Translating the Bible Translators; David Edgar Has Created a Fascinating Play Examining How the King James Bible Was Created 400 Years Ago - and Why It Is So Crucial to Our Language. Diane Parkes Reports
Byline: Diane Parkes
It is a book which is quoted thousands of times a day, familiar from christenings, weddings and funerals and is often cited as helping form the language we speak today.
But the Authorised King James Bible may not be quite the authority we think it is.
This is the decision reached by Birmingham playwright David Edgar after months of research into the long process which resulted in the historic translation which celebrates its 400th birthday this year.
David's new play Written on the Heart, which has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and is due to premiere at the Swan Theatre this week, examines the birthing pains of the Kings James Bible.
The idea for the play came out of a series of discussions held in Stratford.
"It began four years ago when I spotted the anniversary was coming up and obviously the proverbial two most important works in the English language were published within 12 years of each other and there is one of each in Stratford," recalls David, when we chat at his Balsall Heath home.
"Stratford has a first folio of Shakespeare but also, at Holy Trinity Church, it has a King James Bible first edition.
King James, who the 1611 translation "Proverbially, the language was created by those two works. I think you could argue about that but certainly that is the popular view.
"I have been working for the RSC since 1975 so for all of these reasons they seemed the people to go to. They were very keen on the idea of doing something to mark it and we held a conference in 2008."
This led David to take up two biblical challenges.
He has created a short play, Concerning Faith, inspired by the New Testament book 1 Timothy, which will be performed in Westminster Abbey as part of a 12-hour theatre marathon and at the Bush Theatre in London over 24 hours based on the books of the Bible called Sixty-Six Books.
And it led him to Written on the Heart.
"There were a lot of experts at the conference and we were really inspired by the story of the Bible and our realisation of what a weird thing it is to have become so overwhelmingly central to so many things," he says.
"For a start it was written by a committee and it wasn't really a translation, it was basically a compilation of the best bits of previous translations. "It was commissioned as a kind of afterthought at a conference which was trying to reconcile the Puritan and more, what we would call, Anglo-Catholic wings of the church. And it was intended to draw a line under the history of the English Reformation - and of course 30 years later the Civil War breaks out.
"So in all respects, at that time, it was a failure and it was a very odd set-up to create something which has such a reputation."
And yet that reputation holds.
David believes its success was because times had changed by the time King James commissioned his most famous book. In the play, David is keen to place this translation into its historical context. "We start in 1610 with a group of rather comfortable clerics, including a couple of bishops and the Dean of St Paul's who meet together to resolve the finer issues of contention in the Bible translation. None of them are going to die for translating the Bible - in fact two of them might become Archbishop of Canterbury as a result of their efforts.
commissioned of the Bible "And we then flash back to William Tyndale, who was the first translator of the Bible from the original languages and also the first translator of the Bible whose work was printed - and who died at the stake as a result. As did two of his successors.
"Two other translations of the Bible which were important to our translation of the Bible were undertaken by people in exile. So the play is really about the contrast between the people who originally translated the Bible when translating the Bible into English was a burning offence and the people who very comfortably put together this King James Bible. …