God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible –Change Scripture and Working from Flawed Translations (in Some Cases)
I took Latin in college—four quarter’s worth of classes. We drilled grammar, declensions, vocabulary; we listened as our teacher translated mythology and we jotted down every word. By our fourth semester—we were a small class of 9 students who had toughed out the material—we read The Satyricon (a gay classic that later served me well in my Great Gatsby research).
Although we read a translation, we also translated a chunk of it ourselves and compared the two versions. I was a good translator, although I had a lot of help and a person to double check my work (my professor), so I understand how difficult of a job translators have. I was elated (and exhausted) getting through 200 lines. I can’t imagine translating an entire book, especially one as long—and as important—as a Bible.
And because I was not fluent and utterly confident in my grasp of the language, I would never put myself in such a position either. So people in charge of such a task should be very well equipped for the job. Were the people in charge of the King James Bible translation well enough equipped? Nicolson makes some contradictory claims about the job done with this translation.
Calling the finished prose “clear and rich,” he compliments the entire book by highlighting a sample sentence that “both makes an exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses the translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony” (196). For me, “infuses” is a troubling word here, because it denoted a change in the text. But was this approach to the translation endorsed?
According to Nicolson, not everyone condoned such liberties with the Bible—and anytime you add or “interpret” you are taking liberties. Separatist Christianity, for example, had pastors who believed that “if the Bible was the word of God, it was intended to be conveyed to men in its original languages. If God had spoken in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, then those were the languages in which he should be heard” (181). This belief was not encouraged, sadly, for there’s a strong point to be made here about maintaining the purity of the message. Of course, there are practical reasons for this—how many people could read the Bible in its original language then, much less now? But this issue is at the heart of any translation.
But that’s not to say this group of translators didn’t make an honest effort.
The only surviving copy of notes from their meetings provide an overview of their work: the scholars argued and consulted with one another. They also brought “in learned evidence from church fathers and classical authors, test[ed] variants on each other, [saw] what previous translators had done, insist[ed] on the right rhythm, look[ed] for the unique King James Amalgam of the rich-plain word, the clarity within a majestic phrase, the court-Puritan perfection” (201). So clearly they were being rather thorough. But here’s the issue with that—they’re trying to make sure the text sounds good as well as, perhaps, reflects the true intention.
But if you use outside texts to do that, you’re straying from what’s in the text you’re translating. Other books reflect on the text yet what is said is really all you should have to work with.
So here is an example Nicolson mentions that illustrates how a slight change here and there makes a huge difference.
When debating Corinthians 10:11, a Greek word becomes a major sticking point—and the fight is worth it. Here, Paul is “describing the sinful habits of the Jews in the past and the way in which God punished them” (212). Then, as it appears in the King James Bible: “Now all these things happened vnto [sic] them for ensamples [sic]: and they are written for our admonition” (212). The important word here is ensamples, which means illustrative instances, which is translated from the Greek word typoi. This word can also mean type or archetype.
The difference, especially in this important instance, is huge.
As Nicolson clarifies, “were the Jews archetypes of sinfulness, representing everything that had been wicked on Earth? Or had they merely gone wrong sometimes, their behavior to be seen as examples of what not to do?” (213). Andrew Downes, one of the best Greek translators in the group, believed, quite emphatically, that the King James Version should “damn the Jews” (213). Clearly, he was over ruled, yet the margin notes mention the different read of that word “Or Types” (213), indicating either interpretation could be correct.
But this is a problem. Hedging your bets in this way suggests that the Bible is unclear. Yet the point should be crystal clear, and this is the problem when you translate: original meaning gets lost from time to time, and if people only read the translated version, they have no way of knowing what is a translation and what is an interpretation by man. Since human beings make mistakes—and are products of their own biases—should you trust the word of God in their hands? Perhaps the Separatist Christians were on to something.
This problem is of course compounded when some of the Greek texts from which the committee worked were “not the most accurate” (224). So how was anyone supposed to know what was right? After a while, it becomes guess work—even informed guesses are still guesses, and when you are charged with documenting the word of God, one would think you would want to make sure. Sadly, there appears to be no way for that to happen. So how can this text—or any like it—claim to be the ultimate authority handed down from God when it has been subjected to human error? What else did they get wrong that we don’t know about?
Still, Nicolson states over and over how impressive he finds this book to be an achievement of language, one which glorifies its subject. If appreciated for that, then by all means, embrace it. But if considered a final authority, perhaps we should take care before we rely so heavily on it.