The King James Bible is widely regarded as one of the most celebrated English achievements. But one academic has unearthed evidence that its English translators had a significant amount of help – from a Frenchman.
Research by Dr Nicholas Hardy at the University of Birmingham has found that Isaac Casaubon, an eminent French scholar, helped translate the Bible into English.
It is the first time a non-English speaker has been found to have worked on the famous work.
The King James Bible, published in 1611, was worked on by forty translators, who were divided into “companies” working on separate sections of the book.
Letters unearthed by Dr Hardy show that English translator John Bois exchanged letters with French scholar Casaubon, who was visiting London towards the end of 1610.
Casaubon was at the time regarded as the most accomplished scholar of ancient languages, such as Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, in the world, and is thought to have been brought in to help verify the work of less accomplished English translators.
Dr Hardy said the discovery would be “surprising” to other academics working in the field.
“People tend to talk about it as a distinctively English cultural product, as something that was made in England, by Englishmen, for English readers.
“The English translators were using this guy’s work long before they met him, before he arrived in London.
“All of the books that they were using to help them had been printed on the Continent and most of them had been written outside the British Isles, because England was relatively speaking a bit of an intellectual backwater, especially in this field of Biblical scholarship and translation.”
The Frenchman appears to have offered advice to his English colleague on tricky sections which the translators were struggling with.
The correspondence shows Bois writing to Casaubon with queries about specific passages, and Casaubon replying to each one with suggestions.
The letters, found in the British Library, have been held there since the early nineteenth century but had never been published.
Most of the passages Casaubon is known to have worked on were in the Apocrypha, books which are not included in the standard Bible but which were considered highly important at the time.
Early translators of this section were not particularly accomplished scholars, he said, and Casaubon was brought in at a late stage of the translation process to work on the Apocrypha, which were the last books to be printed, and make sure the translation was accurate.
However, it’s likely that he also worked on the New Testament, but these discussions took place in person, meaning there is less evidence of them now.
Following this discovery Dr Hardy then travelled to Oxford to check Casaubon’s notebooks, which have been held in the Bodleian Library since the 1670s.
He discovered further records of conversations Casaubon had had with another English translator, Andrew Downes.
These exchanges prove that he did work on part of the New Testament, in Acts 13:18.
The pair discussed the translation of this passage, which says “‘And about the time of fourtie yeeres suffered he [God] their maners in the wildernesse,” referring to the wandering of the Israelites in the desert after the Exodus.
Following a discussion the pair decided to inset a note in the margin about the translation, explaining that changing a single letter in the Greek verb meaning “suffered their maners”, it would become a different verb, meaning “to bear” or “to feed”, “as a nurse beareth or feedeth her childe”.
The note suggests that the passage had been subject to “prolonged discussion and possibly disagreement between the translators”, Dr Hardy said.
The King James Bible was not the first time the Bible had been translated into English but it was the version which became standard for hundreds of years.