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King James Bible: The lost art of translation

15 February 2011

In his book and BBC4 programme, Adam Nicolson unearths the work of the almost anonymous divines responsible for the prose of the Authorised Version

THE King James Bible came into being in an intense, competitive, and vitalised world. But the question remains: how did this Bible emerge from it? How did the six companies of translators (two in Westminster, two in Ox­ford, and two in Cambridge) deliver? After the ini­tial flurry of documents, there is a dearth of evidence until the final printed volume appeared in 1611.

Once King James I had decided it should hap­pen; once Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Can­ter­bury, had disseminated the “Rules to be observed in translation”; and once the trans­lators had been chosen, almost the entire pro­cess drops from view. But a few tiny glimpses remain.

In November 1604, Lancelot Andrewes, the chief translator, was asked to attend a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries. He sent a note to Abraham Hartwell, secretary of the society, to excuse his absence, because “this afternoon is our translation time.”

As the Oxford antiquary Anthony à Wood recorded, some of the Oxford translators be­gan meeting once a week in the rooms of one of their company, John Reynolds, in Corpus Christi College, and “there as ’tis said, per­fected the work, not withstanding the said Doc­tor, who had the chief hand in it, and all the while sorely afflicted with gout.”

OF THE beginning of the process, there was, for centuries, almost nothing to say. More re­cently, though, scholars have made discoveries that throw some real light on the process — in particular, three long-hidden manuscripts.

The first is a vellum-bound book, of about 125 pages, the page size slightly smaller than foolscap, the paper gratifyingly thick and sub­stantial. It ended up in the library housed above the cloisters of the Archbishop’s London palace at Lambeth, where it remained, unin­spected and unvalued, until a Californian scholar, E. E. Willoughby, recognised it for what it was in 1955.

Why is it not more famous? Why not more treasured? It should be, because this is as near as any of us will ever come to a manuscript of the King James Bible.

Its title is An English Translation of the Epistles of Paule the Apostle, and each page is ruled in red ink into double columns, with a mar­gin to left and right. Only the left-hand column and margin are used; throughout the book, the right-hand column and its margin remain blank. Except for one or two italic notes, the entire text is written in the spiky, cursive manner of the secretary-hand, the style of hand­writing used in English legal documents from the 15th to the 17th centuries. And that gives a hint to its character.

Any tendency to believe that the creation of this Bible was an act of pas­sionate inspiration, or that somehow, in the age of Shakespeare and Donne, the making of this book was a wild erup­tion of un­tutored genius — that fantasy is dis­pelled within seconds of opening the manu­script. It is like an accountant’s document, its double-ruled columns more like a ledger than a work of literature.

It is a version of the epistles, prepared by the second Westminster company under William Barlow before being circulated, according to Bancroft’s rules, to the other companies and to other learned men in the kingdom. There is no telling which of Barlow’s company wrote it, but the manuscript has clearly gone through sev­eral hands. Missing words have been supplied and letters added; spelling has been corrected and punc­tuation changed. It has an air of care­fulness, efficiency, and good government rather than inspiration: it exudes a particularly bureau­cratic kind of holi­ness.

THERE must once have been many such manuscript books prepared for circulation, the second blank column awaiting the remarks of other scholars and divines. We know this, be­cause another remarkable discovery has been made: a letter requesting the return of such a manuscript book when it was needed for the final editing process. The letter was written on 5 December 1608 by William Eyre, a fellow of Emmanuel, to James Ussher, then the young Chancellor of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Eyre’s letter to Ussher brings the reader close to the atmosphere surrounding the work. “In my absence from Cambridge,” he wrote, “there was an order taken from the Kings Matie by the Arch B. of Canterb. that the translation of the Bible shalbe finished and printed as soone as may be.”

Eyre continued: “Hereupon I am earnestly requested to get agayne that copy of our part wch I lent you for D. Daniel his use.” What Eyre means by “our part” is not clear, but it is at least likely that these are the books of the Old Testament translated by Laurence Chaderton and the first Cambridge company.

Nor does anyone know who D. Daniel is. That is not a name associated with the transla­tion. Clearly, the whole process was spread more widely through the intellectual commun­ity of the British Isles than any document records.

“[F]or albeit there be 2 fayer written copies out of it; yet there will be use of it because I noted in the margent . . . the places wch were doubted of. And this marking of places that want consideration is not in the others.” Eyre was anxious that Ussher should send the annotated copy back “so soone as you can after my letters come to your hands”.

This is the world in which the Lambeth manu­script has its being. It is very modern: com­pany life, a memo that has gone astray, the chair­man requiring a report, a project that had stalled a little, with too many opinions can­vassed from too many experts, needing now to be wrapped up and delivered.

THE third document is more intimate with the process of translation than either the Lambeth manu­script or the Eyre letter. It is a record of a scholar in the very process of translating. It, too, had been lying ignored for centuries in a famous British library, and it, too, was dis­covered by the indefatigable Dr Willoughby on his great 1950s trawl.

The book that Dr Willoughby discovered was an edition of the Bishops’ Bible printed in 1602. This, of course, was the Elizabethan ver­sion of the English Bible on which Bancroft’s rules required the translators to base their own. Forty copies, in unbound sheets, were said to have been acquired for their use and distrib­uted to them.

The Bodleian volume was probably one of those sets, later bound together. It was acquired by the library in 1646 for 13s. 4d., and cata­logued as “a large Bible wherein is written down all the Alterations of the last translacõn”.

What no one realised at the time, or for another three centuries, was that this Bible was not only an account of the alterations made: it was an instrument in the translation itself. Marked on its pages are the first suggestions of an individual translator who had this Bible in his rooms. He would then have taken it to the weekly meeting of his company, where the others would discuss and analyse his choices and decisions. Their comments and correc­tions were then added. One can read it now like an oscilloscope-trace of the very act of transla­tion itself.

IT IS instructive to look at one example from Luke. In Luke 1.57, the moment when Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, gives birth, the Bishops’ Bible text reads: “Elizabeths time came that she should bee delivered, and she brought forth a son.”

This, incidentally, is almost exactly the wording of William Tyndale’s 1526 New Testa­ment. It is an uncomplicated and straight­forward moment, almost certainly too prosaic for Jacobean taste, and, in one minute particu­lar, inaccurate. The King James translator, on his own in his room, marked the verse very carefully with Greek letters, and in the margin beside it wrote: “Now” and “was fulfilled”, with the intention presumably that the verse should read: “Now Elizabeths time was fulfilled that she should bee delivered, and she brought forth a son.”

That is the suggestion he took to the weekly meeting. His co-translators did not entirely like what he had done. They accepted his inclu­sion “Now”, translating a word that is in the Greek, and giving an extra flick both of vitality and of conversational engagement to the verse, the storyteller drawing you in. But his other suggestion was rejected.

The phrase “was fulfilled” was a brave attempt at just the kind of lexical enrichment the Jacobeans enjoyed, and on which the King James Bible, almost subliminally, often relies. It carries a double hidden pun: not only had the time come for Elizabeth’s son to be born, but she was both filled full with the child in her womb and fulfilled in her role and duty as the mother of the Baptist.

The idea is marvellous, but the word is not quite right; it is a little dense, even a little technical. So “was fulfilled” is crossed out in the margin and replaced with “full time came”. As a result, the reading in the King James Bible is Tyndale, plus first Oxford translator, plus revi­sion by the Oxford company: “Now Eliza­beths full time came that she should bee deliuered, and she brought forth a sonne.”

It is undoubtedly the best: it is more accur­ate for its inclusion of “Now” and wonderfully subtle in the phrase they landed on. “Full time came” is irreproachably English, simple, acces­sible, and conceptually rich. It is as full of po­tent and resonant meanings as Elizabeth was with child.

In Jacobean English, “full” can mean plump, perfect, and overbrimming, and all of those meanings are here. It is difficult to imagine anything being better done, but it was not thought good enough for the 20th-century translators of the New English Bible. They settled on: “Now the time came for Elizabeth’s child to be born, and she gave birth to a son.”

That is a descent to dreariness, to a level of banality below Tyndale’s, perhaps even un­aware of what the second Oxford company’s subtle minds had given them. The modern world had lost the thing that informs every act and gesture of King James’s sumptuously decorated Hatfield House, of the King James Bible, and of that incomparable age: a sense of encompassing richness that stretches un­broken from the divine to the sculptural, from theo­logy to cushions, from a sense of the beauty of the created world to the extraordin­ary capabilities of language to embody it.

THIS is about more than mere sonority or the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabu­lary and grammar. The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language that is not taut with a sense of its own significance, that is apologetic in its desire to be accept­able to a modern consciousness, language, in other words, that submits to its audience rather than instructing, informing, moving, chal­lenging, and even entertaining them, is no longer a language that can carry the freight the Bible requires.

It has, in short, lost all authority. The lan­guage of the King James Bible is the language of Hatfield, of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good.

This is an edited extract of When God Spoke English: The making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson, published by Harper Press, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-00-743100-7.

To order copies of the book at the special price of £7.99, postage and packing free, phone 08707 871724, quoting reference 863Z.

Adam Nicolson’s programme of the same name is on BBC4 on Monday 21 February, at 9 p.m.

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