What if Joseph Smith had been born a couple decades ago and had just received the golden plates of the Book of Mormon? What if, instead of a Urim and Thummim or seerstone, he had to rely on modern gadgets, except for a quick divine upgrade to his automated translation software to include the reformed Egyptian used by Mormon in the 4th century A.D.? What would the translation process look like?
Well, on day one, Joseph might spend his time digitizing a portion of the text. Using his iPhone or other electronic device with a camera, he might take photos of several pages of the text. Then, on day two, between mob assaults from local vigilantes seeking to preserve biblical truth, he might launch his character recognition and translation software to begin wading through the text. He would want to check the machine generated text one sentence at a time to ensure that it is readable, and when offered two or more alternate translations for ambiguous passages, might select the most reasonable choice or otherwise assist in the final wording. If he wanted to be old-fashioned at this point (perhaps because the last mob stole his printer and ripped out his cable modem in searching for the plates, safely hidden in a bucket of wheat in his food storage), he could dictate his final text to an assistant, line by line. To make it easier to see the screen on his electronic device, he might even stick it in a hat and look at it in a darkened environment to reduce eye strain (and to increase battery life by using the lowest brightness setting, since he only had a few days of battery life left after another mob smashed his recharger – the translation must move ahead quickly now!). And then he might later digitize some more and then translate some more, until he was done.
An observer, unaware of how Joseph’s gadgets worked, might wonder how he could translate the gold plates when he wasn’t even touching them or looking at them as he dictated the text. Was he just making things up on the fly? And if he could translate by looking into a device in a hat, were the plates even needed at all? Later Church paintings and drawings might miss some of the technical details in the translation process and naturally depict the translation process with Joseph staring at the plates, scanning a line with a translator pen or iPhone in hand, overlooking the fact that the scanning may have started or even been finished before assistants were brought in.
Modern translation gadgets make it possible to dictate a scanned and translated text to others without having to physically touch and see the original physical document for each page dictated, though it begins with and relies on the original document. If that is possible with modern man-made (but highly inspired!!) gadgets, then it certainly could be possible with more advanced or more inspired technology.
I say this because I’ve seen some people become upset about the accounts from some witnesses that Joseph did much of the translation of the Book of Mormon by looking into a seerstone in a hat. Some members have been highly offended by the suggestions that popular paintings and drawings showing Joseph translating the gold plates might not be technically accurate. Some critics of the Church have spent a great deal of energy in mocking the Church and accusing us of some kind of dark “cover up” about the details translation process.
This “cover-up” about the details of the translation process (for which we know precious little) is akin to the even more blatant cover-up regarding Nephi, who, based on the latest scientific data about the DNA of ancient Jewish men and nutrition and lifestyle in the ancient Middle East, probably did not have the muscle-bound physique of the Arnold Friberg paintings that our deceptive Church has been foisting upon us for years, published right there in the official Book of Mormon itself. Through these officially endorsed, doctrinal and scriptural paintings published with the full endorsement of the prophets and apostles, the Church has been teaching a terrible lie and deceiving members for years, while contributing to the lessened self-esteem of many of us men who, lacking the biceps of Nephi, Moroni, and even young Jacob, felt unworthy, excluded, and far away from the Church’s expectation that we be physically perfect.
Since some of you have a hard time recognizing when I’m not completely serious, let me point out that the previous paragraph is meant to be facetious. The paintings added in some printings of the Book of Mormon are artistic depictions to add a little color and interest, but in no way are meant to be official doctrine, nor are they expected to be technically accurate. Ditto for paintings of the translation process, of the crossing of the Red Sea, or of the Saints crossing the planes. Most Latter-day Saints have images in their mind of how the translation process worked, perhaps influenced by various paintings and natural assumptions, but we really have very little information, and if the accounts of David Whitmer or others challenge our assumptions, don’t get bent out of shape about it. We don’t have all the answers, in spite of having many precious restored truths and the divine scriptures, including the Book of Mormon. Tiny technical details — what did Joseph see when he translated, how did the translation process work, was both a Urim and Thummim and a separate seer stone involve in various phases of the translation, was a hat really used, and exactly what size and thickness were the plates? — might differ from what we assume, and from what leaders of the Church have assumed, without detracting from their role as (human) servants of God, and without detracting from the value and truthfulness of the translated Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ.