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The Translators to the Reader

June 12, 2012

One of the most interesting parts of the King James Bible is the statement by the translators (written by Myles Smith, who would become Bishop of Gloucester the next year) entitled “The Translators to the Reader.”  This statement sets forth what the objectives of the translators were, why the translation is justified, answering objectives from both Catholics and Calvinists who object to a new translation, and explaining the translation philosophy of the authors.

Unfortunately, it is also a dense piece of academic prose, that freely mixes English with Latin and Greek, and has long, complicated sentences.  Opening my copy at random, I find this single sentence, for example: 

But the difference that appeareth between our Translations, and our often correcting of them, is the thing that we are specially charged with; let us see therefore whether they themselves be without fault this way, (if it be to be counted a fault, to correct) and whether they be fit men to throw stones at us: O tandem maior parcas insane minori: they that are less sound themselves, out not to object infirmities to others. [Horat.]

One gets the general sense of the sentence, but following it in detail is difficult.  For example who is Horat.?  (It turns out it is a quote from Horace’s Satirae 2.3.326, although it is an incorrect quote juxtaposing two words; Horace wrote O major tandem parcas, insane, minori “O greater one, spare, I pray, the lesser madman.”)  Further, what is the background that would explain a hostile statement like this?  It seems like strong writing, but what does it mean in plain English?Indeed, anyone who thinks that dense academic prose is a twentieth and twenty-fist century affliction can find a seventeenth century practitioner in “The Translator to the Reader.” 

And it name drops like crazy:  Cato the Elder, Gregory the Divine (Gregory of Nazianzus),  Plutarch, Justinian, Theodosius, Suidas, S. Aurelius Victor, Eusebius, Augustine, Jerome, Cyril, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Hephaestus, Clement of Alexandria, Cicero,, Nicolas I, Michael III, Aquilla, Efnard (a misprint for Einard!), Trithemius, Bede, Alfred, Methodius, Aventinus, Valdo Bishop of Frising, Beatus Rheananus, Cporbinian, Valdes, Charles V, Beroaldus, Richard II, Johhn Trevisa, Widminstadius, Augustinus Nebiensis, Postel, Ambrose Thesius, Potken, Cromwell, Radevil, Ungnadius, Clement VIII, Pius IV, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Aristotle, Timotheus, Ptolemy Philadelphus, Epiphanius, Ambrose, Pamelius, Radulphus de Rivo, Pius V, Valla, Stapulensis, Erasmus, Vives,  Leo X, Pagnini, Trent, Paiva, Vega, Hieronymus ab Oleastro, Isidorus Clarius, Thomas a Vio Cajetan, Hentenius, Sixtus V, Demaratus of Corinth, Xanthopolulos, Chrysostom, Ireney, Theodotion, Symmachus, Ebionites, Epiphanius, Cataline, Nero, Origen, Sophocles.  Now, probably you know some of these names, but I doubt you know all of them!

And then there are the archaic words:  glout, panary, and portess.  Perhaps these words will cause some to go to the dictionary. 

And this density is unfortunate, since the style of the King James Bible itself is rather simple and accessible.  Because “The Translators to the Reader” is so difficult, most Bibles omit it (or, if they print it, they print it without the original notes and Greek quotations).  And that is doubly unfortunate, because it is quite an interesting document and presents great insights into the philosophy of the translators.

(Instead, Bibles generally reproduce the “Epistle Dedicatory” fawning to the monarch, which has much less interest unless one collects obsequious literature .)

Fortunately, the American Bible Society has produced a marvelous short book (only 85 pages, although the page size is 8.5 x 11 inches) entitled The Translators to the Reader:  The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited edited by Erroll Rhodes and Liana Lupas.  The format of the book is simple – it contains four sections:

  1. A brief history of “The Translators to the Reader” and outline of its argument.
  2. A facsimile of the “The Translators to the Reader” from the 1611 edition (it is the small print of the facsimile that necessitates the large page size, although I still needed to use a magnifying glass to read the marginal notes from the original.)
  3. A transcription of  “The Translators to the Reader” in modernized spelling, with extensive annotation (206 notes, with the word count of the annotation apparently exceeding the word count of the original.)
  4. A slight rewriting of “The Translators to the Reader” into modern syntax.  This is done rather tastefully, with minimal rewording.  For example, the sentence quoted above becomes:

But the difference that appear among our translations, and our frequent corrections of them, is what we are charged with specifically.  Let us therefore see whether they themselves are without fault in this respect (if it is a fault to make corrections), and whether they are qualified to throw stones at us:  “they that are less healthy themselves ought not to point out the infirmities of others.”  (Horace)

The most valuable section to me is the third one; with its extensive annotation. I had thought before that I had understood the nuances of “The Translators to the Reader,” but now that I have read this edition, I realize that I did not understand them nearly as well as I could have.  I can also imagine that the fourth section will prove valuable to many readers, since the prose in “The Translators to the Reader” is difficult.  The other two sections, the overview and the facsimile, are also useful.

All in all, this is a book I would heartily recommend to anyone who is attempting to understand the historical context or translation philosophy of the King James Version.  I would think that any Bible translator would find it interesting (it is an interesting counterpart to the theories of Eugene Nida, for example.)  At less than twelve dollars at Amazon, it is a bargain.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012 5:10 pm

    Great post!

    The density and the difficulty of “The Translators to the Reader” gives us a lot to think about. You’ve pointed out many things, such as the fact that it goes against some of our own contemporary conventions for what a “to the reader” section must be and must do.

    The contrast between this statement and the “rather simple and accessible” English of the translation itself is striking. One of the most fascinating paragraphs is the following, which argues for common English (but doesn’t use easy-to-read English when making the argument):

    “But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? as it is written, Except I know the power of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh, a Barbarian, and he that speaketh, shall be a Barbarian to me. The Apostle excepteth no tongue; not Hebrew the ancientest, not Greek the most copious, not Latin the finest. Nature taught a natural man to confess, that all of us in those tongues which we do not understand, are plainly deaf; we may turn the deaf ear unto them. The Scythian counted the Athenian, whom he did not understand, barbarous; so the Roman did the Syrian, and the Jew (even S. Jerome himself calleth the Hebrew tongue barbarous, belike because it was strange to so many) so the Emperor of Constantinople calleth the Latin tongue, barbarous, though Pope Nicolas do storm at it: so the Jews long before Christ called all other nations, Lognazim, which is little better than barbarous. Therefore as one complaineth, that always in the Senate of Rome, there was one or other that called for an interpreter: so lest the Church be driven to the like exigent, it is necessary to have translations in a readiness. 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. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) 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.”

    What’s interesting here is how there are the allusions to barbarisms as a problem and to translation as the solution. And there are various metaphors for translation (the open window, the drawn curtain, the well cover removed, the deep well water drawn up into a bucket, the book seal broken).

    The paragraph starts with an English translation of I Corinthians 14:11, but this is a different translation from the one that appears in the text of the KJV Bible after the “to the Reader” statement. Compare:

    Except I know the power of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh, a Barbarian, and he that speaketh, shall be a Barbarian to me.

    Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian to me.

    The variation is around the (Textus Receptus) Greek that begins the translated sentence:

    ἐὰν οὖν μὴ εἰδῶ τὴν δύναμιν τῆς φωνῆς

    This makes us wonder who did the translating of Aristotle and how Aristotle is being translated. The statement is (from Metaphysics):

    “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’s master) had not been, we had not had Timotheus.”

    Then there’s the allusion to the Ethics and to its translation:

    “Of one and the same book of Aristotle’s Ethics, there are extant not so few as six or seven several translations. Now if this cost may be bestowed upon the gourd, which affordeth us a little shade, and which today flourisheth, but tomorrow is cut down; what may we bestow, nay what ought we not to bestow upon the Vine, the fruit whereof maketh glad the conscience of man, and the stem whereof abideth forever? And this is the word of God, which we translate. What is the chaff to the wheat, saith the Lord? Tanti vitreum, quanti verum margaritum (saith Tertullian) if a toy of glass be of that reckoning with us, how ought we to value the true pearl!”

    Obviously, the translators and their readers consider the Greek of “the word of God” as “the true pearl” compared with the “toy of glass” of the Greek of Aristotle. So is there an effort to use the same translation principles for both anyway? And did one of the translators translate that bit from the “judgment of Aristotle” so well known? And why the variation in “the power” and “the meaning” of the voice (for τὴν δύναμιν τῆς φωνῆς)? Was that a slip or an intention?

    One last thing that strikes me is how not even one woman is named here (none but Queen Elizabeth I, of course). The church, of course, is female. But all of the name dropping like crazy just includes only the names of men. Why not pay tribute to Mary Herbert Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, for example?

  2. June 12, 2012 7:31 pm

    Kurk, thanks as always for your perceptive comments:

    Re barbarian:

    As you know, “barbarian” comes from βάρβαρος which in turn is onomatopoeia for the sounds made by a foreigner “bar-bar-bar” which are assumed to be mere babbling. You are absolutely correct, here Myles Smith appears to quote from the Geneva 1560 Bible (although he replaces both of the uses of “unto” by “to” and changes the positions of the commas).

    [Below, I depend on the notes from the ABS edition.]

    The story of the Scythian and Athenians is recorded by Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 1.77.3): “If anyone casts aspers on the speech of those who are not Greeks, Anacharsis says, ‘I think all the Greeks speak like Scythians.’ ”

    The story of the Roman and the Syrian is more subtle, and gets more to your point, because the allusion appears to involve behavior rather than language; Cicero (In Verrem 2.3.33: …solere reges barbaros Persarum ac Syrorum plures uxores habere (“the barbarian kings of Persia and Syria had multiple wives”).

    The story of St. Jerome and Hebrew can be found in Epist. 20.4.1: Sed quoniam hae minutiae et istiusmodi disputationis arcanum propter barbariam linguae pariter ac litterarum legenti molestiam tribuunt…. (“But since these details and the mystery that envelops such a debate, due to the barbarism of the language and its alphabet, are annoying to the reader….”); and Epist. 75.3.1.: …quae ad imperitorum et muliercularum animos concitandos quasi de Hebraicis fontibus hauriunt barbaro simplices quosque terrentes sono…. (“to excite the minds of unlearned men and weak women, they pretend to draw from Hebrew sources, terrifying the simple by barbarous combinations….”) [Note here that Jerome does mention women.]

    The story of Byzantine Emperor Michael III and Pope Nicholas had to do with period just before the schism, where Nicholas wrote (28 September 865): In tantam vero furoris habundantiam prorupistis, ut linguae Latinae iniuriam irrogaretis, hanc in epistola vestra barbaram et Scythicam appellantes …. (“You have burst forth in such abundant fury that you have inflicted an injury upon the Latin language calling it in your letter barbarous and Scythian.”)

    The Longnazim reference can be found in Psalm 114:1, which the KJV translates as “a people of a strange language.”

    In these uses, one can see both in the Jacobean language and the Latin quotations a joint meaning of “barbarous” as a foreign language and also a term of obloquy. I think the point is put more strongly elsewhere in the essay, where it quotes Augustine as saying “A man had rather be with his dog than with a stranger [whose tongue is strange unto him].”


    Re: Aristotle

    The statement about Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics is a bit misleading in “The Translators to the Reader.” But I am not certain what the true story is, because here, the notes in ABS edition are confusing and seemingly incorrect. The notes quote a large number oftranslations, including an Italian “compedium by Brunetto Latini (1220-1295), published in 1568 …. The only available English version was a translation of Latini’s commendium prepared by John Wilkinson and published in 1547 by R. Grafton, in London.” Obviously, here, the dates do not match. But things are more confusing when one consults Wikipedia, which “The Italian translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is often misattributed to Brunetto Latini: it is a work of Taddeo Alderotti instead.”

    The variation of “the power” and “the meaning” in the quotation of 1 Corinithians 14:11 seems to be due to a reliance on the 1560 Geneva Bible, as I stated above.


    The question of the relationship of the Sidney Psalter to the King James translation is complex one and a keen observation on your part. I will need make a separate post addressing this, so I will remain silent on it for now.

    The question of the role of women during the Elizabethan-Jacobean is in itself a complicated issue full of contradictions. Elizabeth seems to have been sincerely considered to be an intellectual monarch in at least some circles (see the excellent anthology Elizabeth I and Her Age — or the way that Spenser depicts Elizabeth in Faerie Queene) and yet it was during this same period that women were forbidden from appearing on the stage. (Of course, all theater was shut down during the Cromwell period. The restriction both on theater and women on the stage was lifted almost immediately on Restoration; Charles II’s mistress was Nell Gwyn — an actress!)

  3. June 13, 2012 9:54 pm

    In fact, Smith consistently quotes from the Geneva Bible in “The Translators to the Reader” — not just at 1 Corinthians 14:11.

    I once knew this, but apparently forgot it when I wrote my note above yesterday, but today, in perusing the Norton Critical Edition of the English Bible, I was reminded of it.

  4. June 13, 2012 11:21 pm

    This statement sets forth what the objectives of the translators were, why the translation is justified, answering objectives from both Catholics and Calvinists who object to a new translation, and explaining the translation philosophy of the authors.

    Unfortunately, it is also a dense piece of academic prose…

    When I was a wee young lass, doing my small part of the work on a large scientific catalogue project, my supervisor one day walked into my office and dropped a smallish stack of photocopied pages on my desk.

    “Read this,” she said. “It’s the introduction to OtherFamousScientificCatalogue. This is where the people who made the catalogue explain what they did, how they did it, what the sources of errors are, and what people should really know before they use any of the data in the catalogue.”

    “Of course, nobody ever reads it. But we’ll have to write one too.”


    This is what your description of “The Translators to the Reader” reminded me of. Dense academic prose, because that’s the only way to actually explain what you actually did.

    What a great post. Thanks for letting us all know about this.


  1. “God helps those who help themselves” « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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