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BYU professor discusses Book of Mormon translation

After 25 years of research, Royal Skousen, a professor of linguistics at Brigham Young University, has compiled in-depth information about the original and printer's manuscript text of the Book of Mormon.

Joseph Smith restored the LDS Church in the early 1800s, and one of his endeavors was to translate the Book of Mormon from engraved metal plates. The Book of Mormon is considered companion scripture to the Bible.

Skousen pointed out the difficulties in the project because the original text can never be restored, having simply been the words spoken by Joseph himself. Skousen also believes the original text should be considered as English because that is what was given to the Prophet.

"It was a text, I believe, in English letters — English words — given to him through the instrument," Skousen said during the Feb. 26 lecture, which was the first of three in a series about the Book of Mormon at Brigham Young University.

The analysis of the text is "an evaluation on how (Joseph Smith) translated it and what kind of text was revealed to him," said Richard Turley, the assistant historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Through his evaluations, Skousen has pieced together the earliest and most accurate form of the text. According to Turley, Skousen's work is "the finest understanding that we have all had about the Book of Mormon."

Skousen explained the ways Joseph first viewed the original text, as there were two specific instruments used.

"One was originally called the interpreters or the Nephite interpreters, and later on Joseph Smith referred to these two clear stones — they were like glass lenses, I suppose — as the Urim and Thummim. This is the instrument that came with the plates," Skousen said.

Skousen described the other instrument used as the seer stone.

"In some way, he was able to view the text ... ," Skousen said. "It's my belief that this original English language text that we're trying to recover is what he saw. Now you can all see there's problems — he didn't videotape it."

Although the text Joseph saw cannot be restored, Skousen said people can still learn from the scribe's original manuscript and the printer's copy of the text.

According to Skousen, during the translation process Joseph was able to view about 20-30 words at a time. Such information was determined by errors the scribes made. Skousen also determined accidental errors and editorial changes by identifying specific marks on the text.

"At each of these stages, from Joseph Smith reading it off all the way, to setting the type, there is potential for error," Skousen said.

In Skousen's book, "How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Text," he addresses certain inconsistencies.

"In numerous cases we find that the original Book of Mormon text is consistent in its phraseology, but subsequent copying errors or changes due to editing have created exceptional phrases uncharacteristic of the text," he wrote.

Such examples include the spelling of Zenoch, the prophet of Israel.

"Frequently the first occurrence of a Book of Mormon name is first spelled phonetically, then that spelling is corrected; in some instances, the incorrect spelling is crossed out and followed on the same line by the correct spelling, thus indicating that the correction was an immediate one," Skousen wrote in his book.

Alma 33:15 is used as an example for this finding. According to Skousen, the original manuscript says "for it is not written that Zenos alone spake of these things but Zenoch also spake of these things."

"Oliver Cowdery first wrote Zenock using the expected ck English spelling for the k sound," Skousen wrote in his book. "But then Oliver crossed out the whole word and immediately afterwards, on the same line, wrote Zenoch."

Although the name was changed to the correct Jewish form of spelling on the original manuscript, it did not stay that way for long. According to Skousen, when the text was copied for the printer's edition, Oliver Cowdery went back to spelling Zenoch with a ck. This is why it is currently spelled with an English spelling.

In the second lecture on March 5, Skousen discussed specifically each printed edition of the Book of Mormon and the changes that were made to each copy. He pointed out that during the printing of the 1830 edition, the typesetter, John Gilbert, would correct errors as the printing was taking place. Thus, Skousen concluded that Gilbert truly was trying his best to produce a quality product, rather than sabotaging the edition as people have since accused him of.

"The point of this," Skousen said during the March 5 lecture, "is that these guys were accused in our church history because they had typos, that they were trying to cheat Joseph Smith. No, they were trying to do their best."

More information is available in Skousen's text online at or by attending the remaining lecture on the original and printer's manuscript. The final lecture in this series is 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 12, at the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors Center at Brigham Young University.

Sarah Sanders Petersen is an intern for Deseret News where she writes for Mormon Times and other feature articles. She is a communications major and editing minor from Brigham Young University. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.