Most people at all familiar with Mormon history know that Joseph Smith, a young farm boy, claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon into English from the original “reformed Egyptian” written on gold plates. The book tells the story of ancient Hebrews who crossed the ocean around 600 BC and settled the American content.
Outside members of the LDS (Mormon) church, few people know that Joseph Smith also claimed to have translated real Egyptian, not the just the reformed kind. Specifically, in July 1835, Joseph Smith bought two Egyptian mummies and some papyrus scrolls accompanying them for $2,400 (some $53,000 in 2012 dollars). From the scrolls, he produced “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into [his] hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The English translation was apparently begun in or after July 1835, though the timeline is in dispute. After making a few revisions in March 1842, Smith published the Book of Abraham serially in the church’s Times and Seasons newspaper in 1842.
It’s important to remember that, for most of the world in 1835, Egyptian was a “dead” language in that no one spoke it, and no one knew how to read or write the different forms of written Egyptian. The discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 began the process of understanding ancient Egyptian language. This stone provided Greek text along with its equivalent in Egyptian hieroglyphics and demotic text, and phonetic characters that spelled foreign and Egyptian words. Scholars–specifically Jean-Francois Champollion–took some 23 years to transliterate the Egyptian and become confident in their ability to decipher ancient Egyptian. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Champollion’s achievements had been reported in the press in North America, but the specifics were unknown in frontier Ohio, being limited to a few scholarly works published in Europe–and most of those were in French. As a non-Mormon press noted in 1844, there was “no Champollion, or Denon among the Mormons of Nauvoo” to validate Joseph Smith’s translation.
I’ve discussed the content and themes of the Book of Abraham elsewhere, but here I want to look at the two types of transliterations of Egyptian words that Joseph provides in the Book of Abraham:
1. “Egyptian” words, such as “Oliblish” and “Enish-go-on-dosh.”
2. Hebrew words, such as “Shaumahyeem” and “Kokaubeam.”
The former, of course, are not actually Egyptian words but appear to have been invented by Joseph Smith. The latter are best understood when you know that during the translation of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith began studying Hebrew, first with a few books, and then with a teacher, Joshua Seixas. It’s not surprising that the transliterations above and others come from the first few chapters of the Bible and follow Seixas’ transliterations exactly (see Louis Zucker’s essay on Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrew for more information).
The difference, then is obvious: where Joseph Smith had some familiarity with the language (Hebrew), the words are more or less correct; where he didn’t know the language, the words are, well, nonsensical. Of course, some Mormon apologists respond that we don’t necessarily know what the real Egyptian words were and what they meant. For example, Kerry Muhlestein has argued that the validity of Joseph Smith’s translation and transliteration of Egyptian depends on whose translation skills you believe: Joseph’s, or Egyptologists’. Not surprisingly, most scholars side with the Egyptologists.
But what if we had an example of a known language that Joseph Smith didn’t know but that he attempted to translate? Suppose, for example, that Joseph Smith had told us that “sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble” is French for “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed.” Imagine, further, that Joseph Smith then translated the English into another language he also didn’t know, so using our example, he might tell us that the Spanish translation of the above reads, “Wingardium Leviosa.”
Amazingly, that’s essentially what Joseph Smith did. In December 1835, just when he was beginning to read about Hebrew, but before Joshua Seixas arrived, Joseph attempted a “translation” of the Reformed Egyptian characters from the gold plates first into English and then into Hebrew (the text is clearly from Jacob’s allegory of the olive tree). See Ed Ashment’s essay for more information. Here are some of the results, with Ed Ashment’s modern transliteration of the Hebrew following in brackets:
English: For it grieveth me that I should lose this tree & the fruit thereof
Hebrew: ofin Zimim ezmon E, Zu onis i f s veris etzer ensvonis vineris
[Modern transliteration: ki car li ki yo’bad li ha’ec hazzeh upiryo]
English: Brethren I bid you adieu
Hebrew: i f s E Zamtri
[Modern transliteration: ‘aHay ‘omar lakem shalom]
Needless to say, the “Hebrew” appearing here exists only in the mind of Joseph Smith. As Ashment notes, “Fresh out of Palestine, the Hebrew known to Jacob should have been biblical Hebrew. But as Figure 1 illustrates, it bears no resemblance to Hebrew at all.”
I’m surprised this episode doesn’t generate much interest among critics of the LDS church. I understand why apologists wouldn’t want to touch it, but it’s pretty clear confirmation that Joseph Smith had no ability as a translator but rather had a pretty vivid imagination.