Founders Journal 86 · Fall 2011 · pp. 29-32
Excerpts from the Translator’s Preface
to the KJV 1611
Take note of the spirit of the translators as they expressed their desire for all Christians to be able to read and understand the Scriptures using a translation that reflects the common language of the day.
The Translators [of the KJV 1611] to the Readers
- They acknowledged those who were questioning the need for a revision of the Bible in English when there were already several in use:
Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising anything ourselves, or revising that which has been labored by others, deserves certainly much respect and esteem, but yet finding but cold entertainment in the world. … For he that meddles with men’s Religion in any part, meddles with their customs, nay, with their freehold, and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering [it]. … Many men’s mouths have been open a good while (and yet are not stopped) with speeches about the Translation so long in hand, or rather perusals of Translations made before: and ask what may be the reason, what the necessity of the employment: Has the Church been deceived, say they, all this while? … Was their Translation good before? Why do they now mend it? Was it not good? Why then was it obtruded to the people?
- They commended and built upon earlier English Translations:
But it is high time to leave them, and to show in brief what we proposed to ourselves, and what course we held in this our perusal and survey of the Bible. Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that has been our endeavor, that our mark.
- They humbly acknowledged their limitations as translators and their use of variant readings:
Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point. … it has pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it has been vouched that the Scriptures are plain) but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve upon modesty with St. Augustine, (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground) Melius est dubitare de occultis, quàm litigare de incertis, it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, then to strive about those things that are uncertain. There be many words in the Scriptures, which be never found there but once, (having neither brother nor neighbor, as the Hebrews speak) so that we cannot be helped by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc. … Now in such a case, does not a margin do well to admonish the Reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity, to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God has left (even in the judgment of the judicious) questionable, can be no less then presumption. Therefore as St. Augustine said, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must need do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.
- They acknowledged the usefulness of a variety of sources and the need for revisions:
Neither did we think much to consult the Translators or Commentators, Chaldee, Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Latin, no nor the Spanish, French, Italian, or Dutch; neither did we disdain to revise that which we had done, and to bring back to the anvil that which we had hammered; but having and using as great helps as were needful, and fearing no reproach for slowness, nor coveting praise for expedition, we have at length, through the good hand of the Lord upon us, brought the work to that pass that you see.
Yet before we end, we must answer a third cavil [complaint] and objection of theirs against us, for altering and amending our Translations so often, wherein truly they deal harshly and strangely with us [misjudge us]. For to whomever was it imputed for a fault (by such as were wise) to go over that which he had done, and to amend it where he saw cause?
- They emphasized the need for Scripture to be translated into the common, everyday language of the people:
But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? as it is written, Except I know the power of the voice, I shall be to him that speaks, a Barbarian, and he that speaks, shall be a Barbarian to me. The Apostle excepts no tongue, not Hebrew the [most]ancient, not Greek the most copious, not Latin the finest. Nature taught a natural man to confess, that all of us in those tongues which we do not understand, are plainly deaf; we may turn the deaf ear unto them. Translation it is that opens the window, to let in the light; that breaks the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that puts aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removes the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacobs well (which was deep) without a bucket or some thing to draw with
But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even by the very vulgar.
- They affirmed that translations should be current and that even the poorest translation is still God’s Word:
Now to the later we answer; that we do not deny, nay we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) contains the word of God, nay, is the word of God. As the King’s Speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latin, is still the King’s Speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it.
And to the same effect say we, that we are so far off from condemning any of their labors that traveled before us in this kind, either in this land or beyond sea, either in King Henry’s time, or King Edward’s (if there were any translation, or correction of a translation in his time) or Queen Elizabeth’s of ever-renowned memory, that we acknowledge them to have been raised up by God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity, in everlasting remembrance. … Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the later thoughts are thought to be the wiser; so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being helped by their labors, do endeavor to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us.