The early prophets of the Book of Mormon frequently quoted from the writings of Isaiah that appeared on the brass plates of Laban. (1 Nephi 5:11-13; 19:21-23.) Of the 433 verses of Isaiah quoted in the Book of Mormon, 199 verses are word-for-word the same as the corresponding verses in the King James Version of the Old Testament. The so-called Isaiah problem is this: How do Latter-day Saints account for this striking similarity in nearly half of the verses and the differences in the remainder of the verses?
In order to attempt an explanation of this problem, a person should consider the following points. Joseph Smith did not explain in great detail the process used in translating the Book of Mormon; he merely stated, “through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.” (Millennial Star, 18:118.) However, it is quite evident that the process of translation was not automatic; Joseph Smith not only had to exercise faith in the translation procedure, but he also had to put forth mental and spiritual effort. Oliver Cowdery’s unsuccessful attempt to translate indicates clearly that the translation of the Book of Mormon was more than a mechanical process. (See D&C 8:1-3, 10-11; 9:7-9.)
Also, translation is frequently concerned with general ideas rather than specific words; even the best translators do not translate the same material from one language into another word-for-word the same. There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon. When Joseph Smith translated the Isaiah references from the small plates of Nephi, he evidently opened his King James Version of the Bible and compared the impression he had received in translating with the words of the King James scholars. If his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James Version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible; then his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, copied it down. However, if Joseph Smith’s translation did not agree precisely with that of the King James scholars, he would dictate his own translation to the scribe. This procedure in translation would account for both the 234 verses of Isaiah that were changed or modified by the Prophet Joseph and the 199 verses that were translated word-for-word the same. Although some critics might question this procedure of translation, scholars today frequently use this same procedure in translating the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls.