Translations Before the King James: The KJV Translators Speak!

taken from

“THE TRANSLATORS TO THE READER”

Preface to the King James Version 1611

Old habits die hard, and some who are use to thinking of the Reformation as being responsible for the existence of venacular translations of the Bible will deny that there were translations in the common language of the people before Protestantism arose. In fact, there were many of them, as the following excerpts from the original introduction to the King James Bible (1611) admit. This introduction, written by the translators of the KJV, is no longer printed in most editions of the KJV, but it is in some KJV Bibles, and it clearly testifies to the translators’ knowledge and use of prior venacular translations of the Scriptures, including prior English translations. Of particular interest is the fact that it refers to the Douay-Rheims version (1609), a Catholic translation into English which came out after the Reformation and, in fact, just before the King James Version itself did.

In what follows I have put important admissions in bold face, and added some explanatory notes in {curley brackets}.

  

[…]

TRANSLATION OUT OF HEBREW AND GREEK INTO LATIN


There were also within a few hundred years after CHRIST, translations many into the Latin tongue: for this tongue also was very fit to convey the Law and the Gospel by, because in those times very many Countries of the West, yea of the South, East and North, spake or understood Latin, being made Provinces to the Romans. But now the Latin Translations were too many to be all good, for they were infinite (Latini Interprets nullo modo numerari possunt, saith S. Augustine.) S. Augustin. de doctr. Christ. lib 2 cap II.

Again they were not out of the Hebrew fountain (we speak of the Latin Translations of the Old Testament) but out of the Greek stream, therefore the Greek being not altogether clear, the Latin derived from it must needs be muddy. This moved S. Jerome a most learned father, and the best linguist without controversy, of his age, or of any that went before him, to undertake the translating of the Old Testament, out of the very fountain with that evidence of great learning, judgment, industry, and faithfulness, that he had forever bound the Church unto him, in a debt of special remembrance and thankfulness.

THE TRANSLATING OF THE SCRIPTURE INTO THE VULGAR TONGUES


Now through the Church were thus furnished with Greek and Latin Translations, even before the faith of CHRIST was generally embraced in the Empire; (for the learned know that even in S. Jerome’s time, the Consul of Rome and his wife were both Ethnics, and about the same time the greatest part of the Senate also) S. Jerome. Marcell.Zosim yet for all that the godly-learned were not content to have the Scriptures in the Language which they themselves understood, Greek and Latin, (as the good Lepers were not content to fare well themselves, but acquainted their neighbors with the store that God had sent, that they also might provide for themselves) 2 Kings 7:9 but also for the behoof and edifying of the unlearned which hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and had souls to be saved as well as they, they provided Translations into the vulgar for their Countrymen, insomuch that most nations under heaven did shortly after their conversion, hear CHRIST speaking unto them in their mother tongue, not by the voice of their Minister only, but also by the written word translated.

If any doubt hereof, he may be satisfied by examples enough, if enough will serve the turn. First S. Jerome saith, Multarum gentium linguis Scriptura ante translata, docet falsa esse quae addita sunt, etc. i.e. “The Scripture being translated before in the languages of many Nations, doth show that those things that were added (by Lucian and Hesychius) are false.” S. Jerome. praef. in 4::Evangel. So S. Jerome in that place.

The same Jerome elsewhere affirmeth that he, the time was, had set forth the translation of the Seventy suae linguae hominibus, i.e., for his countrymen of Dalmatia S. Jerome. Sophronio.

Which words not only Erasmus doth understand to purport, that S. Jerome translated the Scripture into the Dalmatian tongue, but also Sixtus Senensis Six. Sen. lib 4, and Alphonsus a` Castro Alphon. lb 1 ca 23 (that we speak of no more) men not to be excepted against by them of Rome, do ingenuously confess as much.

So, S. Chrysostom that lived in S. Jerome’s time, giveth evidence with him: “The doctrine of S. John (saith he) did not in such sort (as the Philosophers’ did) vanish away: but the Syrians, Egyptians, Indians, Persians, Ethiopians, and infinite other nations being barbarous people {that is, non-Greek speakers} translated it into their (mother) tongue, and have learned to be (true) Philosophers,” he meaneth Christians. S. Chrysost. in Johan. cap.I. hom.I.

To this may be added Theodoret, as next unto him, both for antiquity, and for learning. His words be these, “Every Country that is under the Sun, is full of these words (of the Apostles and Prophets) and the Hebrew tongue (he meaneth the Scriptures in the Hebrew tongue) is turned not only into the Language of the Grecians, but also of the Romans, and Egyptians, and Persians, and Indians, and Armenians, and Scythians, and Sauromatians, and briefly into all the Languages that any Nation useth.” Theodor. 5. Therapeut. So he.

In like manner, Ulfilas is reported by Paulus Diaconus and Isidor (and before them by Sozomen) to have translated the Scriptures into the Gothic tongue: P. Diacon. li. 12.

John Bishop of Sevil by Vasseus, to have turned them into Arabic, about the year of our Lord 717; Vaseus in Chron. Hispan.

Bede by Cistertiensis, to have turned a great part of them into Saxon: Efnard by Trithemius, to have abridged the French Psalter, as Beded had done the Hebrew, about the year 800: King Alfred by the said Cistertiensis, to have turned the Psalter into Saxon: Polydor. Virg. 5 histor.

Methodius by Aventinus (printed at Ingolstadt) to have turned the Scriptures into Slavonian: Aventin. lib. 4.

Valdo, Bishop of Frising by Beatus Rhenanus, to have caused about that time, the Gospels to be translated into Dutch rhythm, yet extant in the Library of Corbinian: Circa annum {around the year} 900. B. Rhenan. rerum German. lib 2.

Valdus, by divers to have turned them himself into French, about the year 1160: Charles the Fifth of that name, surnamed the Wise, to have caused them to be turned into French, about 200 years after Valdus his time, of which translation there be many copies yet extant, as witnesseth Beroaldus.

Much about that time, even in our King Richard the second’s days, John Trevisa translated them into English, and many English Bibles in written hand are yet to be seen with divers {i.e., diverse translations}, translated as it is very probable, in that age.

So the Syrian translation of the New Testament is in most learned men’s Libraries, of Widminstadius his setting forth, and the Psalter in Arabic is with many, of Augustinus Nebiensis’ setting forth.

So Postel affirmeth, that in his travel he saw the Gospels in the Ethiopian tongue; And Ambrose Thesius allegeth the Pslater of the Indians, which he testifieth to have been set forth by Potken in Syrian characters.

So that, to have the Scriptures in the mother tongue is not a quaint conceit lately taken up, either by the Lord Cromwell in England, Thuan. or by the Lord Radevile in Polony, or by the Lord Ungnadius in the Emperor’s dominion, but hath been thought upon, and put in practice of old, even from the first times of the conversion of any Nation; no doubt, because it was esteemed most profitable, to cause faith to grow in men’s hearts the sooner, and to make them to be able to say with the words of the Psalms, “As we have heard, so we have seen.” Ps 48:8

[…]

THE SPEECHES AND REASONS, BOTH OF OUR BRETHREN,
AND OF OUR ADVERSARIES AGAINST THIS WORK


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:

“Hath the Church been deceived, say they, all this while? Hath her sweet bread been mingled with leaven, here silver with dross, her wine with water, her milk with lime? (Lacte gypsum male miscetur, saith S. Ireney,) S. Iren. 3. lib. cap. 19. We hoped that we had been in the right way, that we had the Oracles of God delivered unto us, and that though all the world had cause to be offended and to complain, yet that we had none. Hath the nurse holden out the breast, and nothing but wind in it? Hath the bread been delivered by the fathers of the Church, and the same proved to be lapidosus, as Seneca speaketh? What is it to handle the word of God deceitfully, if this be not?” Thus certain brethren.

Also the adversaries of Judah and Jerusalem, like Sanballat in Nehemiah, mock, as we hear, both the work and the workmen, saying; “What do these weak Jews, etc. will they make the stones whole again out of the heaps of dust which are burnt? although they build, yet if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stony wall.” Neh 4:3

Was their Translation good before? Why do they {the KJV translators} now mend it? Was it not good? Why then was it obtruded {given} to the people? Yea, why did the Catholics (meaning Popish Romanists) always go in jeopardy {of the Protestant penal laws}, for refusing to go to hear it {at the compulsory Protestant church services}? Nay, if it must be translated into English, Catholics are fittest to do it. They have learning, and they know when a thing is well, they can manum de tabula.

We will answer them both briefly: and the former, being brethren, thus, with S. Jerome, “Damnamus veteres? Mineme, sed post priorum studia in domo Domini quod possums laboramus.” S. Jerome. Apolog. advers. Ruffin. That is, “Do we {i.e., the KJV translators} condemn the ancient {translations}? In no case: but after the endeavors of them that were before us, we take the best pains we can in the house of God.” As if he said, Being provoked by the example of the learned men that lived before my time, I have thought it my duty, to assay whether my talent in the knowledge of the tongues, may be profitable in any measure to God’s Church, lest I should seem to laboured in them in vain, and lest I should be thought to glory in men, (although ancient,) above that which was in them. Thus S. Jerome may be thought to speak.

A SATISFACTION TO OUR BRETHREN


And to the same effect say we, that we are so far off from condemning any of their labors that travailed before us in this kind {of endeavour}, either in this land {England} 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 of God, for the building and furnishing of his Church, and that they deserve to be had of us and of posterity in everlasting remembrance.

The judgment of Aristotle is worthy and well known: “If Timotheus had not been, we had not had much sweet music; but if Phrynis Timotheus his master had not been, we had not had Timotheus.”

Therefore blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that break the ice, and giveth 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?

[…]

AN ANSWER TO THE IMPUTATIONS OF OUR ADVERSARIES


Now to the latter 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) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God.

{This is, of course, impossible to square with the “only the King James is the Word of God” position of some KJV Onlyites, as is what follows…}

As the King’s speech, which he uttereth 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. For it is confessed, that things are to take their denomination of the greater part; and a natural man could say, Verum ubi multa nitent in carmine, non ego paucis offendor maculis, etc. Horace. A man may be counted a virtuous man, though he have made many slips in his life, (else, there were none virtuous, for in many things we offend all) James 3:2 also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand, yea, not only freckles upon his face, but also scars. 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….

The translation of the Seventy {the Septuagint or LXX version of the Old Testament} dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it, for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it, (as it is apparent, and as Saint Jerome and most learned men do confess) which they would not have done, nor by their example of using it, so grace and commend it to the Church, if it had been unworthy of the appellation and name of the word of God.

[…]

THE PURPOSE OF THE TRANSLATORS,
WITH THEIR NUMBER, FURNITURE, CARE, ETC.


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, (for then the imputation of Sixtus had been true in some sort, that our people had been fed with gall of Dragons instead of wine, with whey instead of milk:) but {we intended} to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.

{Here the KJV translators have admitted that there were many good translations prior to their own time.}

[…]

[W]e have shunned the obscurity of the Papists, in their {use of words like} AZIMES, TUNIKE, RATIONAL, HOLOCAUSTS, PRAEPUCE, PASCHE, and a number of such like {words}, whereof their late Translation is full …

{Here the KJV translators have referred to the Douay-Rheims, a Catholic translation of the Bible into English, which came out in 1609, two years before the KJV.}

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