Inconsistent Translation in the King James Bible

On several occasions, people have asked me about the "inconsistency" of the King James Bible in uniformly translating words.  These people have read or heard about the tendency of the King James translators to translate the same Greek or Hebrew word by using several different English words. They then make two assumptions: 1) that this is bad, and 2) that the modern versions are much more consistent than the King James. But both assumptions are wrong. Yet, in the places where consistency in choice of the translation word is important, the King James Bible is consistent and the modern versions are not. Please consider the following points.

  1. Actually, there is no such principle of uniform translation. There is no accepted principle that states that clear understanding requires a particular word in one language to always be translated into a particular word in another language.  In one article, Bruce Metzer made this criticism of the King James and gave a particular verb (the one translated in one place as “shall be done away”) that occurred four times in the Greek in 1Corinthians 13:8-11.  I checked seven other versions that I had on hand and found that only two were consistent in this passage--a passage especially used to criticize the King James.  Further, I found that none of the translations I checked agreed with one another.  The variety between them was much greater than the variety within the King James Bible.
  2. The King James translators had as a principle of their translation that they would use a variety of words in translation.  In the preface to the King James Bible, they state, "We have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done."  They go on to state the superiority of their method.  Yet, they were careful in translation "if the word signified the same in both places."  But "there be some words that be not of the same sense everywhere."  In these cases, it is better to translate the same Greek, or Hebrew, word with different English words.  According to the King James translators, to translate words uniformly would "savour more of curiosity than wisdom, and that rather it would breed scorn in the Atheist, than bring profit to the godly Reader." In other words, a strict uniformity of translation causes the translation to lose the true meaning of the original text.  It assumes that one particular English word has the same meaning, depth, applications and connotations as one particular Greek or Hebrew word.  This is absolutely wrong.  One particular word cannot always be translated with the same word from another language.  Otherwise, the best translations would be those done by computers.  And there are times when it is possible to keep the translation uniform, but it is not the best translation possible.  It tends to a wooden, dead reading.
  3. However, there are times when uniformity of translation is necessary for the true understanding of the text.  This is especially true when it comes to the Biblical use of key words in an extended text or in a Biblical narrative.  The use of key words is one of the most important patterns found in man Bible passages.  These key words must be translated uniformly in order to maintain the full meaning in the translation.  Yet, it is not the King James Bible that fails here, but the modern versions.  Secular students of the literature of the Bible are recognizing this.  The Bible often uses the repetition of key words to bring unity to a story.  Unfortunately, “most modern versions go to the opposite extreme, constantly translating the same word with different English equivalents for the sake of fluency and supposed precision.  Nevertheless, the repetition of key-words is so prominent in many biblical narratives that one can still follow it fairly well in translation, especially if one uses the King James Version.”  (Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative, p.93).

Many examples could be given.  One is found in the use of the word "repent" in 1Samuel 15.  God repents that He made Saul king (v.11).  God is not a man that He should repent (v.29).  God repents that He made Saul king (v.35).  However, the modern versions are so concerned with the apparent contradiction in these statements that they try to help God out by changing the words.  What they do not understand is that the tension in the wording was supposed to be there.  Without it, the reader is not forced to consider the fullest meaning of repent and learn from the contrasts made by the apparent contradiction in a God who never repents and yet does repent. Their lack of spiritual discernment causes them to tamper with the precious words of God.

Many more examples can be given. The point is that the accusation of inconsistency against the King James Bible is a lot of smoke and mirrors. No translation is totally consistent but the King James Bible is consistent when it is needed for the understanding of the text while the modern versions are not.

David Reagan