The King James Version: “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light”

In keeping with the vogue for celebrating anniversaries of one form or another, we have a feast of biblical proportions to look forward in 2011 – the 400th anniversary of the Authorised Version of the Bible (also known as the King James Version or KJV for short).

In the meantime, however, Gordon Campbell (Professor of Renaissance Studies at University of Leicester) has served a delectable “starter” – a description in no way intended to belittle his contribution – in the form of a book entitled “Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611-2011” (Oxford University Press). I’m longing to read it (hint to Father Christmas) and, to judge from the reviews, it sounds fascinating.  He dedicates three or more chapters to the process of commissioning the translation and to the translators themselves.   There is an excellent introduction to the book below by Prof Gordon Campbell himself.

The Authorised Version (KJV) was part of my childhood – I still have my copy which was given to me by my godmother and namesake, Lucinda Wells.  Then, in the 1970s, we were given a push towards modern world with the New English Bible.  To say it was not welcome is rather an understatement since I remember the “older” generation being very critical of the unfamiliar turns of phrase.  Take Genesis 1:1-2 from the NEB:

In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth, the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.

Compare that to the wonderful, evocative language and pure poetry of the KJV:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

However, what really interests me about the KJV is the highly visible role of the translators who worked on this new version for King James.  The story is well known – but Gordon Campbell retells it in vivid detail.   In 1604 King James VI & I  “assembled a group of bishops and moderate puritans” to discuss improvements upon the various translations of the Bible in use at the time. In particular, the translators aspired to accuracy, which mattered to them more than fine phrases and beautiful prose (in the end they managed to achieve both!).

It was decided to form six companies of translators who would work simultaneously on different sections of the Bible.  Campbell includes the names and short biographies of all the known translators – all men, of course – in an Appendix. In 1610 the groups were then called together to revise and reconcile their translations. As Campbell rightly points out, they were extraordinary men:

“The learning embodied in the men of these six companies is daunting. It is sometimes assumed that people in the twenty-first century know more than the benighted people of the seventeenth century, but in many ways the opposite is true. The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than that of the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJV translators. We may live in a world with more knowledge, but it is populated by people with less knowledge.”

The dedication from these translators is included in the front pages of every copy of the KJV.  In this dedication, the translators praise their temporal Sovereign, James, and thank God for his ascendance and that he has brought “peace and tranquillity at home and abroad”.  However, above all, they rejoice in “the vehement and perpetuated desire of accomplishing and publishing of this work, which now, with all humility, we present unto your Majesty.”

There are some wonderful turns of phrase here too: as in modern translation, the “client” was impatient and wanted to hurry the work along, insisting on deadlines but also exacting the highest quality translation.   So – say the translators of the KJV – James

did never desist to urge and to excite those to whom it[the translation] was commended, that the Work might be hastened, and that the business might be expedited in so decent a manner, as a matter of such importance might justly require.

Likewise, the translators – in time-honoured fashion – try to protect themselves against criticism of their work.  They hope that James will approve of their work, particularly since

things of this quality have ever been subject to censures of ill-meaning and discontented persons…

In the OUP blog Campbell addresses the question of whether the KJV is a good translation.  He writes:

The answer is yes and no. On the affirmative side, it is certainly the most scrupulous of all translations, in part because the scholarly fire-power of the original translators could not be matched in our less educated age. Where could one now find fifty translators with competence in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Samaritan, Ethiopic and Arabic (the languages of the English polyglot Bible of the period) and a command of patristic, rabbinical and Reformation commentaries? Another reason for its scholarly probity is the scrupulous process through which the KJV was produced. The time lavished on the translation by the learned translators was secured by relieving them of other duties; no modern publisher would buy out fifty scholars for several years in order that they might devote their full attention to a translation of the Bible.”

The full letter from the Translators to the Reader can be read online (this is one version at and again it provides an extraordinary insight into the translation process, the concerns of the translators (they had to tread a very fine line between approbation and disgrace).

“Zeale to promote the common good, whether it be by devising any thing our selves, or revising that which that bene laboured by others, deserveth certainly much respect and esteeme, but yet findeth but cold  intertainment in the world.  It is welcommed with suspicion in stead of love, and with emulation in stead of thankes: and if there be any hole left for cavill to enter, (and cavill, if it doe finde a hole, will make one) it is sure to bee misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned.”

If they had been alive a century later, the translators might have been reassured by the praise given to their work. The veneration in which the KJV was later held was summed up by Jonathan Swift in 1712 when he wrote:  “I am persuaded that the Translators of the Bible were Masters of an English Style much fitter for that Work, than any we see in our present Writings, which I take to be owing to the Simplicity that runs through the whole.”

Gordon Campbell is not the only expert to celebrate the anniversary: David Crystal, the Anglophone world’s greatest living linguist, has written a sparkling book entitled Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Moreover, the BBC will be broadcasting two television programs on the subject, one presented by Adam Nicolson (author of another book on the making of the bible) and the other presented by Melvyn Bragg.

A Trust has been founded to increase awareness of the Authorised Version in today’s secular society – a recent poll showed that only 28% of over 55-year-olds were familiar with it, and many many fewer teenagers and young adults.  It’s well worth visiting the site which also contains a link to a digitised version.

3 Replies to “The King James Version: “Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light””

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