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What a 400-Year-Old Bible Preface Can Teach Us about Translations

Yesterday we posted a translation of the wise and valuable—and largely forgotten—preface to the most important English Bible ever: the King James Version. Today’s Christians think of the KJV as settled, established, widely accepted, and honored. So when I took the time to re-read the translators’ only recorded words about their epochal work, I was surprised that they felt they needed to spend so much space defending themselves. They never could have predicted that their translation would dominate English-speaking Christianity far into the future.

From their 400-year-old wisdom I draw several lessons for Bible translation and Bible study today.

1. People don’t like change.

Americans do love certain innovations—slap “NEW!” on a Tide box and it won’t even occur to shoppers that the new formulation may be inferior to the old. “NEW” equals “IMPROVED”; this is such an American article of faith that the two words need not be stated together anymore; they have become a tautology. So the KJV translators’ complaint that new things, things of consequence, always face storms of opposition—that felt wrong to me.

But then, you can’t have a culture if innovation is your only value; the center will fall apart; things will not hold. Some things have to endure, so there are still areas of American culture where Americans resist the new. The KJV translators, in fact, specify that it is particularly in the area of religion that people don’t like to see innovation. And that rings true to life: true to my life. Even the most progressive Christians have traditions they will not abide changing (the traditions are simply of more recent vintage). The KJV translators, however, were trying to live out the semper reformanda (“always reforming”) principle of the Reformation: when they were asked to revise the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, they sought not only to build on the prior foundation but make improvements at the same time.

Take away the Elizabethan verbiage and untranslated Latin—which is what I tried to do yesterday for readers—and I frequently felt like I could be reading the work of English Bible translators of today. We’re just trying to help the church; we’re not saying all the translations that came before ours were bad. “Helping the church” is not a competition! I can hear Doug Moo of the NIV, Tom Schreiner of the CSB, and Vern Poythress of the ESV standing together with Miles Smith (the author of the KJV preface) repeating that refrain.

Lesson 1: wise people—like the KJV translators—will work hard to recognize when a change in religious traditions (including in one’s Bible translation) is necessary.

2. Watch out for petty objections.

The KJV translators anticipated waves of abuse from the great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents of today’s internet trolls. If there’s one line in the KJV preface that has come to mind over the years more than any other, it’s this from the second sentence: “Cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one.” In other words, by sentence two the KJV translators are already complaining archly about the human propensity to let petty objections destroy something good.

Every Bible translation involves approximately 327 gazillion decisions about word choice, word order, textual criticism, assonance and consonance, meter, theology, tradition, typography, the current state of the target language, and numerous other factors. Someone, somewhere, is going to dislike just about every choice of any significance—particularly if it is an innovation overturning an established tradition. As the KJV translators say, “So hard a thing it is to please all, even when we please God best, and do seek to approve ourselves to every one’s conscience.”

I think (I hope) most Christian people have a sense that it is indiscrete to offer unsubstantiated opinions about pork futures in Australia (Market’s goin’ up ten points this year!) or the best fabric blend for patio table umbrellas (80% polyester, 10% elastane—that’s what I always say!). But somehow sweeping generalizations about the NIV (They’ve given in to gender politics!) or the ESV (They’ve given in to gender politics!) are permitted, even from people who’ve never read either side in significant translation debates.

It’s not wrong to have opinions about Bible translations: it’s wrong to speak opinions boldly about complex matters when you haven’t done the work to back them up. Internet commenters and cavil-hole makers of all sorts, be warned: the KJV translators are onto you.

Lesson 2: You probably don’t know more about Bible translation than the people who have dedicated their lives to the task; be gracious. At the very least, assume the best about their motives, the way the KJV translators hoped (but, knowing human nature, did not assume) others would do.

3. No translation is perfect.

The translators make a theological claim in response to the anticipated complainers: nobody’s perfect. They make it more theologically than that, however. They ask,

Whatever was perfect under the sun, where Apostles or apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand?

In other words: only the apostles were divinely inspired; translators are not. That’s why no translation ever achieves perfection. Perfection is an unattainable ideal unless a Perfect Being is involved.

The translators didn’t try to make a perfect translation; they simply sought “to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against.” They insist, “That hath been our endeavour, that our mark.”

They succeeded. They took the existing translations—Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew’s, Bishop’s, Geneva—and made one that was acknowledged for centuries to be the “principal good one” among English Bibles. They said they thought their predecessors would thank them; I think Moo, Schreiner, and Poythress could say the same of the KJV translators today. The translators of today’s major evangelical Bibles could rightly expect the gratitude of their forebears.

Maybe there is no longer one principal good English Bible translation—but that’s not so bad. We have many good ones, all trying to make the same incremental advancements the KJV translators attempted.

Lesson 3: Do not seek a perfect Bible translation. It cannot exist until God makes one himself.

4. People must have the Bible.

Despite people’s aversion to change; despite their petty objections; despite the impossibility of attaining the perfect ideal in Bible translation—people must have the Bible.

After page after defensive page in the KJV translators’ “Preface to the Reader,” one wonders why the KJV translators didn’t just thraw in the towaile, as some were no doubt wont to do. One can stop wondering, however, because the KJV translators explain their motivation—and it was a high and holy one: they wanted God’s word to be “understood even of the very vulgar.”

I just love the word pictures:

Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.

I’m so glad the KJV translators didn’t give up (it’s hard to give up when the King of England asks you to do something. . .). Their translation work has proved far more enduring and popular than their preface, but both were excellent.

Lesson 4: Translating the Bible into the language of the people is not just worth the effort despite the costs; it is an obligation.

Bonus Lesson 5: The KJV preface deserves some of the loving attention the translation has received. It contains a great deal of wisdom.

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).

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