CES Reply: Scriptures In Their Own Words

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.

2. When King James translators were translating the KJV Bible between 1604 and 1611, they would occasionally put in their own words into the text to make the English more readable. We know exactly what these words are because they’re italicized in the KJV Bible. What are these 17th century italicized words doing in the Book of Mormon? Word for word? What does this say about the Book of Mormon being an ancient record?


It says absolutely nothing about the Book of Mormon being an ancient record, but it says a great deal about your fundamental misunderstanding of how translation works. Every word a translator uses is “their own words.” Your assumption that there’s some kind of irreducible, one-to-one, singularly correct correlation between words in two different languages makes no sense whatsoever.


The insertions are more than occasional. You see italicized insertions in almost every verse. They’re usually verbs. In many cases, English uses them, and Hebrew does not. Without them, the text isn’t “less readable;” it’s essentially unreadable. Furthermore, without those words, the translation would not reflect the meaning of the original text.

You demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how the KJV translation was performed to claim that only the italicized words, which are highlighted as an admission that they have no direct Hebrew antecedent, represent a KJV translator’s “own words.” Every word in the KJV represents a translator’s choice for how to best express the original text’s meaning as they understood it. So, really, every single word, italics or no, is a translator “put[ting] in their own words” what they think the original text means.

I saw an interesting example of this in, of all things, the latest Mission Impossible movie, where much of the action takes place in Paris. Tom Cruise ends up injuring an innocent French police officer, and he says to her, in French, “je suis désolée.”

If you put “je suis désolée” into Google Translate, it comes back with “I’m sorry.” But that’s not technically accurate. “Je” means “I,” “suis” means “am,” and “désolée” is the feminine form of “sorry.” A perfect, word-for-word translation of Tom Cruise’s words would be “I am sorry.” But that’s awkward, so Google assumed we’d prefer the contraction instead.

But wait! There’s more!

When the scene was shown in the film, the subtitle came up as “I’m so sorry.” If you plug “I’m so sorry” into Google Translate, it offers a translation of “je suis vraiment désolé.” Except “vraiment” translates directly as “truly.” Yet if you stick “je suis vraiment désolé” back into Google translate, it tells you it means “I am really sorry,” not “I am truly sorry.”

So which is the one true translation?

The answer is all of them. Or none of them. The subtleties of language make perfect translations all but impossible, even in such a simple circumstance as this. So why did the person who wrote the subtitles add a “so” to the English version that wasn’t present in the French?

My guess is that they decided that that’s what Cruise’s character would have said had he been speaking in English, or, more specifically, that’s the best English rendition of how the police officer would have perceived the message. “I’m so sorry” is more intimate and kind than just “I’m sorry,” and it doesn’t have the awkwardness of “I am sorry.” It’s also more sincere than “I am really sorry” and less formal than “I am truly sorry.” It probably comes closest to expressing the communication that took place in that fictional moment.

Although, as a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Tom Cruise’s French pronunciation was atrocious.

Anyway, this is why you can have so many different Bible translations that express similar or close to identical meanings using widely varied vocabulary. That’s also why Joseph Smith couldn’t have plopped the golden plates into some 19th Century Babelfish to get the results.

This calls for another demonstration.


Here’s your Question #2 again:

2. When King James translators were translating the KJV Bible between 1604 and 1611, they would occasionally put in their own words into the text to make the English more readable. We know exactly what these words are because they’re italicized in the KJV Bible. What are these 17th century italicized words doing in the Book of Mormon? Word for word? What does this say about the Book of Mormon being an ancient record?

Now here’s Question 2 translated into Hebrew via Google Translate:

2. כאשר מתרגמים של המלך ג’יימס תרגמו את התנ”ך של KJV בין 1604 ל -1611, הם היו מכניסים מדי פעם את המילים שלהם לטקסט כדי להפוך את האנגלית לקריא יותר. אנחנו יודעים בדיוק מה המילים האלה כי הם נטויים בתנ”ך KJV. מה הם אלה מילים מהמאה ה -17 המופיעה בספר מורמון? מילה במילה? מה זה אומר על הספר של מורמון להיות שיא עתיק?

Pretty impressive, no? Hey, just for fun, let’s take that same text and translate it from Hebrew into Korean. Now it looks like this:

2. kʼşr mţrgmym şl hmlk g’yyms ţrgmw ʼţ hţn”k şl KJV byn l 1604 -1611, hm hyw mknysym mdy pʻm ʼţ hmylym şlhm ltqst kdy lhpwk ʼţ hʼnglyţ lqryʼ ywţr. ʼnẖnw ywdʻym bdywq mh hmylym hʼlh ky hm ntwyym bţn”k KJV. mh hm ʼlh mylym mhmʼh h -17 hmwpyʻh bspr mwrmwn? mylh bmylh? migug dalleoe daehan jumun-eun?

Keep in mind that we haven’t added any of our own words, so the translation should still be solid. So we can take the Korean version and see how it translates to Bulgarian.

2. К’ср мрргмим и шмлкг’иймс тргммт “к” и KJV от l 1604 -1611, ч т т т м м ш м и т т м т т т т т т а т а т а т а л а т а т а т а т а т а т а т а KJV. mh hm’lh mylym hmh h -17 hmwpy’h bspr mwrmwn? mylh bmylh? мигъг далео дайхан-полунощ?

Here’s Bulgarian to Swahili:

2. Mfumo wa upeo na ufuatiliaji wa maagizo ya biashara ya kisheria KJV. Mh hmhh mylym hmh h -17 hmwpy’h bspr mwrmwn? mylh bmylh? Je, ungependa kufanya nini?

And Swahili to Japanese:

2.法的業務KJVガイドラインの範囲と監視。 Mh hmhh mylym hmh h -17 hmwpy’h bspr mwrmwn? ミルビー? あなたは何をしたいですか?

And Japanese to French, without adding “je suis désolée” even once:

2. Portée et suivi des lignes directrices de KJV des services juridiques. Mh hhhh mylym hmh h -17 hmwpy ‘h bspr mwrmwn? Milby? Que veux-tu faire?

Now if the way you have described translation is accurate, we shouldn’t have any problem taking this six-time-translated version back into English, because we haven’t added any of our own words. Every word should have gone in and out of each of these translations without the addition of italicized nonsense.

Yet when we try to bring it back to its original English form, we get this:

2. Scope and Follow-up of KJV Legal Services Guidelines. Mh hhhh mylym hmh pm -17 hmwpy ‘h bspr mwrmwn? Milby? What do you want to do?

Wow! I knew it would be nonsense, but that exceeded my expectations. I have no idea who Milby is, but I think it’s hysterical that he appears as the mascot of how word-to-word translation is an entirely unworkable model.

The point is that translation requires judgment and choices on the part of the translator, and it’s unlikely that any two translations of any lengths will produce significantly similar, let alone identical, texts.

So when you ask “What does this say about the Book of Mormon being an ancient record?” you’re asking the wrong question. This doesn’t say anything about whether or not the Book of Mormon is an ancient record. The KJV verbiage is considered by most scholars to be a perfectly adequate representation of the original Isaiah text, so if the same original Isaiah text existed on the Small Plates of Nephi, the version in 2 Nephi would also constitute an acceptable rendition of the original author’s intent.

So the better question is the one you never quite ask but which is an unspoken assumption undergirding Questions 1 and 2: – regardless of errors or italics, why is there KJV language in the Book of Mormon at all?

If Joseph Smith’s translation were being performed in the same manner as the KJV translation was performed, then Joseph would have the responsibility to clothe the Hebrew concepts in the English language with his own word choices. And, as I noted above, his choices would not be at all likely to be significantly similar, let alone identical, to a 17th Century translator in Jacobean England. So the logical conclusion is the one your question implies – Joseph was a simple plagiarist.

Except it’s not nearly so simple.

Because the fact is that there are oodles of departures from the King James language in the Book of Mormon. 54 percent of the Isaiah verses in the Book of Mormon are at least slightly different from the KJV and many of them are very difficult to explain if all Joseph was doing was copying from a dusty Bible on the bookshelf. For instance, 2 Nephi 12:16 combines elements from the Septuagint (“upon all the ships of the sea”) and the KJV (“and upon all the ships of Tarshish”) in a way that no other version of Isaiah 2:16 does. Both wouldn’t be there if all Joseph were doing was cutting and pasting.

I don’t know what status you give Hugh Nibley – was he an official or unofficial apologist? He was on the BYU payroll after all. Regardless of what badge he wore, he clarifies this issue better than I could. I will be quoting from the good Dr. Nibley repeatedly over the course of this reply, so I thought I’d set his words apart in a different color. I chose red, the color of fire, as Nibley’s words are often the crucible in which nonsense goes to die.

And why should anyone quoting the Bible to American readers of 1830 not follow the only version of the Bible known to them?

Actually the Bible passages quoted in the Book of Mormon often differ from the King James Version, but where the latter is correct there is every reason why it should be followed. When Jesus and the Apostles and, for that matter, the Angel Gabriel quote the scriptures in the New Testament, do they recite from some mysterious Urtext? Do they quote the prophets of old in the ultimate original? Do they give their own inspired translations? No, they do not. They quote the Septuagint, a Greek version of the Old Testament prepared in the third century B.C. Why so? Because that happened to be the received standard version of the Bible accepted by the readers of the Greek New Testament. When “holy men of God” quote the scriptures it is always in the received standard version of the people they are addressing.

We do not claim the King James Version of the Septuagint to be the original scriptures—in fact, nobody on earth today knows where the original scriptures are or what they say. Inspired men have in every age have been content to accept the received version of the people among whom they labored, with the Spirit giving correction where correction was necessary.

There’ll be more on translation tomorrow. In the meantime, take look at the Canonizer camps below. Join the one that best represents your point of view – or create one of your own!