A New Translation of a Bible Translation Preface

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.

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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.

Conclusion

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).

 

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Comments

  1. Timothy Young says:

    That doesn’t seem at all fair–to take the preface piece of seemingly untold length that could only be swallowed with much chewing and gnawing and laboring–and to cook it down to something as digestible as that. But, I believe you’ve done a fine job, Mark! Keep up the great work!!

    • Ha! Thanks! And you’re right: it isn’t fair. My chewing was a labor of love—for the KJV, for English Bible translations more generally, and for that fantastic preface. I’m not stopping anyone from going out and reading it, of course! It’s in the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible, for example. It’s also in an old issue of the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary Journal.

      • Thomas Hubeart says:

        Anyone interested in following through the many, many quotations in Greek and Latin in that preface cannot do better than an 1997 American Bible Society publication by Erroll F. Rhodes and Liana Lupas https://www.amazon.com/Original-Preface-King-James-Version/dp/1585164259 –that publication has “Facsimile,” “Transcription,” and “Modern Form” (the last of which is an attempt to do what Mark does in putting the preface into modern words, albeit with a lot more space than the blog post’s worth Mark had :) ).

        I felt this was worth sharing since the editor of the “New Cambridge Paragraph Bible” mentioned by Mark, Prof. David Norton, told me about this publication when I wrote to him some years back about his presentation of “Translators” in NCPB.

        • I *though* that this kind of translation had been done before, but I could not remember where I had seen it. Two readers now have shared it with me, including you. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will definitely take a look. I now recall that the last time I saw this, namely in my college bookstore quite a few years back. Thanks again!

  2. Man, as I read that it, I was taken back to my young 20’s, reading through the preface in my new Cambridge Wide Margin Concord. Beautiful then, modernized and still beautiful now :) My favorite line has always been (recalling from memory), “What can more available hitherto, then to deliver God’s book to God’s people in a tongue they can understand.”

    • That surely is a great line. Here’s the whole thought:

      Blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that break the ice, and give the onset upon that which helpeth forward to the saving of souls. Now what can be more available thereto than to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they understand?

      Interestingly, that word available strikes our ears as funny in that context. We wouldn’t say it like that—which is why I translated it with the word conducive. We are used to hearing about words in the KJV which have dropped out of the language (besom, emerod), but I find people are much less accustomed to talking about—or noticing—words that we still use but that have changed meaning over time. That’s a big reason I wrote my forthcoming Lexham book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I examine words (and other linguistic features) like this that cause modern readers to miss out without realizing it.

  3. So, I hope you’ll forgive me but I just had to get out my copy of the original preface to read alongside your translation, and I have to admit you did an absolutely superb job! Thank you for your excellent work!

    • All is forgiven! =) I tried very hard to be utterly faithful in my translation. They wrote many other wise and beautiful things that I, of course, could not include and still end up with a blog article. But I’m confident that I didn’t leave anything out that would change the meaning of what I left in.

  4. (I had never read through the original preface and so many of their arguments were quite surprising to me. Thanks again for taking it and making it so understandable!)