Lost in Translation, or “Oh, the Mormanity!”

Arabic Book of Mormon

Arabic Book of Mormon

Utah has no shortage of mythology and folklore, a great deal of which is tied to the LDS church organization and its, er, interesting tales.  A recent discussion on Postmormon.org , in which I participated, reveals the ubiquity of these dubious stories.  Among them are claims that a Mormon official encountered bigfoot while on horseback, and discovered the beast to be none other than Cain, the son of Adam.  And of course no suite of tall tales would be complete without a lake monster story.  Utah’s Bear Lake is said to be the home of one such monster, and local folklore has it that Bear Lake is connected to Loch Ness in Scotland by a long tunnel which serves as a a thoroughfare for Nessie as he travels, apparently through magma, between the two locations.  It has even been reported that Brigham Young himself went to great expense to catch the monster using 300 feet of rope and a large custom-crafted hook baited with a sheep.

Myths abound here in the wild country, but I wanted to focus on something that came up recently in my family.  My mother handed me an email recently, which was given to her by her mother, forwarded by her sister-in-law (that’s how these things apparently propagate in the digital age, even among octogenarians).  It was a four page “transcript” of a “speech” given by former apostle Russel M. Nelson.  She handed it to me saying “you’re a linguist,” (I’m not, although I am studying linguistics) “I think you might find this interesting.”  She then qualified this by saying that she was in no way attempting to “re-convert me,” although I think that this was precisely her intent.  Fortunately, I had come across this story some time before and was prepared to handle it.  I’ll only provide a link to the “talk” called “Reflections of Sami Hanna,” rather than post the entire contents here.  In the text, it is claimed that one Dr. Sami Hanna, an expert in Semitic languges, was converted to Mormonism after determining that it was a true Semitic text.  Here is a link which, in its preface disclaimer, alludes to the biggest problem in establishing the truth of the claims that lie within.  The author of the page states:

Elder Nelson has mentioned Sami Hanna in several talks. All the information mentioned in this talk regarding what Mr. Hanna learned during his translation of the Book of Mormon into Arabic is accurate and verifiable. Why I have a disclaimer is because I have not been able to find where THIS PARTICULAR talk originated. I am not nor have I ever intimated that Elder Nelson or anyone else made up Sami Hanna or his story. I just don’t know if Elder Nelson gave this specific talk as it is written, or if it is just a compilation of other talks given by Elder Nelson on this subject. It could just be a copy of a sacrament meeting talk he gave in 1976 that was never published. The origin of this talk itself is not what’s important. What is important is that everything mentioned in it is true.

Elder Nelson did, indeed, mention Dr. Hanna in several talks, however Elder Nelson’s office released an official statement denying that he wrote “Reflections of Sami Hanna.”  One might wonder then, is Elder Nelson lying about having written it, or did the author lie about being Elder Nelson?  Either way, the entire story is therefore discredited as a hoax.

Do I stop there?  Oh no.  Not on your life.  Because people still believe this!  To be fair, this has been rejected by most of the online Mormon apologetic community, but it is still circulating, so I feel I must treat it.  I’m going to look at the specific claims, and deconstruct them.

*This may not be of interest to all readers.  I have provided this information for anyone who has been duped by this fraud of a story, or for non-Mormons who have heard the tale and lack the inside info to tackle the technical aspects.  For those who are uninterested, rest assured that I will return soon with other, more tantalizing tidbits!

(cracks knuckles)

The story claims that Dr. Hanna was converted when he translated the Book of Mormon into Arabic.

Sami Hanna is an expert in Semitic languages, and legend has it that, upon being presented with a Book of Mormon, he began to translate it into Arabic.  He was stunned by the ease with which the book flowed back into a Semitic language, so much so that he became immediately convinced of its authenticity and converted to Mormonism.  This claim has been supported by Nelson elsewhere, and a certain Mark Hanna, who claims to be Sami’s son, affirms that this is true, but says that it was a momentary lapse of reason, and that now Dr. Hanna has reverted to some more ancient form of Christ worship.  So this checks out, but it is hardly helpful in supporting the major claim being made.

The story further claims that “this was to be a translation back to the original language of the book.”

As far as I can tell this would, indeed, have been the first Arabic translation, however to claim that this would convert it back into the “original language” is problematic, to say the least.  The book of Mormon is said by Mormons to have been started around 600 BCE.  But the earliest evidence of Arabic, the ABSOLUTE earliest thing that linguists can call Arabic, dates from 328 CE, over 900 years AFTER Nephi supposedly started writing in America after traveling from Jerusalem.  What’s more, the Book of Mormon directly states in Mormon 9:32-33 that the native tongue of the authors was Hebrew, but that they had to write in “Reformed Egyptian” characters, a writing system unknown to linguists, and not optimized for Hebrew.  The same verse goes on to state that due to their inability to write in Hebrew script, there were imperfections in the record, complicating any “easy translation.”

If Nephi’s people (Nephi being the supposed first author of the canonized Mormon text) were linguistically isolated from their original language community for nearly 1,000 years, and during that time another language popped up from the same source in a different location, it is HIGHLY unlikely that those two languages would have much in common, except for some word roots, the way English and Persian share some roots.  A language COMPLETELY replaces approximately 10% of its vocabulary every 1,000 years or so.  This may not sound impressive at first glance, so allow me to illustrate:

Britain is invaded by waves of Germanic and Roman groups for centuries, until around 500 CE a language, Old English (Anglo-Saxon), forms as a composite of Germanic and Latin, and the local Britton languages.  500 years later, the Normans invade England and English takes on a Norman twist, then is later influenced heavily by French as France became the great world power.  Thus English is related to German, and also to French, and to Spanish through Latin.  All of these languages share a common ancestor, Indo-European, as does Greek and Persian (Farsi).  Let’s look at the word for HEART in each of these languages:

ENGLISH: Heart
OLD ENGLISH: Heorte
GERMAN: Herz
LATIN: Cor
FRENCH: Cœur
SPANISH: Corazón
GREEK: Kardia
Proto-INDO-EUROPEAN: Kerd

Some of these may seem unrelated.  You might say that over the years – the thousand and a half years since English split from Latin, the several thousand years since each of these split from Indo-European, that the vocabulary for heart has changed.  But it hasn’t, as such.  These are merely morphologically different incarnations of the same original Indo-European root word.  Indo-European “Kerd” morphed into “khertan” in Proto-Germanic, into “kardia” in Greek, and “cor” in Latin.  Latin is responsible for both “cœur” in French and “corazón” in Spanish, as is plain to see.  “Kardia” is responsible for our term “cardio,” and “khertan” became “heorte” and by 1500 CE, the present-day English “HEART“.  So the vocab of this word is considered the same, and would not be part of that 10% new vocab I mentioned above, despite the very different look between the Greek, German, and French.  The kinds of changes that represent a shift in vocabulary are even stronger than that.  What is meant when it is said that 10% of the vocabulary changes is that COMPLETELY NOVEL words are invented out of whole cloth, or are replaced by loan words from unrelated languages.  For instance, if an Englishman moved to Utah, he might see mountainous rock formations that were completely alien to his English mountains, and would have to either invent a new word to describe them, or borrow an Indian word, thus changing the vocabulary of the language.

We would expect such changes to vocabulary from 600 BCE, when Nephi began writing his American adventure, to 328 CE, when Arabic was in its infancy.  Not to mention the regular morphological changes and vowel shifting, dialectical anomalies, and spelling changes that would have taken place during that time. Not to mention the fact that the Nephites would have invented TONS of new words when they came to a completely NEW WORLD with (apparently) no native hosts from whom they could borrow vocabulary.  The Arabs, too, would have had their own unique words, because they would have had completely different technology at the time the language came about, again requiring novel vocabulary.  The two languages, even at that point 1700 years ago, would have been mutually unintelligible, to say nothing of the difficulties Sami Hanna would have run into 30 years ago.  There is NO WAY that there would be an easy flow between the languages, ESPECIALLY if translating from a writing system that is not optimized for the given language!  The LAST thing you could expect here would be ease in translation between unrelated languages separated by two and a half thousand years of technological advance.

…the Prophet Joseph did not merely render an interpretation, but a word for word translation from the Egyptian type of hieroglyphic into the English language.

There is no 1-1 exchange for word meanings between ANY 2 languages, but this is ESPECIALLY true for languages from completely different linguistic families, like Indo-European (English) and Semitic or Afro-Asiatic (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew).

My copy of the Qur’an is in English AND Arabic. In my copy of the Qur’an the first five verses are dissected in full-page detail by multiple scholars.  The first verse of the Qur’an, and probably the most common phrase in Arabic caligraphy and art, and Muslim worship, is
“Bismillah, ar-rahman, ar-rahim…”
or roughly,

“In the name of Allah, the merciful, the benevolent…”

The first page shows the verse in Arabic, the second page shows the translation from EACH of 32 different scholars.  NOT ONE of the 32 professional translations is identical.  NOT ONE.  This is ONE verse, 3 words, yielding 32 distinct translations out of 32 attempted translations.  Granted the differeneces are subtle, but they would be compounded if you then attempted to translate those translations BACK into Arabic!

An HILARIOUS illustration of this is something I found in a DVD version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, (click title for example) in the special features.  There is a feature where they take the Japanese version of the film, and translate the Japanese dubbed dialog back into English.  The original feel of the dialog is lost completely, the phrasing mostly quite different, and several utterances are virtually unintelligible.  We see instances of words and concepts replaced altogether (“bonsai” for “shrubbery,” is one such example, but “sake cup” for “Holy Grail” is the more poignant example, as clearly the purpose of the quest is completely lost if all they are after is a cup for their warm rice-wine).  The sequences still make me LOL.  Funny as that example is, that is typical of the kind of results you can expect when trying to translate from language A to language B, and then back to A again, and this is something that will crop up independent of the other factors I mentioned above.  The whole notion of this “easy flow of translation” is utterly recockulous!

His conversion came purely from the linguistics of the book which he found could not have been composed by an American, no matter how gifted.

Probably one of the favorite apologies for the Book of Mormon goes a little something like this:

“there is no way that an uneducated farm-boy like Joseph Smith could have written a masterpiece like the Book of Mormon.”

We shall see, going forward, that this is far from the case, but here are some examples given:

1. Jarom 2: “It must needs be . . .” This expression, odd and awkward in English, is excellent Arabic grammar. Elsewhere in the book the use of the compound verbs “did eat,” “did go,” “did smile,” etc., again awkward and rarely used in English, are classical and correct grammar in the Semitic languages.

Must needs be appears in both the Old Testament (ex. “must needs be circumcised,” Gen 17:13) AND in the New Testament (ex. “scripture must needs have been fulfilled,” Acts 1:16) of the King James Bible, which is, incidentally, the version of the Bible that Joseph Smith himself purported to have read over and over long before translating the Book of Mormon.  Furthermore, I’d hardly call the phrase odd and awkward, given its liberal use by the likes of Shakespeare (Hamlet, All’s Well that Ends Well, Henry VI, and many other plays and poems), Johnathan Swift, and Charles Dickens. http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20010817

“Did eat”, “did go,” etc, is used throughout the KJV, like King James thought it was going out of style.

Not only did the old farm boy have ACCESS to the KJV, he admitted freely to having poured over it prior to any divine work as God’s translator.

2. Omni 18: “Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory.” Brother Hanna indicates that this is a typical custom of his Semitic forebearers to recite their genealogy from memory.

Indeed.  For that matter it was also a common practice among many other cultures, particularly European and Britton which provide the principle ancestry of America in Joseph Smith’s lifetime.  Here is an excellent write-up on the topic of geneological recitations: http://nicolaa5.tripod.com/articles/Hector/hist/HGene.htm

3. Words of Mormon 17: Reference is made here as in other parts of the Book of Mormon, to the “stiffneckedness” of his people. Brother Hanna perceives that this word would be a very unusual word for an American youth as Joseph Smith to use. An American would likely prefer an adjective such as stubborn or inflexible. But the custom in the Arabic language is to use just such a descriptive adjective. Stiff-necked is an adjective they use in describing an obstinate person.

Again, this is found in multiple places in both the Old Testament (ex. Exod 32:9, 33:3, Deut 9:6) as well as the New Testament (Acts 7:51).  Sure, Smith COULD have gotten this phrase by reading it out of a hat using the same seer stones that he had once used to con money out of farmers when he used them to locate “buried treasure” left behind by ancient Indians on their farm land, but if he did he’d have been doing it the hard way; everything he needed was right there in the KJV, and would hardly be “unusual” considering the religious fervor of the time.

4. Mosiah 11:8: “King Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings and ornamented them with fine work and precious things, including ziff.” Have you ever wondered about the meaning of the word “ziff” referred to in this scripture? This word, although in the Book of Mormon, is not contained in dictionaries of the English language. Yet it translates freely back into the Arabic language, for ziff is a special kind of curved sword somewhat like a simitar which is carried in a sheath and often used for ornamentation as well as for more practical purposes. The discovery of the word “ziff” in the Book of Mormon really excited my neighbor, Brother Hanna.

Although I was unable to find any reference to an Arabic word “Ziff” on the entire internet (Google’s never heard of it, outside of references to the Sami Hanna story, nor has my Arabic-English, English-Arabic dictionary) I was able to find the ACTUAL reference (the above quotation is not correct) to “ZIFF” in the BoM that is CLEARLY not meant to denote a weapon:

Mosiah 11:8 – “And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ZIFF, and of copper.”  This is clearly some type of raw metal used as a decoration, and does not support the claim in regard to an archaic weapon that may or may not have ever existed.  Clearly, the verse was misquoted in order to support an already unlikely claim.  Unfortunately for the author of “Reflections,” he also failed to realize, or at least to acknowledge, that archeologists have discovered that although Native Americans may have had some crude metal-working abilities, they never developed the technology to construct metal weaponry, nor was weapons-grade steel introduced to the continent until Columbus arrived in the late 1400’s CE.  Later the Natives’ stone weapons, still in vogue in indigenous America in the 1500’s, were easily overcome by Spanish steel.

What’s more, it seems quite likely that I could make a sound with my mouth, any sound at all, and find dozens, perhaps hundreds, of languages for which that sound has a specific meaning among the nearly 7,000 human languages that currently exist, or the thousands more that have perished.  It would hardly require divine inspiration.

6. Helaman 1:3: Here reference is made to the contending for the judgment seat. Brother Hanna observes that the use of the term “judgment seat” would be quite strange to an American who might have used a more familiar noun such as governor, president, or ruler. Yet, in Arabic custom, the place of power rests in the judgment seat and whoever occupies that seat, is the authority and power. The authority goes with the seat and not with the office or the person. So, this, in the Semitic languages, connotes the meaning exactly.

Romans 14:10, KJV “…we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”  (yawn)

Points 5, 7 and 8 also describe characteristics of the KJV Bible, and we’ve beat that dead horse enough, so I’ll not include them, but feel free to refer to the document from the link I provided earlier and check it out for yourself.

“Well, I have just cited a few of these examples. There are many more! As Latter-day Saint leaders, we are aware of the Semitic origin of the Book of Mormon. The fact that an Arabic scholar such as this seems[sic] a beautiful internal consistency in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of the book, is of great interest, for the Prophet Joseph did not merely render an interpretation, but a word for word translation from the Egyptian type of hieroglyphic into the English language. Brother Hanna said the Book of Mormon simply flowed back into the Arabic language.”

“As Latter-day Saint leaders,” the quote says.  Remember that Elder Nelson was, in fact, a leader in the LDS church, but that he denied authorship of this document.  One wonders what the true author must have been thinking as (s)he wrote this line, which can only be a boldface lie.  Did the author intend a pious fraud, where shady means justify the glorious ends, or was this merely a prank?  Are there people out there whose role it is to create and propagate salacious stories like this in order to reinforce faith falsely?  We don’t know.

But this bullshit has been laid to rest.

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12 Responses to “Lost in Translation, or “Oh, the Mormanity!””

  1. Cherie M Says:

    Fantastic research. This was an incredibly interesting read.

  2. I know it’s been over two years since this post, but some of my Mormon friends just shared the Sami Hanna story. It seemed to make them very happy. I was just as glad to find your blog.
    Great post.

  3. Anthon, thanks for response. I am very happy that this helped, and not at all surprised that this “talk” is still circulating, full steam, among the “faithful.” Sadly, I imagine that those who shared this with you, once originally overwhelmed by its profundity, will claim (after learning that Elder Nelson’s office has denied responsibility for it) that they never took it seriously in the first place.

  4. […] Lost in Translation, or “Oh, the Mormanity!” […]

  5. You (the author of this website) should change the name on your website to “Babbling Bullshit”

    First, you neglected to do , if any, research on your website topic. If you had, you would have found a creditable 8 hour interview by Dr. Brenton G. Yorgason with Dr. Sami Hanna (covering about the same material contained in the booklet Little Known Evidences of the Book of Mormon). Instead you choose to use an article that you state and know is not creditable, namely “Reflection of Sami Hanna”. This demonstrates your lack of intellect.

    Next, you attempt to discredit Dr. Sami Hanna, (an Egyptian, who speaks Arabic and who was a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Utah and who transferred here from the University of Chicago [two highly respected and accredited universities]) as he presents his findings and beliefs about the Book of Mormon which came from his translation of the Book of Mormon into Arabic.

    May I ask; Where are your credentials to substantiate your claims on this topic? You have none, hence you have no creditability in addressing this topic, especially when it comes to Middle Eastern Studies in Semitic Languages. I find your commentary, in your words “utterly recockulous” and in my words “ your an idiot”.

    You have no credentials of which you admit and I quote “your a linguist (I’m not, although I am studying Linguistics)” and you did little if any research on the topic so you attempt to discredit an article that has no creditability (of which you admit) and you have, not much (if any) knowledge, of Middle Eastern Semitic Languages and yet you claim to be able to “deconstruct” Dr. Hanna’s findings. Hogwash!

    Your commentary about how Joseph Smith could have written the Book of Mormon because you can find the similar words or terms in the Bible proved to me that both books could have come from similar Semitic language backgrounds and it’s interesting to me that Joseph smith, “an uneducated farm boy” could have translated/written a book about a group of people that originated from an area that spoke a Semitic language, a place that he never visited or lived in, and around one hundred and fifty years later, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies and a scholar in Semitic Languages from two accredited universities Dr. Sami Hanna, after reading the Book of Mormon said “What I found , however, was not a book of poor English: but to the contrary, I found my self reading the most beautiful Semitic book I had ever read”*

    To comment further on this discredited article and website would be ludicrous.

    If the author of this website would of been credible I would have asked him to comment on a far more interesting topic, in my view, that occurs in the book of Mormon that has to do with, wordprints, stylometry, and the different writing styles and writings techniques that is unique to each writer (there are more than 24); but I suspect he doesn’t have the credential for addressing this topic either.

    May I encourage you, the reader of this article, to obtain a creditable account of Dr. Sami Hanna finding about the Book of Mormon found in the booklet “Little Known Evidences of the Book of Mormon” by Dr. Yorgason and read Part Three (the asterisk above comes from a quote found in this book on pages 37-38).

    Thus, to sum it all up don’t be duped by the written material in this website. Do your own research on the topic from credible authors and to the author of this website you have no credentials; stop being a bullshitter!

    • P.S. The author of this website says: “ Unfortunately for the author of “Reflections,” he also failed to realized, or at least to acknowledge, that archeologists have discovered that although Native Americans may have had some rude metal – working abilities, they never developed the technology to construct metal weaponry, nor was weapons-grade steel introduced to the continent until Columbus arrived in the late 1400’s “ . Wow! I’m a gassed at this authors idiocy. I did a simple search on Google and found that the Hopewell Indians or mound builders had metal weapons. I see that this author’s archeology credentials are equal to his linguistic credentials. He has none. He is an expert at nothing and yet he claims to know things he knows nothing about. What this author is, is a lunatic basking in his own lack of knowledge and he is not even smart enough to do the research necessary to back his claims. He just bullshits.

  6. Sorry…you said something about “babbling” and then it just went on and on and on…

    But I finally got around to approving your comment. Let me address your first accusation:
    “First, you neglected to do , if any, research on your website topic. If you had, you would have found a creditable 8 hour interview by Dr. Brenton G. Yorgason with Dr. Sami Hanna ”

    Well, even though you neglected to use, if any, proper grammar, I figured out what you meant. And let me tell you, I researched everywhere I could (because that is the kind of obsessive person that I am) to find ANY information about Dr. Hanna, and at the time of publication there was almost nothing available except for reprints of the original fraudulent document (that, I might add, is spreading like wildfire among the congregations of the faithful, who it turns out will believe anything faith-affirming), that document which I make reference to in the post.

    But for shits and giggles I decided to have another go at it with your search parameters. I actually had to search the title of the book (which I didn’t know before hand) to get any returns, and even then Google offered ONLY ONE hit that contained any text from the book. In other words, it’s buried deep (and I think I know why – gimme a sec). But basically every criticism I made above ALSO applies to, and utterly eviscerates the central premises of, the interview with Dr. Hanna…in particular this:

    “Dr. Hanna; “There is truly no way that even a learned Indo-European man of today could produce such a perfectly Semitic book”

    Well, he apparently doesn’t think so anymore. I already pointed out that Sami’s son Mark indicated that he left the LDS church and recanted his glowing statements about the Book of Mormon, and even FAIR (the apologetics and propaganda wing of LDS inc.) has admitted this and made reference to it on their website. Perhaps this is why it is so hard to find info about Dr. Hanna; he no longer affirms the faith.

    So one wonders, Craig… you believed the academic when he spoke favorably of your sacred cow, saying, “hey this seems legit,” but do you suddenly dismiss that same academic when he says “on closer inspection it turns out I was wrong, this is actually bullshit?” If so, on what grounds do you do so?

    • Haha this dude can’t be serious. Okay, author of the article, let’s skinny this down to the real question at hand. Put aside your research and your clearly negative experiences with the LDS Church. Answer me this: do you believe that Joseph Smith Jr., the 14 year old uneducated farm boy, completely fabricated the Book of Mormon out of thin air? If so, how (using what materials) and why? Don’t cite anything just yet or try to sound smart. I’m trying to dig deep into what you actually believe.

      • Yes Brandon, I absolutely do believe he could. For one thing “uneducated” is a little misleading. It is known that he read extensively. It is known that he possessed and was familiar with the King James Bible, from which it appears Joseph borrowed not only the manner of speech, but also numerous typos. It is also likely that he had read “View of the Hebrews,” which lays out the ideas of ancient Israelites in the Americas, as well as the notions of burial mounds that held buried treasure and the remains of epic ancient battles.

        You could have known about his access to the KJV Bible by reading the initial post.

      • Another quick point…Joseph Smith wasn’t 14 when the Book of Mormon was written. He was 25.

        And of course, it’s not exactly a masterpiece of literature. Many, many young authors have written very excellent stories that surpass the BoM in quality and complexity. We needn’t pretend it’s an amazing read…

  7. ryan lanz Says:

    like the other fella I was glad to find this blog ad another lds member told me of the story today and gave me the paper as I laughed. He is still unwilling to believe that he has been living the Utah lie in the bubble his whole life. I will show him this info along with other information from mrm.org, utlm.org to help show him the truth and hopefully he will see the light that Mormonism is based on the fraud of joe smith.

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