Reflections of Sami Hanna as recorded by Elder Russell M. Nelson, apostle for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: (Adapted from an address given 25 June 1992 at a seminar for new mission presidents, Missionary Training Center, Provo, Utah.)
My neighbor, Sami Hanna, is a native Egyptian. He is an academic scholar who moved into our neighborhood to accept an assignment with the university as a specialist in Middle Eastern Studies and the Semitic group of languages such as Arabic, Abyssinian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Assyrian.
Being a newcomer into our community, he felt the Mormons were a bit of a curiosity. Upon learning the name Mormon came from our belief that the Book of Mormon is divine scripture, he was intrigued by the existence of the Book of Mormon. He had erroneously thought this was American literature. When he was told that the Book of Mormon was translated from the ancient Egyptian or modified Hebrew type of hieroglyphic into the English language by the prophet Joseph Smith, he became even more engrossed, for this was his native language and he knows much about the other Semitic languages as well as the modern languages.
So challenged was he by this book that he embarked on the project of translating the Book of Mormon from English to Arabic. This translation was different from other translators, for this was to be a translation back to the original language of the book. To make a long story short, the process of this translation became the process of his conversion; for he soon knew the Book of Mormon to be a divine document even though he knew virtually nothing of the organization of the Church or of its programs. 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.
Some of these observations I think will be of interest to you, as they were to me, for they clarify some of the unique aspects of the book.
1. Jarom 2: “It musts 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” again awkward and rarely used in English, are classical and correct grammar in the Semitic languages.
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 forbearers to recite their genealogy from memory.
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, 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. Stiffnecked is an adjective they use in describing an obstinate person.
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 scimitar 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.
5. Alma 63:11 Reference is made to Helaman, son of Helaman. Why did not Joseph Smith interpret this as Helaman, Jr., which would have been more logical for him, bearing the same name as his father, Joseph, and being named Joseph Smith, Jr. In Arabic, Brother Hanna explains, there is no word “junior” to cover this circumstance. Their custom is to use the terminology Joseph, son of Joseph; Helaman, son of Helaman, etc.
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.
7 Helaman 3:14 In this verse, there are a total of eighteen “ands.” Reviewers of the Book of Mormon have, on occasion, been critical of the grammar in such a passage where the use of the word “and” seems so repetitious. Yet Brother Hanna explains that each of the “ands” in this verse is absolutely essential to the meaning, when this verse is expressed in Arabic, for the omission of any ” and” would nullify the meaning words.
8. Helaman 3:18–19 Have you wondered why the Book of Mormon cites a numbering system such as this? Do we say “forty and six, forty and seven, forty and eight?” No! Joseph Smith’s natural interpretation would more appropriately have been forty-six, forty-seven, forty-eight without the ands”. Brother Hanna excitedly observes that the use of “and” in forty and six” is precisely correct Arabic. Remember they number, as well as read, from right to left and recite their numbers with the “and” to separate the columns.
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 sees a beautiful internal consistency in the Prophet Joseph Smith’s translation of the book, is of great interest. 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