The Book of Mormon in French: Conjectures and the Genius of Louis Bertrand

Royal Skousen, professor of linguistics and English language at BYU, lectured on the role of conjectures in altering texts, specifically the French translation of the Book of Mormon.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 23, 2017)—The first edition of the French translation of the Book of Mormon was published in 1852, with the most recent French translation being published in 1998. However, there are multiple places where the two versions read differently. How could this be? Professor Royal Skousen explained how texts change over time due, in part, to conjectures, and how one early French convert was exceptionally good at getting them right.

Louis Bertrand was one of five French converts to be baptized in the Seine River in December of 1850, and one of the first eight members of the Paris branch created a week later. Before Bertrand, two other people worked on the translation of the Book of Mormon into French, but it was Bertrand who was responsible for editing their portions and translating the rest.

Over the course of his translation, Bertrand came across places in the English Book of Mormon where words or tenses seemed inappropriate, or sometimes phrases just didn’t read right. Skousen explained, “When you have someone working with the text, producing a new edition, they sometimes confront a reading in their copy-text that they don’t like. They might check some other versions and not like those readings either, so they come up with their own. Every time this happens, this is a conjecture.”

From the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon to the printer’s manuscript to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, several hundreds of conjectures were made as the copyist or typesetter tried to figure out his copy. As a consequence, conjectures have become a part of our standard text, not only in our current LDS text but also in the version of the Book of Mormon that Skousen published with Yale University Press in 2009.

When teaching his course in textual criticism of the Book of Mormon, Skousen often has students study conjectural emendations that have entered the translated text. In 2011, Dallin Bailey found an abnormally high number of conjectures made by Bertrand in the 1852 French translation that agree with Skousen’s conjectures in the 2009 Yale edition, but not the current French translation (which closely follows the standard LDS English text).

For example, one verse in the English text that Bertrand had reads, “They shall be remembered again among the House of Israel.” However, the original manuscript written by John Whitmer reads, “They shall be numbered again among the House of Israel.” Oliver Cowdery misread it and wrote it incorrectly in the printer’s manuscript as “remembered”; thus; it was written incorrectly in the copy Bertrand had. However, Bertrand apparently realized that, as Skousen puts it, “in the Mormon peoples are numbered rather than remembered”. Thus Bertrand emended the text by conjecture, so that the original French translation uses the adjective compté – counted.

An interesting thing to note, however, is that the most recent French translation reverts back to “remembered” in the same spot. Why? Skousen explained, “Because that’s what the standard text reads. The translators of the most recent edition are retranslating it from the standard LDS text,” which still has “remembered”. The explanation is that “current translators follow a rather firm procedure to make sure that the translations end up following the standard current text,” Skousen said.

Throughout the first French edition of the Book of Mormon, there is evidence of Bertrand carefully reading the English text and making thoughtful, coherent changes when needed. Verb tense, missing words and an incorrectly labeled group of people are just some of the mistakes Bertrand corrected on his own. Skousen said, “It amazes me that he came up with so many of these things. We can tell that he had a deep love for the Book of Mormon, so that for him it was crucial that the translated text read as sensibly as possible to French readers.”


Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18) 

Olivia covers events for the French Department of the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in French with a minor in International Development.

4/8/17: This article was updated to correct inaccuracies from a previous version.