King James Bible’s classic text: Isaac Casaubon helped translate it
A scholar has discovered that the King James Bible includes work by a previously unsuspected French translator, whose contribution to the quintessentially English work has lain undetected for 400 years.
The landmark work, first published in 1611, was drafted by more than 40 translators. But according to Nicholas Hardy from Birmingham University, few documents survive from the drafting and revision stages of the translation and little is known about how the translators worked together.
Hardy was consulting a printed copy of the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament, which is held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, when he noticed that the thousands of handwritten annotations in its margins were in the hand of John Bois, one of the King James Bible’s translators. The annotations’ author had previously been unknown.
He then followed a “paper trail” to the British Library in London, where he found correspondence between Bois and the renowned French scholar Isaac Casaubon. The unpublished letters revealed that Bois had asked Casaubon for help translating several passages that he and his colleagues were struggling to complete.
Once Hardy identified Casaubon as a translator, he studied the Frenchman’s notebooks, which have been held in the Bodleian since the 1670s, finding records of the conversations Casaubon had with the translator Andrew Downes about other complications in the Bible’s text.
“I discovered a series of documents that had been sitting in libraries since they were written, for 400 years basically, but their significance hadn’t been realised,” said Hardy.
“We think of the King James Bible as a distinctively English cultural product, but as the most famous scholar of ancient Greek literature of the period, Casaubon was far more celebrated and pre-eminent than any of the translators who worked on the translation, and his contributions increased the prestige of the translation from their point of view. Even something that seems very distinctively, quintessentially English can actually turn out to be a bit more complicated than that.”
Casaubon was visiting London at the time of the translation and could “barely speak or write English”, according to Hardy, so he corresponded with the other translators in Latin.
“The translators consulted him because they were still dealing with a lot of unresolved problems in the original texts which they were translating from,” said Hardy. “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.”
According to Birmingham University, Hardy’s discovery of the three documents brings the number of known sources associated with the translation of the King James Bible up to seven.
The academic, who is writing a book-length study of the King James Bible for Princeton University Press, said the documents “get us as close as we will ever get to hearing the translators in conversation”.