Rowan Williams: Celebrating the 1611 King James Bible

Roundup: Talking About History

Rowan Williams is the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion. He is also a distinguished theologian and published poet.

This is the text of a sermon delivered at a Thanksgiving service in Westminster Abbey for the 400th anniversary of the 1611 authorised King James translation of the Bible.

What is a good translation? Not one that just allows me to say, when I pick it up: "Now I understand." Of course, if I'm faced with a text in a strange language, I need to be able simply to read it; but a good translation will be an invitation to read again, and to probe, and reflect, and imagine with the text. Rather than letting me say: "Now I understand," it prompts the response: "Now the work begins."

One of the most striking things in the wonderful preface to the King James Bible composed by Miles Smith is the clear conviction that there is never an ideal or a final translation. To translate any work of significance is to reveal a certain range of meanings in the original; but there will always be, as the 1611 translators fully recognised, another range that hasn't yet been captured and will need another round of engagement with the text. If this is true of any important text, how much more true is it of scripture, where the meanings are the self-communications of an infinite mind and love? The invitation that scripture offers is an invitation to a pilgrimage further and further into the mysteries of that mind and love; and a good translation of the Bible must therefore be one that opens out on wider and wider horizons.

We have all suffered from a mindset in the last couple of centuries that has assumed there is an end to translating and understanding and thus that there is something wrong with any version of a text that fails to settle disputes and to provide an account of the truth that no one could disagree with. But what the 1611 translators grasped was that hearing the Word of God was a lifelong calling that had to be undertaken in the company of other readers and was never something that left us where we started...

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