“Dynamically Equivalent” Translation and the Book of Mormon

Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC 5/BM 21946).
Yes, I did use this picture recently.
But it is quoted in this blog post too. 
As I’ve been working on my new project, I’ve frequently consulted different collections of various ancient Near Eastern documents. I like to consult multiple translations of the same document so as to avoid making any assumptions or connections based solely on the English translation of a particular scholar. Sometimes parts of the text are difficult to decipher due to their fragmentary nature or other circumstances, eliciting greater variety in translation, but for the most part, differences between translations are minor or incidental, reflecting some differences in translators’ preferences and little more.

One of the collections I sometimes consult, however, often has very different translations: Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, 3rd ed. (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006), by Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin. Matthews (PhD, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandies) is a professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University, and Benjamin (PhD, Religious Studies, Claremont) is a professor of biblical and Near Eastern studies at Arizona State University. Both have published a variety of academic books and articles on the Old Testament.

To give you a sense for how different their translations can be, compare the Matthews and Benjamin translation of the Jerusalem Chronicle with the more traditional translation from Glasser, which I used for my post on the Jerusalem Chronicle earlier this month:

In November, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Agade, marched his army into Hatti. He laid siege to the city of Judah. He captured the city and its king on the second day of February. He appointed a new king to his liking and carried away a great amount of plunder from Judah to Babylon. (Matthews and Benjamin, p. 197)
The seventh year, in the month of Kislev, the king of Akkad mustered his troops, marched on Ḫatti, and set up his quarters facing the city of Yeḫud. In the month of Adar, the second day, he took the city and captured the king. He installed there a king of his choice. He colle[cted] its massive tribute and went back to Babylon. (Glassner, p. 231)
As you can see, the translation is not so different that it dramatically changes the meaning of the text, but the language and idiom is different enough that I began to wonder why their translations were always so distinct.

Naturally, I turned to the “foreword” at the beginning of the volume to see if they explained anything about their translation methodology. Indeed, there I found that they talked about “translations in critical editions … that often sacrifice clarity to create word-pictures in English of ancient language texts” and the need to create more readable translations for beginning students and classroom use (pp. xi–xii). Then they explained:

Our readings are not literal or visual text-oriented translations, but responsible, reader-oriented paraphrases. The English vocabulary and idiom emphasizes the relationship between the ancient Near Eastern tradition and the Bible. Old Testament Parallels imitates commonly used patterns of speech today. It avoids awkwardness and archaism. … Hopefully, Old Testament Parallels offers teachers and students readings that are dynamically equivalent to the way in which they were heard, felt, and understood in their own worlds. (p. xiii)
In other words, to try to better convey the meaning of the text to beginning students and non-academics alike, Matthews and Benjamin opted to use looser translations (“dynamically equivalent”) that better employ modern English idiom and highlight the parallels to biblical passages. Such a model of translation is not too different from the functional equivalence theory Brant Gardner put forward for Book of Mormon translation in The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon (Kofford, 2011)—a book I highly recommend.

Matthews and Benjmin’s translation method is particularly interesting for Book of Mormon translation theories, since some of the biggest issues in discussions of Book of Mormon translation are: (1) the frequent use of KJV language, including that from the New Testament and other sources too late to be on the plates of brass; (2) the appearance of 19th century idiom, especially common 19th century religious phrasing; (3) anachronisms.

All three of these could be the result of a dynamically equivalent translation that, like Matthews and Benjamin’s translations, (1) aims to emphasize the relationship between the Book of Mormon and the Bible; (2) seeks to imitate commonly used speech patterns of the 19th century; (3) including using modern anachronistic terms—such as the use of November and February in the above example, months which did not exist at the time and are not exact equivalents to the months of Kislev and Adar, and in fact are incorrect here (the events actually took place in December and March of our calendar).

Still, some may wonder, why would the Book of Mormon have been translated this way? I suspect it would be for similar reasons as those stated by Matthews and Benjamin: to make the Book of Mormon as readable and accessible as possible. Like the translations of Matthews and Benjamin, the English translation of the Book of Mormon was not intended to be a critical edition only useful to scholars and experts. It’s original audience was the Bible reading public of the 1830s. It was—and still is—for all of God’s children, including the less educated.

Furthermore, the original ancient context of the Book of Mormon was not—and for the most part, still is not—accessible to readers when the book was translated. So even though I do firmly believe that adding context can greatly enhance our understanding the of Book of Mormon, I also suspect that whatever the nature of the translation, it was likely intended to maximize the readability and understandability for those who lacked such context. That is, to paraphrase Matthews and Benjamin, I suspect it was translated in a way that best allows it to be heard, felt, and understood as it was in its own world by those who lack the background knowledge needed to contextualize a more technically accurate or “literal” translation.

Obviously, I am not proposing a comprehensive theory of Book of Mormon translation—that is a complicated subject, with a lot of factors that must be kept in mind. But the dynamically equivalent translations of Matthews and Benjamin illustrate that real translations of real ancient documents can have the same kinds of features—i.e., Biblical phrasing, contemporary idiom, anachronisms—we see in the English Book of Mormon, while still preserving the basic meaning of the original text. And they also demonstrate that for many purposes—such as reaching a wider audience—such translations are actually better than more “literal” ones. 


  1. It seems odd that you make no reference to Skousen's and Carmack's claims regarding the translation process and language of the resulting manuscript. (Even if you disagree with them.) Their claims seem weighty enough to be acknowledged, at least.

  2. I agree with Sam. The original Book of Mormon language in English was not 19th century, but 16th and 17th century, only coming more fully into the 19th century after revisions to grammar and phraseology were made in the 1837 and subsequent editions. But whoever made that initial translation, begun evidently in the 1500's and revised later with deference to the KJV after it (the KJV Bible) was published, they were more interested in readability that technical transliteration.

  3. 3N 9:18 "...I am Alpha and Omega..."

    There is your undeniable proof that this a dynamic translation.

    Nephites didn't speak Greek. If it was a literal translation, he was have said, I am Aleph and Tav.

  4. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Neal. This is a good observation, but I think of limited utility, ultimately. A few thoughts. Dynamic/functional v. formal equivalence are two ends of a spectrum that are really about the degree to which the translator is willing to adjust the translation to accommodate the understanding of the target audience v. the degree to which adequate comprehension requires the reader to be able to access or understand the cultural, linguistic, or rhetorical contexts of the original text. The former certainly broadens the reach of a translation, while the latter is thought to facilitate more direct access to the original text for those who know what to do with it.

    The Book of Mormon is tricky because the text seems to scatter along the entire spectrum, with some portions seeming to very closely follow the sentence structure of ancient languages (and a few times in ways putatively unknown to Joseph Smith), and others so radically departing from the grammar and syntax of ancient languages as to not plausibly be the result of translation. Most of the text falls somewhere in between, and it's not really that accessible. It's still fundamentally archaizing and imitating a 19th century KJV-esque language register.

    Using dynamic equivalence to account for KJV phrasing, anachronism, and contemporary idiom, in my opinion, offers pretty limited insight and is of limited application. It doesn't tell us much about the text or help us better interpret it, it just follows behind saying, "Oh, well, that part must be dynamic equivalence." If we say it's dynamic equivalence where we have those issues, but it's formal equivalence where we have chiasmus and ostensibly ancient Semitic linguistic constructions, we need to account for that rather fluid translation philosophy, otherwise it just sounds like begging the question.

    It's also not clear to me whether you're suggesting Joseph Smith's own agency played a role in the process or promoting some kind of Mormon accommodationism that comes in and out seemingly arbitrarily. I think the former is a much better heuristic for interpreting the text and even resolving some difficulties, but it means we have to give up some apologetic mainstays (chiasmus, if/and constructions, etc.). That doesn't bother me, but if that's a bridge too far, the second option seems to me like wanting to have one's cake and eat it too by asserting a loose translation theory where we need it, and a tight translation theory where we want it.


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