Rolling the stone from the well: the work of Bible translators

While not a great fan of breakfast meetings, I am always open to persuasion. Which is how I found myself leaving the house at seven yesterday morning to catch a bus to the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, for the inaugural breakfast lecture of Wycliffe Bible Translators. The guest lecturer was Alister McGrath, professor of theology, Anglican priest and Christian apologist.

It’s a long time since I was at college and I don’t remember ever attending a lecture at 8.30am, but Prof McGrath is easy to listen to, and in any case a couple of croissants and a stong cup of coffee improved my temperament.

I can’t remember the exact title of the lecture, but it related to the making of the King James Version of the Bible (or Authorised Version, as we always used to call it) with particular reference to the intentions and work of the translators. Prof McGrath set the KJV in its historical context as one of a series of English Bibles. He made the point that although we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of what is now regarded as the greatest of Enlgish translations, it is only with hindsight that we can see its significance – in fact we don’t even know the month it was published. The popular English Bible of the day was the Geneva Bible, the work of Protestant scholars in exile during the reign of Queen Mary, and which was available in a wide variety of sizes and editions. The problem for the King and Anglican hierarchy was that the Geneva Bible was accompanied by an extensive commentary which was both strongly Calvinist and republican in tone.

Even after the publication of the King James Version the Geneva Bible was still the Bible of choice for most people. This was partly because the KJV was initially only published in the large folio size – suitable for use in churches, but very expensive. Also the Geneva Bible continued to be the preferred Bible of English dissent – and it was not until the Restoration in 1660 that the KJV gained in popularity – some 50 years after it was first published.

Prof McGrath referred to the Translator’s Preface of the KJV – now usually omitted from modern printings but essential if one is to understand the intention and purpose of the translators. It is clear they saw themselves as part of an ongoing process of revision – in this respect the translators would not agree with the status accorded this translation by advocates of the ‘KJV only‘ school. (For a short paper on the KJV translators against the KJV Only position follow this link.)

In their preface the translators defend the practice of translation. Their main argument is that translation makes the scriptures accessible to all:

Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth 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 [Gen 29:10].  Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) [John 4:11] without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, “Read this, I pray thee,” he was fain to make this answer, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” [Isa 29:11]

This remains the purpose of translators today, as we were reminded by our second speaker Eddie Arthur, Executive Director of Wycliffe Bible Translators. Eddie worked for many years in Ivory Coast as part of a team translating the New Testament into Kouya, one of the local languages. It was interesting to hear how the work of translation has changed (computer software is an important part of the process today) and moving to hear how the publication of the gospels in their own language has transformed the lives of Kouya Christians and given confidence in sharing their faith with others.

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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