Did Joseph’s Scribes Think He Translated Paragraphs of Text from a Single Egyptian Character? A View from W.W. Phelps

In using the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP) to discredit Joseph’s “translation” of the Book of Abraham, it is assumed that these papers show that Joseph and his scribes thought that single Egyptian character could magically represent vast chunks of English text. In addition to the evidence that the Book of Abraham translation appears to predate whatever was being done with the Book of Abraham text in the KEP, one important question is whether these men really thought such a thing was possible. Rather than relying on circular arguments to show us what they might have thought, let’s take a look at an important example where W.W. Phelps explicitly equates some  Egyptian text to an alleged translation. This comes from a document, “Notebook of Copied Characters, circa Early July 1835” by W.W. Phelps. Take look at the English “translation” and guess how many Egyptian characters were needed to produce it. 

Here’s the text [update: the later addition of “in part” in much lighter ink was originally and still is discussed below, but I’ll mention it here as suggested in the comments]:

A Translation of the next page [this is where “in part” was later added]

Katumin, Princess, daughter of On-i-tas King​ of Egypt, who began to reign in the year of the world, 2962. Katumin was born in the 30th year of the reign of her father, and died when he was 28 years old, which was the year​ 3020.

Looks like 45 words from “Katumin” to “3020,” counting each number like 3020 as a single word. If each digit requires a word, then we might say there are 53 words. So many how many characters of Egyptian would this require? Go ahead and guess before reading.

This is a fairly brief English text, so, if the other “smoking gun” manuscripts show 1 character can represent as many as 160 words in the Book of Abraham, then maybe around 0.3 or so Egyptian characters, would be needed here, right? Rounding, we might say approximately 0 characters, or 1 if we insist on rounding up for “practical” reasons.

So was your guess around 1 character? Not bad. But what did Phelps think? You can see the correct answer for yourself on the Joseph Smith Paper’s website showing the Egyptian page of this brief document. Here’s the image of the Egyptian Phelps mentioned:


Though it’s unclear to me how to break up some of these, I conservatively estimate over 40 characters are present, probably about 47. So Phelps seems to have had the impression that 47 characters of Egyptian could represent around 53 English words. Not several thousand. Not an entire book. 

One can argue point out that there’s an emendation to the English, with “in part” inserted to the right of “next page,” but with much lighter ink (or pencil?), clearly at a different time. Did Phelps later think that maybe there was more yet English that could be derived from the Egyptian? Perhaps. But when he wrote this, not long after the translation of the Book of Abraham had begun, the idea that three lines of Egyptian could give about four lines of English did not seem implausible. There’s no hint that he really meant that a single one of those characters was all that was needed to give that text.

Whatever was going on with the juxtaposition of some already translated text with a few lone characters of Egyptian on the side of some pages from a fraction of the Book of Abraham, Phelps’ statement about translated Egyptian here suggests that they didn’t really think Joseph was creating many lines of text from a single character or fraction of a character. This is another important piece of evidence that needs to be considered before letting one’s assumptions become imagined bedrock in the case against the Book of Abraham. Many questions and puzzles remain, but this document can clarify some issues. 

One should also note that another scribe, Warren Parrish, would later turn against Joseph Smith. If he thought Joseph was making up large passages from a mere character or part of a character, such a ridiculous notion might well have been one of the arguments he could raise against the impostor. But such an argument was never raised. Witnesses, rather, spoke of Joseph translating a long scroll, not a tiny line of Egyptian text. The characters on the left of some Book of Abraham text simply can’t represent Joseph’s translation in action. 

Granted, what Phelps gives us as the translation is wrong. If he got that from Joseph, he was wrong about that. I don’t know how it was translated and by whom. It would probably be part of the attempt to figure out Egyptian, apparently relying on the miracle of the translation to give them tools for learning on their own. But though that human effort was misguided, it doesn’t tell us about the “translation”/revelation process (whatever it was, from whatever source was used) that created the revealed text in the first place. 

Update, April 22, 2019: [Note from Nov. 2019: the “in part” is actually in pencil, as we can see in the printed volume from the JSP Project, so it’s not scraped-off ink as I surmised in the update note that follows. I’ll strike out those words.] Ouch, I think I was wrong in my interpretation of “in part” as coming well after Phelps wrote his statement on the translation. Upon closer inspection of the high-resolution documents, along with other portions of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers where Phelps or Parrish apparently scraped off ink, I think I need to face the fact that Phelps may have actually written “in part” with the same bold ink and likely in the same sitting as he wrote the rest of the document, though it may have been an emendation originally before he changed his mind and attempted to scrape it off, just as I think he scraped the “th” of “28th” in this document, though probably immediately with the ink still wet, while the ink of “in part” may have at least partially dried before he changed his mind. If “in part” was there initially and then he changed his mind shortly thereafter, that changes things dramatically. I’ll discuss this theory in my next post. So yes, I think I was wrong in part about what happened with the “in part” part. I may be wrong about being wrong (either way I lose and owe apologies!), but there’s some possible evidence I want to share. More on this after I get some sleep. If there’s any merit to my theory, it may require some microscopic examination to confirm.

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

Author: Jeff Lindsay

13 thoughts on “Did Joseph’s Scribes Think He Translated Paragraphs of Text from a Single Egyptian Character? A View from W.W. Phelps

  1. You’ve omitted a key emendation to Phelps’s text — “in part.” This indicates that his “translation” did not encompass the entire Egyptian text on the next page—he may have just been getting warmed up. It’s also quite possible that this was a personal attempt on his part and he added the “in part” later after Joseph schooled him on how detailed one hieroglyph could be.

    We know Oliver called Egyptian a “comprehensive” language—implying that much meaning is conveyed through little writing. This belief goes along with your recent pure language exploration. If Egyptian were closer to the pure language of Adam, it should be able to convey more meaning in fewer words since it isn’t as corrupt as more modern languages.

  2. No, I mentioned and discussed the "in part" emendation in my post. I pointed out that it had to be added at a later time and with a different appearance in the very light ink. He wrote his paragraph without immediately adding "in part." Perhaps later he felt there was more to be brought out from the text, but there's no suggestion that he thought a single character is all that was being translated on the next page.

    1. “there's no suggestion that he thought a single character is all that was being translated on the next page.“

      There is no suggestion that he thought he was translating multiple characters either. However, the emendation makes it clear he didn’t think he had accomplished a complete translation. Based on what we know of other firsthand accounts regarding the perceived relationship between Egyptian and English text, it would be safer to assume he didn’t think there was a word for character (or even near this) relationship.

  3. Here’s how you presented the text:

    “A Translation of the next page
    Katumin, Princess, daughter of On-i-tas King​ of Egypt, who began to reign in the year of the world, 2962. Katumin was born in the 30th year of the reign of her father, and died when he was 28 years old, which was the year​ 3020.”

    Emendation omitted.

  4. Jeff, this is cherry picking at its finest. W.W. Phelps and Warren Parish were the scribes and it's clear from the manuscript they believed one Hieroglyphic could represent a paragraph of text.

    See: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/book-of-abraham-manuscript-circa-july-circa-november-1835-c-abraham-11-218/1

    These men believed one character could produce 5 degrees of meaning and large paragraphs of text so they wouldn't use this as "a ridiculous notion" to "raise against the impostor." Dan Vogel has clearly shown that the manuscripts weren't inserted after the translation. Last time you deleted my link to Dan's videos. Why?

    I urge you to make a response to Dan's videos on the topic if you are this passionate about it and have the truth.

  5. The addition of "in part" was clearly discussed in the later text of my post. It's visible on the image, if you look closely, but of course it's so different, so light — was it scratched out after being written in normal ink? written in pencil? written days latter with a nearly-dry pen? intended to express uncertainty? — that it should not be presented without comment, in my opinion. But I hate to see my readers troubled by the way I say things, so I've taken your complaint to heart and added two notices up front to reduce the odds that someone might be perplexed.

  6. "There is no suggestion that he thought he was translating multiple characters either."

    I'm a bit surprised by that. It also heightens my curiosity, so do you mind if I ask who you are or at least what background you bring to this debate? You obviously care about this greatly and seem rather concerned about the Phelps document, and seem familiar with documents and the Book of Abraham issues, so I'm intrigued.

    Anyway, let me explain why I disagree with your statement. Please note that Phelps penned three lines of Egyptian and penned four lines of English to match, and called it a "translation." The ink seems consistent and steady for that process, as if he did it in one sitting. That, my friend or whoever you are, ought to be prima facie evidence of at least a suggestion that the English text corresponded in some way to the Egyptian text, not just a lone character.

    If he were giving the translation of one character, I think he would not have said that he was giving the translation of the text on the next page. He most plausibly would have said he was translating a character or even a part of one, if he really thought one character could much bigger passages of text.

    The "in part" clearly came later. It's out of register with the rest of the text, and written in ink (I assume it's ink and not pencil) that's so light it's easy to overlook. So as he sat down and completed the translation and the copying of the Egyptian, he had written that those 40-something Egyptian characters were given us around 50 English words. That's a pretty severe mistake if he firmly believed that the translation just of just a single character.

    Yes, "in part" was later added. Given how light it was, is it possible that it was added by mistake and scratched out? It doesn't look that way to me, but it's a fair question. The handwriting looks like it is close to Phelps' so I assume Phelps did it. But how much later? And why? He was already pursuing the "pure language" project, resulting in obviously non-Egyptian characters from his pre-contact with Egyptian musings about the pure language ending up in the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, as if the goal of those documents was something besides trying to figure out the Egyptian that Joseph had. So yes, he may have been moved by his "pure language" dreams to later think there might be more to milk out of the Egyptian. But as the fresh ink flowed from his pen in writing this letter, we see three lines of Egyptian linked to four lines of English. That's a data point that can't be tossed out because you think you know what Phelps and others were thinking when they did a later document with some Egyptian in the margins.

  7. Vogel argues that the similar typos in a pair of Book of Abraham manuscripts (by Williams and Parrish) clearly show that Joseph was dictating to the two scribes as he gave the translation of Egyptian at the left. But a mildly careful look at the documents shows that an existing manuscript was being copied, and that it plausibly was being read out loud by Parrish for the benefit of Williams. But when Parrish stops and presumably leaves after Abraham 2:2, Williams turns from copying oral dictation to good ol' copying by eye and hand, resulting in one of the classic blunders in that mode of scribal copying as he repeats two lengthy passages, Abraham 2:3-5, something that would be very unlikely in an oral dictation process at that point. Clearly points to copying form an existing text, not a live translation of the original text happening as the scribes sit at Joseph's feet. Vogel make many valid points but leaves out some critical issues that weaken his argument. His assumption that translation was done from a few characters may guide his thinking to overlook important points. Similar assumptions may be influencing your thinking on the Phelps letter. When you can't admit that there's even a suggestion to be found in what he originally wrote, I think there's a problem limiting your perspective, or perhaps something much bigger influencing you — so again, I'm curious to know who you are, if you don't mind sharing, and what your interests are in this matter Sounds like they are very deep. I hope my answers and questions are not offensive, though of course you will disagree. Looking forward to your response!

  8. Again, I feel that the evidence of the Phelps letter cannot be dismissed on the basis of a firm belief/assumption from later documents that Phelps and other scribes thought that single characters were yielding big blocs of text in the Book of Abraham. There's definitely a suggestion that Phelps thought, at least initially, that four lines of English could come from 3 lines of Egyptian, even if he later thought that more could be generated. That suggestion can't be discarded because of your debatable views on what came later in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers.

  9. “prima facie evidence of at least a suggestion that the English text corresponded in some way to the Egyptian text, not just a lone character.”

    Have you ever left a writing project incomplete? Have you ever left it and come back to it later to finish? You’re making a false assumption. There is no evidence that he thought the translation was complete, and in fact the opposite is true based on the emendation. This is just another example of you ignoring the evidence at hand because it doesn’t fit your theory or belief.

  10. If he thought each character of Egyptian could give over 100 English words, he simply would not have enough space left on his page to fit the translation for what was on the next page. More reasonable is the possibility that he added some drawings on the Egyptian page worthy of commentary or translation and wanted to clarify that his translation didn’t cover those. But when he sat down with a pen, he wrote a chunk of English and s chunk of Egyptian and equated then as a translation. If only one character had been translated, he could have said so and put it on the page with the text. Do we have anything from him or anyone else explicitly saying that they thought the lone characters had been translated to yield Joseph’s translation?

  11. Cherry picking?? Apart from Joseph’s and the Book ofi Mormon’s statements on the nature of reformed Egyptian, isn’t this one of the most direct and clear statements about what a scribe actually thought about translation? Characters can be there in the margins for a variety of reasons without requiring us to assume that one squiggle could convey the detailed meaning and spelling variations of 150 or so words. You seem to feel very uncomfortable with this document, but I am afraid that a mere and possibly very late penciling of a barely visible “in part” does not suggest that Phelps was translating a lone character. It’s a valuable data point, not cherry picking.

  12. Further supporting Jeff's view is (1) the thought being translated is complete. There's nothing in the context to support the notion that anything was yet to be translated other than the images as Jeff mentions. (2) If this is not correct, the slight indentations at the beginning of the sentences that suggest that each is the end of an Egyptian line–leaving 1 line yet to be translated. Still, not 100 words per character. (3) Because the "in part" is in pencil, it appears to me to be an after thought…something that Phelps didn't want to commit to. It seems to me that the BoA translations came first, and then when they compared it to the papyri to make sense of it they quickly recognized there was a problem because there weren't enough Egyptian characters for the revelation. This is Phelps, post-July 1835, hedging that the instant characters may have contained more information, just as would be necessary to correspond the papyri to the revelation–not the other way around.

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