A Strange Mode of Translation; or Who Needs Seer Stones? The First Spanish Translation of the Book of Mormon

By March 18, 2008

trozos_selectos.png

In 1874, Brigham Young assigned Daniel Webster Jones, Mormon convert and noted rescuer of the ill-fated Willie Handcart Company of 1856, to lead a group of missionaries into Mexico–the first expedition to that country by the Latter-day Saints.[1] At the time of this call, Young explained to Jones “that he would like to have some extracts from the Book of Mormon translated to send to the people of Mexico,” and asked Jones and Henry Brizzee to begin the translation. Jones recalled that the Mormon Prophet “advised us to get our private affairs arranged, also to study up our Spanish and prepare ourselves for translating and report to him.”

Daniel W. Jones had taught himself the Spanish language during his years growing up as an orphan in Texas and New Mexico, but lacked any formal training or study in the language. He explained that “to translate for publication required a more thorough scholarship than either of us possessed. I often thought how good it would be to have a native Spaniard to help us.”[2]

He got his wish when Meliton G. Trejo, “a Spanish gentleman from the Philippine Islands” who, following a series of miraculous dreams and visions had joined the LDS church and immigrated to the Mormon Zion, joined Brizzee and Jones in assisting in the translation process. Trejo was a well-educated Spaniard who had received training at Spain’s military academies and earned a doctorate from the University of Bordeaux. Jones and Trejo completed the translation of roughly 100 pages of selections from the Book of Mormon, and published them as Trozos selectos del Libro de Mormon: que es una narracion escrita por la mano de Mormon, sobre placas de Nephi in 1875.[3]

While Joseph Smith’s unique mode of translating the Book of Mormon from what he termed “Reformed Egyptian” into English has received much attention, the method utilized by Daniel Jones in his translation of the book from English to Spanish has received considerably less attention, though it is equally unique (and fits nicely within the charismatic and revelatory heritage of Mormonism).

When the translation commenced, Jones remembered Brigham Young firmly telling him “the he would hold me responsible for its correctness. This weighed heavily on my mind. So much so that I asked the Lord to in some way manifest to me when there were mistakes.”[4] In his autobiography, Forty Years Among the Indians, Jones recounted the translation process, and just how the Lord manifested mistakes in Brother Trejo’s translation:

The manuscript as written by Brother Trejo, was at times rather after the modern notion of good style. When I called his attention to errors he invariably agreed with me. He often remarked that I was a close critic and understood Spanish better than he did. I did not like to tell him how I discerned the mistakes.

I felt a sensation in the center of my forehead as though there was a fine fiber being drawn smoothly out. When a mistake occurred, the smoothness would be interrupted as though a small knot was passing out through the forehead. Whether I saw the mistake or not I was so sure it existed that I would direct my companion’s attention to it and call on him to correct it. When this was done we continued on until the same occurred again.[5]

_____________________

[1] See F. Lamond Tullis, “Early Mormon Exploration and Missionary Activities in Mexico,” BYU Studies 22:3 (1982), 289-310. Jared T. and I are currently working on an article examining the intersections of race, religion, and ethnic identity during this first Mormon mission to Mexico. Daniel Webster Jones should not be confused with the governor of Arkansas of the same name or the Mormon missionary and friend of Joseph Smith, Dan Jones.

[2] Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years Among the Indians: A True yet Thrilling Narrative of the Author’s Experiences Among the Natives (Salt Lake City, Utah: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1890), 219-20.

[3] See Eduardo Balderas, “How the Scriptures Came to be Translated into Spanish,” Ensign (September 1972), 26-29. For more on Meliton Trejo, see Tressie M. Post, “Meliton Gonzalez Trejo: The First Spanish Translator of the Book of Mormon,” Improvement Era (March 1926), 429-30; and K.E. Duke, “Meliton Gonzalez Trejo: Translator of the Book of Mormon Into Spanish,” Improvement Era (October 1956), 714-15, 753.

[4] Jones, Forty Years Among the Indians, 232.

[5] Jones, Forty Years Among the Indians, 232. Even with my mediocre reading abilities in the Spanish language, I can detect some rather obvious translation errors in reading Jones and Trejo’s translation (though that is rather typical of most writings of the era).


Comments

  1. Very interesting post, Chris. I look forward to the article you and Jared are working on.

    In my opinion, this is the type of history we need more of (i.e. history that takes place away from the center of the Church).

    Comment by Ben — March 18, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  2. Anyone who has shared this or a similar experience will recognize it, but I can guess how it appears to others. For me, a peculiar sensation across my shoulders and up the back of my neck signals me to pay close attention to what I am reading, because I am about to read something of importance (not general importance, but important to a specific work).

    Comment by Anon this time — March 18, 2008 @ 12:02 pm

  3. I agree with Ben,

    Great post! I wonder what influence this Jones/Trejo translation has had on subsequent Spanish versions of the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by Joel — March 18, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

  4. That is interesting; there is a first edition–or what is purported to be a first edition–Spanish Book of Mormon for sale on Ebay.

    It lists as translators Trejo and Jaime Stewart. It is also interesting to see that the book on ebay, an 1886 edition, leaves Joseph Smith’s name as is, while the 1875 translation translated Joseph’s name to Jose.

    Comment by capt jack — March 18, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  5. I’ll add my 2 cents to confirm the principle of spiritual communication crossing over into almost physical feelings. It’s as if the spirit body is feeling some material effect on it, and the only way we have to describe is to use words in relation to how it “sort of feels” on our physical body. To me, it’s a spiritual feeling, but it’s something like a physical feeling on my spirit body.

    In my experiences, the analog to this is a tug, indicating a direction I’m supposed to go and/or to look.

    Comment by Bookslinger — March 18, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  6. Joel and capt jack, It is important to remember that Jones and Trejo’s translation included only selections from the book. Trejo and James Stewart (who was part of the group that accompanied Jones in that first mission to Mexico) were commissioned by Apostle Moses Thatcher to translate into Spanish the entire Book of Mormon in 1883. They completed their manuscript in 1886. My understanding is that it was a much more scholarly approach to translation, and no changes were made based on sensations in their foreheads. Subsequent translations in 1922 and 1929 (by Mexican Mission Pres. Rey Pratt) used the 1886 version as their basis.

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  7. Anon this time and Bookslinger, Thanks for your comments. I’m more interested in analyzing what this nature of translation reveals about the charismatic nature of 19th-century Mormonism, and not evaluating whether DWJ’s method of detecting errors is genuine or not. That said, it seems clear that Jones believed they were genuine, and I have no reason to not believe him.

    Comment by Christopher — March 18, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  8. Very cool account. Thanks for sharing it.

    Comment by john f. — March 18, 2008 @ 2:01 pm

  9. “I felt a sensation in the center of my forehead as though there was a fine fiber being drawn smoothly out…”

    Clearly, a case of translation by pensieve!

    Comment by Jonathan Green — March 18, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  10. […] did not know that.  My great-great-great-grandfather was charged by Brigham Young to start the first translations of the Book of Mormon into Spanish, telling him that “the he would hold me responsible for its […]

    Pingback by I did not know that · A Soft Answer — March 19, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

  11. Very unique and interesting.
    Thanks Christopher

    Comment by JonW — March 22, 2008 @ 9:50 am

  12. I’ve done some research on my ancestor, Daniel Webster Jones, but never heard of him learning Spanish “during his years growing up as an orphan in Texas and New Mexico.”

    The story I’m familiar with is that he was born in central Missouri. After his parents died when he was about 8 and 11, he wound up in St. Louis, where he was apprenticed to a saddle-maker, probably by relatives. In 1847, at about 17 years old, he crossed the plains to take part in the Mexican war, leaving “all my friends and relatives and went out into the world alone, probably as willful a boy as ever lived.” He remained in Mexico for the next three years, where he “studied the Spanish language, so as to read and write it and act as interpreter.” In 1850, he left for California with a sheep-trading expedition, but was left with the Mormon settlement in Provo because of a personal injury (gunshot wound to the groin and thigh), which led to his conversion and baptism.

    My impression has been that he lived in Old Mexico. If you have different evidence, or have reached different conclusions, I’d be interested to know about it.

    Comment by Ryan Reeder — March 31, 2008 @ 8:23 am

  13. Ryan, I guess we’re cousins. We’re actually both correct, as prior to the Mexican-American war, what we now call Texas and New Mexico were part of Old Mexico, or at least part of disputed territory that Mexico claimed (except for the eastern most part of Texas that Sam Houston and gang won in 1836).

    I didn’t rehearse DWJ’s entire story in this post because it was largely irrelevant to the main points of the post.

    P.S. I’m familiar with the website you maintain, and think it’s great.

    Comment by Christopher — March 31, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  14. I am doing a research, and I havent found qhy DWJ became orphaned. I understand that His dad died in Jul 20 1839, and his mom died in Mar 6 1843 . Is it correct that he was orphaned in 1842???If you find the information I qpuld be really interested in knowing it.

    Comment by Ivan — February 10, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

  15. Is there any history on Grandpa Jones (or his daughter Mary that he left with) after he left Salt River mission and Mexico and returned to SLC? I am interested in learning what happened to him after the accounts in his book, “Forty Years Among the Indians” or the final 20 some years of his life?

    Comment by Mary W. Nielson — September 16, 2010 @ 9:18 am


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