Opposition, 6.0 – 2 Nephi 2:11 in Translation
Posted by joespencer on October 6, 2012
With my last post, I finished up my review of the literature on 2 Nephi 2:11. But I haven’t yet finished recounting the history of interpretation of this passage. Where else might one look? In a word, to translations.
We often say—and rightly!—that the Book of Mormon is quite different from the Bible when it comes to translations. The Bible has come down to its English readers not only through a complex process of original production, subsequent editing and redaction, and community-driven reshaping, and only through centuries of hand-written reproduction of manuscript copies of bits and pieces of the text, but also through a complicated history of translation into Western (and, of course, other) languages, with our own beloved King James Version being as much a product of the Latin Vulgate and the English Bishop’s Bible as of any original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts. And that’s not even to mention the political, historical, aesthetic, theological, and other influences that determined the shape the translation took—as anyone who can read the “originals” can tell you.
The Book of Mormon, however, as we say, leaped over all of that. The Book of Mormon was produced, for the most part, by a single ancient hand—Mormon’s. Well, of course, he actually had to work with records produced over the course of a thousand years (among which were the small plates from which 2 Nephi 2:11 was directly drawn), out of which he assembled his final product, but nonetheless, there was a rather direct transmission from Mormon (through Moroni) to Joseph Smith. And then the translation was accomplished in one—very short—fell swoop, without a long history. One might well point out that even then the translation of the Book of Mormon into English isn’t as simple as it might appear. The language of the translation is unmistakably early nineteenth century frontier English, woven with archaic-sounding King Jamesisms. There are those—I’m not among them, myself—who spend a good deal of time trying to sort out what in the Book of Mormon genuinely reflects the ancient and what rather reflects the modern. Moreover, there’s a textual history of the Book of Mormon—accidental typos that have been perpetuated, intentional changes made by Joseph Smith in 1837 and 1840, and intentional work on cleaning up the grammar Joseph’s unlearned tongue employed in dictation. Be all that as it may, though, the Book of Mormon with which believers are to deal is the English that has come to us rather directly from God, without a whole lot of mediating bother.
So what could I mean when I say that the history of translation of the Book of Mormon can tell us something about the meaning of 2 Nephi 2:11. Rather simply, I mean the history of the translation of the English into other languages. There’s a lot to learn from this.
A word or two, first, about what I’m after here. I’m planning to look only at four languages: French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Why those four? These are four of the five languages into which the Book of Mormon was translated very early in Church history, and they are the four languages in which many translations of the book have appeared. (The fifth language that received the Book of Mormon early on was Welsh, but I can’t read a word of Welsh, and there has never been a retranslation into Welsh, interestingly. If there’s anyone out there who can say something about the meaning of the Welsh translation, I’d be much obliged!) It’s only recently that the Book of Mormon has found its way into dozens and dozens of other languages. The larger project of translation today is very closely guided by a massive translation guide that decides many details for the translators. (Much can be read about this in Paul Gutjahr’s recent The Book of Mormon: A Biography.) I’m interested in those translations that were undertaken first without any such guidance, those translations where the translator had on her or his own merits to decide what the text meant.
As it turns out, the translations of 2 Nephi 2:11 in German, French, Italian, and Spanish vary widely, and the meaning of the text changes rather constantly over this history. There’s so much to work through here that I’ve decided to do four separate posts (sub-posts, let’s say) on each of these languages. I suspect much will be learned along the way.