Frenchman with poor English helped to translate the King James Bible, says scholar

04 May 2018

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A FRENCHMAN who spoke little English was among the original translators of the first edition of the King James Bible, published in England in 1611, a scholar at the University of Birmingham, Dr Nicholas Hardy, has said.

Dr Hardy, a research Fellow in the department of English Literature at the university, has discovered new evidence to suggest that a renowned French scholar, Isaac Casaubon, was among the more than 40 translators commissioned by King James I to work on the final revision.

“Casaubon was a Frenchman who had only just arrived in London, and could barely speak or write English,” Dr Hardy said. “Instead, he corresponded and conversed with the other translators in Latin — the common language of scholars in Europe at the time.”

The translators were split into groups, or “companies”, and set to work on different sections of the Bible. The companies then sent delegates to London to revise the whole translation before it was printed.

But the question how the translators collaborated to complete this task had been a mystery, until the discovery by Dr Hardy of three new sources — in the British Library in London, and the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford — that had previously gone unnoticed by scholars for 400 years.

This included a printed copy of the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, which had been in the Bodleian collections since the 1650s, but whose annotator was unknown until Dr Hardy recognised the writing as that of John Bois, one of the translators of the King James Bible.

This led to Dr Hardy’s discovery in the British Library of a set of three unpublished letters between Casaubon and Bois discussing difficult elements of the translation. Dr Hardy then returned to the Bodleian collections to find Casaubon’s notebooks recording conversations that he had had with another translator, Andrew Downes, about further problems associated with the translation.

The discoveries have brought the number of known sources associated with the translation of the King James Bible up to seven.

“Casaubon was regarded as the world’s most accomplished scholar of ancient languages, and the translators consulted him because they were still dealing with a lot of unresolved problems in the original texts which they were translating from,” Dr Hardy said. “These new sources show us how complex those problems were, and how strongly the translators could disagree with each other about how to solve them.

“For example, one of the toughest questions they faced was about the relationship between parts of the Old Testament that survived only in Greek and Latin, usually known as the ‘apocryphal’ books, and the parts that survived in Hebrew.

“Casaubon was there to help the translators deal with issues like this, but they did not always agree with the solutions he put forward.”

Dr Hardy has recently published an edition and translation of the correspondence between Bois and Casaubon, in a contribution to a collection of essays on the making of the King James Bible. He is currently writing a book-length study of the King James Bible for Princeton University Press.

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