It’s a bit of a truism to say that the Book of Mormon is dependent on Biblical language, but one thing that’s been on my mind for the past few years (especially since reading Thomas Wayment’s excellent The New Testament: A Translation for Latter-day Saints) is how specifically dependent it is on the particular language of the King James Version of the Bible.
Over the past year or so, as a personal project, I’ve been toying around with what a modern-language version of the Book of Mormon would look like. In short, I found a document complaining the complete text of the Book of Mormon, and chapter by chapter, I’ve been tweaking the language. The current version of the project can be found here, and I’m currently working on Mosiah 8 (as measured by the original chapter breaks; also, I should specify that I started with Mosiah 1—a story for another time).
One of the things that I’ve done as part of this updating is to try to identify language specific to the King James Version and replace it with the equivalent language from the World English Bible (a translation that I’ve chosen more for its public domain status than for any particular strength of the translation—again, a story for another time). Mosiah 7 and 8 are the first chapters where I’ve run into significant quoting from the Bible, which has made all of this more interesting than usual; this is particularly true because Abinadi quotes extensively from Isaiah before weaving the language from that extensive quote into a kind of sermon.
This morning, I got to the passage that is equivalent to Mosiah 8:38 (CofC; 15:10 LDS) and found myself briefly stumped. It turns out that the Isaiah 53 phrase “who shall declare his generation?” is wildly different among Bible translations. In the WEB, it reads “as for his generation,” and the NRSV reads “who could have imagined his future?” Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible was probably the most helpful. It reads “and who can speak of where he lives?” That itself isn’t that helpful (since it’s different than all the other sources I checked), but Alter notes in the footnotes that its translation is “by no means certain” because of the difficulty of the language.
“Who shall declare his generation?” is more of an off-hand reference by Abinadi rather than a major pillar of the sermon that he is giving, but this is still a compelling reminder of how dependent the Book of Mormon is on King James Version language in particular—and the difficulties that this sometimes creates for the careful, critical reader.
Before saving this file and uploading the post, it occurred to me to check my LDS French translation of the Book of Mormon and to compare it to the Louis Segond translation that serves as a stand-in for the King James Version in terms of linguistic influence. It looks like LDS translators of Mosiah 14:8 (LDS, obviously)—which, in English, is a direct quote of Isaiah 53:8—actually rewrote the Segond text to correspond with the KJV, presumably to make Abinadi’s quoting from the passage later line up.
That’s a very interesting choice. It corresponds with Paul C. Gutjahr’s observation in The Book of Mormon: A Biography that:
Of paramount importance for Church leaders is that any new translation of the Book of Mormon attempt to render as closely as possible the currently Church- authorized English edition of the text. (p. 126)
At the same time, though, it demonstrates a Latter-day Saint commitment to keeping the Book of Mormon dependent not just on Biblical language but on English, King James Language—even if that means changing how Francophone Latter-day Saints usually read Isaiah.
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