When I first read the KJV translators’ preface, I was surprised to see that they fully expected a cold reception to their work. They could have no idea that their Bible would one day be praised even by non-Christians for its literary quality and cultural importance.
The KJV translators felt they had to defend the very idea that another English Bible translation was necessary. They wrote a preface, “Translators to the Reader,” that is as superb as it is timely. But it also happens to be lengthy, and written in a historical form of English readers today will find difficult. So I have both condensed it and translated it into today’s English. But I’ve done my best to add nothing: everything you’re about to read, from arguments to (wonderfully pithy) illustrations, comes straight from the KJV translators.
People defame the best things
Those who set out to promote the common good—whether by creating something new or by improving something created by others—deserve our respect. But that is not what they receive. More commonly, they are treated with suspicion instead of love and jibes instead of gratitude.
And if this new thing, or this revision of an old thing, leaves any room for petty objection (and petty objections, if they do not find room, make room), the best that can be hoped for is that the new thing will be misconstrued rather than outright condemned.
People who do anything noteworthy, anything consequential, would be wise to put on some armor before they stick out their necks. Even when God is pleased, plenty of people will not be.
This is true particularly in the arena of religion, and even more particularly in Bible teaching and translation. Those who engage in this work are putting themselves up on a stage before an audience that is already scowling. They are throwing themselves down into a pit full of knives: every sharp tongue will want to get in a slice. To escape this treatment entirely is impossible.
People must have the Bible
The Bible is the word of God, and it contains his saving truth. People believe in all kinds of miracle cures; what these claim falsely for promoting physical health the Bible can claim truly for bringing spiritual health. The Bible is like a bakery full of fresh truth for people who have been served only moldy traditions. The Bible is perfect; what excuse can we give for failing to study it?
But how can we meditate on something we cannot understand? And how can we understand something sealed in a language we do not know? As Paul said,
If I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. (1 Cor 14:11)
If we cannot understand someone else’s speech, we might as well be deaf.
Therefore, if people are to have the Bible, they must have translations. It is translation that opens the window to let in light, that cracks the shell so we can eat the nut—that removes the curtain so we can look into the most holy place.
Indeed, unless the Bible is translated into the vernacular, uneducated people are like children at Jacob’s well without a bucket. They can see the cool, fresh water, but they cannot get it. Without translation, the common people are like that speaker in Isaiah:
“Read this,” he says, “I cannot, because it is sealed.” (Isa 29:11)
Our heritage of Bible translation
Having the Bible in the vernacular is not a new idea, even if some who were afraid of the idea have at times charged it with being one. There are those, too, who are afraid of revising vernacular Bible translations; these are descended from Sanballat and Tobiah, who harried the construction work of Nehemiah: Wasn’t your translation good before? So why are you fixing it? If it wasn’t good enough, why was it imposed on people?
Jerome, who translated Scripture into his own native language, had an answer for those who feared Bible translation into common languages, and for those who feared subsequent revisions:
Do we condemn the ancients? Certainly not: but following the labors of those who came before us, we take the best pains we can in the house of God.
Far from condemning those English Bible translators who went before us, we honor them. Blessed are those who break the ice for others, who form the vanguard of an attack which ends in the saving of souls. What can be more conducive to that salvation than to give God’s book to God’s people in a tongue they can understand? Hidden treasures are worth nothing; sealed fountains do not slake anyone’s thirst.
But nothing is begun and perfected at the same time. So if we who are building on the foundation of previous translators, and who are helped by their work, attempt to make better what they left so good—surely no one can be justified in complaining. We would like to think that those translators, if they were still alive, would thank us.
We are merely rubbing and polishing something that is already gold. We are merely correcting stilted phrasing, eliminating unnecessary words, and making absolutely sure that the English of our translation follows the Hebrew and Greek originals.
An answer to our opponents
Even the worst English Bible translations available contain—no, they are—the word of God. When the king speaks, the speech he delivers is still his speech even after it gets translated into French, Dutch, and Italian—and even if certain translators are not as graceful as others. We judge something by its predominant character, not by its exceptions. A handsome man is not considered to have lost his good looks simply because he has a few warts on his hand.
And apart from things done by apostles, made infallible by an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, what man-made thing exists under the sun that is truly perfect? If even good English Bible translations of the past were not perfect, why would someone complain if they were to be amended? Do not wise people generally consider it a virtue rather than a fault to go back over one’s work? It is far better for us to be allied to the truth than to stand in its way, even if the work we must critique is our own.
A church father as early as Augustine commented that having a variety of translations is helpful for those who wish to understand the Bible. We have put such alternate translations in the margin.
When we began our revision work, our goal was not to make a new translation, nor to make a bad translation into a good one. We were simply trying to make a good one better—or, rather, to make out of many good ones one principal good one. So we consulted translations in many different languages. And, yes, we revised our own work. We pulled out the anvil over and over to reshape what we had already hammered.
There is much else we could say, if we had not already gone over the proper word count for a preface. We simply commend you, dear reader, to God, and to the Spirit of his grace. He removes the scales from our eyes and the veil from our hearts; he also opens our understanding and corrects our affections—so that we may love Scripture more than money, and so that we may love it till the end.
Tomorrow we’ll derive some lessons from the valuable wisdom the KJV translators just offered us.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).