Kerry Muhlestein, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, PhD in Egyptology at UCLA in 2003.
The issue of translation poses a problem for many people. Very few people in the world could translate any Egyptian at all, and Joseph Smith certainly had no academic training that would have given him this ability. While all can agree on this beginning point, it immediately forces us to make an initial assumption if we are to evaluate Joseph Smith’s claims of translating from the papyri he possessed. If we do not believe that translation via divine assistance is possible and that the only method of translation is the conventional academic model, then the argument is over. Based on this assumption, Joseph Smith could not have translated the papyri and anything he did with them is false, regardless of how they may or may not match up with other ancient texts or ideas. Alternatively, we may believe in what the Bible calls “the gift of tongues,” which can include the ability to translate from a language one has not come to know through conventional means. If we believe this, we may still choose to believe that Joseph Smith was not blessed with such a gift. In this case we will still regard everything regarding his claim to translate as fraud. However, if we believe that God bestowed upon Joseph Smith an ability to translate outside of the conventional method, then the fact that he did not know Egyptian is irrelevant. Our beginning assumption colors how we see the rest of the evidence. If one does not discount the possibility that divine inspiration was available to Joseph Smith, then this whole question is moot.
Did Joseph Smith want to translate using a more conventional method? Absolutely! He wanted to learn both Hebrew and Egyptian in such a way. He prayed that he might be blessed with an understanding of ancient languages.i As was mentioned earlier, he eventually gave up trying to use his own translations to try to work out a conventional grammar and hired a Hebrew teacher (on his attempts to translate, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sh8kfcQtu60&list=PLc5yYrpPFm2sT29LjdbicouCVVWdaA0BW). Until he hired a Hebrew teacher, was he a failure at translating using conventional methods? Yes. This is why he sought out such a teacher. Does any of this mean he did not translate via inspiration? No, in fact it highlights his desire to be able to learn to translate on his own instead of having to rely on revelation when the Lord saw fit to provide him with it.
Again, it is the original assumptions we make that we must be cognizant of. I have been privy to communications between scholars who have seen some of the things we have already mentioned wherein Joseph Smith’s interpretations agree with Egyptological interpretations. They have said something like “it has to be coincidence, Joseph Smith could not translate Egyptian.” They are so dedicated to the assumption that he could not receive inspiration that any evidence to the contrary has to be dismissed. This is simply because it does not fit into the paradigm they have created. I admit that I operate in a similar way. Because of both spiritual and intellectual experiences, I begin with the assumption that Joseph Smith could and did receive inspiration to translate. Thus, just as some look for ways to explain away things that don’t agree with their paradigm, I look for explanations that fit into my paradigm when I encounter something that seems contrary. I follow the evidence and allow it to dictate my conclusions, but then I try to make sense of those conclusions within my operating paradigm. There is no way around this. Our assumptions inevitably color our conclusions. All we can do is raise ourselves to safest ground by at least admitting our assumptions, examining them, and operating knowingly in light of them. It is a failure to be transparent about assumptions, or a failure to realize that assumptions have been made, that leads to confusion on the issues surrounding the Joseph Smith Papyri. Most arguments fall away when we are clear about assumptions. Instead we can disagree on which assumption is correct, but admit that given a particular assumption many conclusions that follow are logical.
i See his journal reference, 4th of February 1836. See http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/journal-1835-1836.