When the King James Version of the Bible came off the press of Robert Barker in 1611, it contained an eleven-page preface titled “The Translators to the Reader.” This preface is primarily a defense of the new translation, but it also provides important information about the translators’ views on the subject of Bible translation. It is an embarrassment (or should be) to King James-only advocates because it contains statements from the translators that are in direct opposition to the KJV-only position. It is most unfortunate that this preface is no longer included in modern copies of the KJV. This post is the beginning of a series that will examine the actual words of the preface in order to refute the erroneous ideas of KJV-only movement with the words of the translators themselves. But before beginning that examination, I will summarize the contents of the preface.
The preface begins by noting, along with examples, that all new endeavors of whatever kind will commonly face opposition. This is also true for persons who attempt to change and improve anything, even if they are important people like kings. However, the greatest opposition and severest vilification is reserved for those who modify or change the current translation of the Bible, even if that translation is known to have defects.
Next there follows a long section praising Scripture, noting its great value and divine origin. But the perfections of Scripture can never be appreciated unless it is understood, and it cannot be understood until it is translated into the common tongue. Translation is therefore a good thing. Thus, God in his providence raised up individuals to translate the Old Testament into Greek. The Septuagint, though far from perfect, was still sufficient as the Word of God, such that the apostles quoted it in the NT. And even thought the Septuagint was the Word of God, scholars believed it could be improved, which led to the Greek versions of Aquila, Theodotion, and Symmachus, as well as the Hexapla of Origen. Both testaments were then translated into Latin, culminating in Jerome’s Vulgate. Finally, the Scriptures were translated into many tongues, including English. However, the preface observes, the Roman Catholic Church has generally not allowed the Scriptures to be rendered into the common tongues. Recently, they have produced their own translation of the Bible into English though they seem to have been forced to do it against their better judgment due to the number of Protestant English Bibles available.
The preface then returns to the problem of opposition to the new translation, and translations in general, by answering several objections. The main argument against the new translation questions the need for it, that is, since there had already been a number of English translation of the Bible, why is there need for another? If previous translations were good, there should be no need for another; if they were defective, why were they ever offered in the first place? The answer is, of course, that “nothing is begun and perfected at the same time.” While the efforts of previous English translators are to be commended, nevertheless, they themselves, if they were alive, would thank the translators of this new translation. The previous English Bibles were basically sound, but this new translation affords an opportunity to make improvements and corrections.
The translators argue that all previous English translations can rightly be called the Word of God, even though they may contain some “imperfections and blemishes.” Just as the King’s speech which he utters in Parliament is still the King’s speech, though it may be imperfectly translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin; so also in the case of the translation of the Word of God. For translations will never be infallible since they are not like the original manuscripts, which were produced by the apostles and their associates under the influence of inspiration. However, even an imperfect translation like the Septuagint can surely be called the Word of God since it was approved and used by the apostles themselves. But since all translations are imperfect, the Church of Rome should not object to the continual process of correcting and improving English translations of the Bible. Even their own Vulgate has gone through many revisions since the day of Jerome.
Finally, the translators state the purpose and plan of the present translation. They have not intended to make a new translation, but to make the best possible translation by improving upon previous ones. To do so they have, of course, carefully examined the original Hebrew and Greek since translation should only be done from the original tongues. Also, they did not work hastily, as did the translators of the Septuagint, who, according to legend, finished their work in only seventy-two days. The translators also availed themselves of commentaries and translations of the Scriptures in other languages. In their work they felt it was essential to include marginal notes, despite the fact that some might feel such notes tend to undermine the authority of the Scriptures. These notes are essential since the translators confess that oftentimes they were unsure how a word or phrase should be translated. This is especially true in Hebrew, where there are a number of words which only occur once in Scripture, and even the Jews themselves are uncertain about their translation. And so, as Augustine notes, a “variety of translations is profitable for finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.” Lastly, the translators observe that, in spite of criticism from some quarters, they decided not to always translate the same Hebrew or Greek word with the same English word and have retained, over the objections of the Puritans, the old ecclesiastical words like “baptism” instead of “washings.”