Carla Unseth

Do We Translate the King James?

When I first started building a partnership team to do Bible translation, I was asked several times the question “Do you translate the King James Version?”. It was a hard question to answer because I felt like there were underlying assumptions that I wasn’t sure of. Recently, someone asked me this question again during my Friday coffee time. Every Friday I go to a local coffee shop to work and to chat with people who are interested in knowing more about what I do (feel free to drop by!). On this particular Friday, someone asked a question about my work, and when I said something about Bible translation a few more customers perked up and came over to chat. One particular man left a table filled with Bible study materials to came over. At one point in our conversation he said, “I hope you’re translating King James!” Ah, the old quandary of how to answer! Seeing his study materials, I answered by saying that we usually translate from Greek and Hebrew, and with enthusiasm he showed me that he uses a Greek/Hebrew Interlinear for his study. I was glad to see his passion for the Bible, but after that conversation I thought it might be a good thing to write down the answer to this question a little more fully. So here are some thoughts on whether we translate the King James.

First, I should make it clear that the King James is in itself a translation. When I was in high school, I had a friend whose pastor told her that the “original” Bible is the King James Version. I don’t know if this idea still persists, but it’s important to know that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew in the Old Testament, and Greek in the New Testament. The King James Version was an English-language translation done in 1611 (side note – the history behind why it was translated is fascinating, which I discuss more in this podcast). It was revised several times, and in fact the KJV we have today is based on a 1769 revision. It wasn’t the first English translation, nor was it the last, though it was incredibly well done for its time.

One of the things I think people are asking when they ask if we translate the King James is whether or not the translation is word for word, like the King James Version. There are two basic translation theories, and translations range between them. On one end is word for word translation, where the translation follows the words of the original as much as possible. The benefit is that it doesn’t make any interpretation decisions and the reader can do more study on their own. The drawback is that it’s often hard to read because it may not flow naturally in the second language. On the other end of the spectrum is meaning based translation, where the translation determines underlying meaning and translates that, even if it changes the wording. The benefit is that it is very clear and natural. The drawback is that sometimes teams have to decide what an ambiguous passage means, so the reader only can see one option when the text has more than one possible meaning. So the question “do you translate the King James?” is often asking “Do you use a word for word translation theory?”. The answer to this question varies based upon the team and the situation. In some places, teams do choose a word for word translation, especially when the cultural situation is close to Biblical culture so it will be easy to understand, or when the people generally have a high level of education and reading comprehension. However, in some places a word for word translation would be too difficult to understand. If the culture differs significantly, people may be left wondering what exactly the text means. Or, if the people generally have a lower level of education, reading may be hard in itself, making a word for word translation just too hard to read. However, in either case, it’s important to note that teams put a great deal of effort into making sure the translation is as accurate as possible. Whichever translation theory is chosen, the text must accurately reflect the message of the Bible, or it won’t be considered a translation. There are many levels of checks to make sure that this happens.

Another thing people are asking when they ask if we translate the King James Version, is if we use the King James as the basis for the translation. Do we look at the King James while we are translating and try to find an exact match for those exact words? This is the question I answered for the man I talked to at the coffee shop. The answer is that we use as many resources as possible. We reference multiple English translations, along with any other languages that are available. So, for example, in French-speaking Africa we reference as many French versions as possible as well. Then, we go back to the Greek and Hebrew to compare the translations and make sure that the result is as accurate as possible. So, we may reference the King James Version, but it’s not the only basis for translation. In fact, many versions have a statement attached to them that says something like “this version cannot be used as a sole basis for a translation”. In other words, the translators want to make sure that another translation team isn’t blindly following their decisions, but rather consulting a wide variety of sources.

Along with this, people may be asking whether we use the Textus Receptus as the Greek text we reference. The King James Version was based on this particular Greek text. The answer is similar to the previous answer in that most translators today follow what is called a “critical text”, which means that all the Greek manuscripts which have been found are compared and compiled into what most accurately reflects the original Greek text. The Textus Receptus may form part of a critical text, but it is not the only resource. King James Version translators chose that particular text because it was very complete, and because it was one of the best Greek manuscripts available at the time. However, over the years many older and more reliable manuscripts have been found, so translators today use a compilation of these texts. If you’re interested in how this works, this study is called “Textual Criticism” and you can find lots more information on how scholars determine which text is the oldest and most reliable. Also, if you don’t know about textual criticism, don’t let this scare you. It may sound like this means there are big differences between older and newer Biblical manuscripts, but it doesn’t. There are small differences, and most of them have to do with spelling and grammar. You can trust that the Bible you have accurately reflects God’s Words!

Though we don’t translate strictly by the King James Version, we do respect it and the contribution it has made to Bible translation and Christianity. As I said earlier, the King James Version was excellently done for its time. It used the best scholarship, the best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts that were available, and 1600s modern English. Many people today love it because the language now has a feeling of reverence and poetry. And yet, we no longer have to be tied only to the King James Version. Bible versions today use updated scholarship, Greek and Hebrew manuscripts which reflect careful study and assimilation, and current modern English. The meaning stays the same, but the words used to express it changes. We have the immeasurable blessing of many versions that we can reference. We can use some versions for easy reading, some versions for deep and serious study, some versions for the beauty of the language, and some versions for the joy of understanding. It is our blessing and our responsibility to use the resources we have been given to spread the Good News of what Jesus has done to all those around us. Let us use this great gift to give God’s Word!