About a year ago, I wrote a post on how my work with differing English translations of the same source text — Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (Suntzu pingfa) – led to some thoughts about the Book of Mormon and its translation process:

So, the underlying question is: how many different (valid) ways could there have been of translating the urtext on the plates — not just in particular word choices, but in order and connection of thoughts? By all historical accounts, Joseph was clearly receiving the translation by inspiration — leaving aside the fact that he didn’t read the Nephites’ language, his translation appears to have been entirely via the interpreters and the seer stone.

I’m currently drafting some of the introductory material to my own book (an updated edition of The Art of ‘Ware) and called out a detailed example. Here are a few extracts from that introduction:

For example, consider the following relatively simple passage as found in Chapter 7 of Suntzu pingfa:

Original Chinese:

稤 郷 分 眾
luè xiāng fēn zhòng
(plunder/loot/pillage) (countryside/village) (divide/separate/distribute)  (crowd)
[from zhongwen.com/bingfa.htm, chapter 7, 3rd block, 5th line, characters 5-8 from the left]


  • Divide your troops to plunder the villages. [Gagliardi]
  • When you plunder the countryside, divide the wealth among your troops. [Sonshi]
  • In plundering the countryside, divide up your numbers. [Ames]
  • Invade a countryside and rule the people. [Huang]
  • When plundering the countryside, divide the multitude. [Denma]
  • When you plunder a district, divide the wealth among your troops. [Sawyer]
  • When plundering villages, divide the troops. [Zieger]
  • When pillaging villages, divide the spoils among the masses. [Mair]

I go on in my introduction to note:

Eight translators came up with at least three different meanings for this single four-character maxim. The closest to a majority translation is the idea of dividing up your troops to plunder the countryside, presumably to accomplish it more quickly. But three of the authors believe the maxim talks about spreading the looted wealth among the troops (or, at least “the masses”), presumably to keep them happy.  The Denma Group tries to have it both ways; their actual translation (“divide the multitude”) is ambiguous, while their own commentary on the maxim says, “Disperse your troops and distribute the goods among them.” The immediate context where the maxim appears mostly favors the “divide the troops” translation, since it’s talking about terrain and positioning — but this same chapter has a lot of focus on supplies and logistics and the impact of a lack thereof, so there is a strong argument for the “share the wealth” translation.

This, I think, underscores the absolute necessity of direct and explicit divine inspiration in translating the Book of Mormon, especially if the language[1] on the plates was more logographic than alphabetic (which Mormon 9:33 seems to suggest). In other words, if someone were given the plates along with a multi-volume Nephite-English lexicon, it’s quite possible they would still come up with a translation that differed considerably from what Joseph Smith dictated to Oliver Cowdery and others — and two such translators would come up with translations that differed from each other’s. I think the Lord gave Joseph the translation that He wanted printed (though, as always, with human influences and errors along the way), and not necessarily a translation that any given ‘Nephite language scholar’ might have come up with.

For what it’s worth.  ..bruce..

[1] Or languages. We tend to assume that Nephi and Mormon/Moroni wrote using the exact same language, but that’s a bit like assuming British authors from 1000 AD and Stephen King write using the same language; heck, they don’t even use the same exact alphabet (though one evolved from the other). It’s not at all clear that Nephi and his immediate descendants could have read, unassisted, what Mormon and Moroni wrote on the plates, or even understood what they might have spoken to them out loud. In that light, it is telling that the Book of Mormon talks specifically about literacy training among the ruling families to be able to read the older records.


ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE FOR WORDPRESS BLOGGERS: early readers of this post saw that I had to use tone numbers for xiāng fēn (i.e., xiang1 fen1) because WordPress kept eating the Unicode pinyin characters for ā and ē. Searching on the web verified that the core problem was that the Fantastico installation of WordPress (by which I set up this blog) sets as its default character collation latin1_swedish_ci, whereas what I needed was utf8_unicode_ci. I used the pHpMyAdmin app available under CPanel to edit the WP databases and change the collation, but (a) they didn’t seem to be (all) changing, and (b) the pinyin characters kept getting eaten. What finally worked was the following:

  • Using phpMyAdmin, expand the list of database tables for this blog.
  • In that list, look for wp_posts; expand it, and expand Columns under it.
  • In Columns, look for post_content and click on it.
  • This brings up a set of fields for post_content, including one labeled Collation with a drop-down menu. Select utf8_unicode_ci (it was at the very end of my drop-down list) and click on the Save button on the far right.

That did the trick. I suspect it also allowed me to put in the Chinese characters I subsequently added.

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