation with dots and lines. More importantly, the second phrase uses the same type of systematic visual variation for related concepts as found in the GAEL—in this case, a semicircle and full circle for “interpretation” and “languages” (either respectively or vice-versa, depending on the direction one reads). These phrases moreover tie the characters from the gold plates to the study of languages among followers of Joseph Smith in the mid-1830s.
This proposed theory of translation is compatible with both naturalistic and supernatural understanding of the Book of Mormon. In a naturalistic approach, the plates and the characters on them would inspire and mediate Joseph Smith’s preternatural creativity. In a supernatural account, the correct rendering of each character is divinely communicated to Joseph Smith by way of the interpreters; the theory of language sketched out by the GAEL can be seen as an attempt to record or systematize the initial revelatory experience of translating the ancient writings of the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.
One of the lasting puzzles concerning the translation of the Book of Mormon is how so much text could have been represented on plates of the size reported by eyewitnesses. It would seem to require either plates that were preternaturally thin, or writing that was incredibly tiny. Another option is to follow the math of Kinderhook, where one character generated a text of around 25 words. If we further make the (dubious) assumption that the ca. 200 signs of the “Caractors” document reflect the etchings found on one plate, it would only take 30-75 plates inscribed front and back to provide room for the text of the Book of Mormon, very easily possible with the six-inch stack of plates described by witnesses.
Finally, this proposal for the translation process of the Book of Mormon suggests a new approach to studying its text. The GAEL ties semantically expansive and syntactically complex definitions to a single character. An example of the fifth degree is “Ahlish,” or the “first Being—supreme intelligence; supreme power; supreme glory; supreme Justice; supreme mercy without beginning of life or end of life; comprehending all things, seeing all things: the invisible and eternal godhead.” We have in turn seen in the Kinderhook episode an example of how such a definition can begin to generate narrative. The goal of a new approach to the text of the Book of Mormon would be to ground textual studies in the translation process (rather than in a presumed but inaccessible Nephite precursor text) by identifying semantically extended and syntactically articulated rhetorical segments that are presumably rooted in a single character, beginning with the title page.
The Book of Mormon – An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon
upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi – Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites
Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile – Written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation – Written and sealed up, and hid up unto the Lord, that they might not be destroyed
I would guess that the text here reflects at least three but perhaps as few as eight characters from the gold plates.
 Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee, “‘President Joseph Has Translated a Portion”: Joseph Smith and the Mistranslation of the Kinderhook Plates,” in Michael Hubbard MacKay, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Brian M. Hauglid. eds., Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity (University of Utah Press, 2020), 452-523.
 Brian Hauglid, “‘Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham’: Joseph Smith’s Study of the Egyptian Language and His Translation of the Book of Abraham,” in Producing Ancient Scripture, 364-5.
 Cf. Hauglid, in Producing Ancient Scripture, 388.
 David Golding, “‘Eternal Wisdom Engraven upon the Heavens’: Joseph Smith’s Pure Language Project,” in Producing Ancient Scripture, 354-56.
 Golding takes the sixth character from the “Specimen of Pure Language” as the base form upon which the other five are iterated, but this sixth character properly belongs to another sequence; cf. the visually similar “Baethka-Baethkee” series from the second part of the GAEL, which immediately follows the “Alkebeth-Alkibeth” sequence.
 Golding, in Producing Ancient Scripture, 361.
 David E. Sloan also identified similarities between the early stages of translating the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, as witnessed by the GAEL, but sees this work as a failed translation attempt. See Sloan, “The Anthon Transcripts and the Translation of the Book of Mormon: Studying It Out in the Mind of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5.2 (1996): 57-81.
 John W. Welch, “The Miraculous Translation of the Book of Mormon,” in John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820-1844 (Provo: BYU Press, 2005), nos. 86, 89.
 Michael Hubbard MacKay, “‘Git Them Translated’: Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates,” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, eds. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2015), 83-116.
 See Michael Hubbard MacKay, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Robin Scott Jensen, “The ‘Caractors’ Document: New Light on an Early Transcription of the Book of Mormon Characters,” Mormon Historical Studies 14 (2013): 131-52.
 See Bruce E. Dale, “How Big A Book? Estimating the Total Surface Area of the Book of Mormon Plates,” Interpreter 25 (2017): 261-68.