Translators' goal: Make the message clear & plain - Word&Way

Translators’ goal: Make the message clear & plain

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—The preface to the King James Version of the Bible captures Barclay Newman’s respect almost as much as the holy words the translation contains.

And the longtime translator for the American Bible Society is disappointed modern editions of the world’s most popular version do not include the 11-page opening, simply called “The Translators to the Reader.”

Barclay Newman

Newman served as a translation consultant in the Asia Pacific region with the United Bible Society 42 years. In 1984, he was asked to research, plan and organize the American Bible Society’s Contemporary English Version of the Bible with Eugene Nida. Newman translated all the Bible except 12 Old Testament books. His wife, Jean, served as editorial associate to Newman and two other translators on the CEV committee.

The Bible society published the CEV New Testament in 1991, the entire Bible in 1995 and the Bible with the Apocrypha in 1999.

The translators of the KJV 1611 edition might be appalled at the reverence some individuals hold for it, Newman believes. The Bible scholar has a facsimile of the 1611 edition.

“In this preface the translators reveal their intentions, concerns, methodologies and even uncertainties with such openness that makes practicing translators want to insist that it be required reading for all King James lovers and serious Bible readers,” Newman wrote, with Charles Houser, in "Rediscovering the Preface and Notes to the Original King James Version."

The KJV translators wanted to make Scripture plain and understandable to the masses. “But how shall men meditate in that which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue? …. Indeed, without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well without a bucket or something to draw with.”

The translators faced opposition, as well. Many church leaders of that day wondered why a new translation was needed. While King James had his own, perhaps less-than-holy, reasons, the translators explained in the preface that the Bible in common language opened the Bible to everyone.

“But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canann, that it may be understood even by the very vulgar,” the KJV translators wrote.

The translators also were well aware that people could develop a strong relationship to the words of one translation over others. But they believed in “equality of language,” Newman contends, and analyzed the context as well as the words.

“People tend to become defensive and protective of their religious icons,” Newman said. “But if you read the preface, then you can’t hold on to the idea of its superiority.”

The King James committee believed the translation did not diminish the holiness of the word. “We affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession … containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it,” the translators wrote.

That desire to reflect the holiness of the word in an understandable way to people who generally hear, rather than read, the Bible prompted the CEV translation. “The society decided to do the translation on the conviction that we needed something with oral readability,” Newman said.

A good translation, he contends, “ought to communicate the message of the Bible clearly in terms that they can understand when they hear it.”