Two recent books argue the King James Version’s enduring popularity stems from the literalness of its translation and not from the beauty of its language. I’ve always suspected this was the case, and it has been strangely gratifying to find the argument in print, even years after I benched my KJV in favor of a couple more recent translations written with the benefit of modern scholarship.
In his book In the Beginning, a history of the Bible’s English translations, Alister McGrath points out that the translators of the “Authorized Version” chose not to paraphrase Hebrew idioms, but chose instead to translate the idioms word for word. The translators also were “much more likely to retain the Hebrew word order or structure, even when this resulted in a reading that did not sound quite right to English ears at that time.” The KJV translators also often literally translated the New Testament’s Greek where it had been “influenced by Semitic turns of phrase.”
In other words, many of the odd turns of phrase we read in the KJV were just as odd to the English reading public introduced to the version in 1611. Shakespeare’s England was arguably more perplexed by some of the KJV’s phraseology than we may be, since many of the Hebraic idioms and other strict translations have become part of our language due to the KJV’s cultural penetration over the centuries. We are used to expressions such as these coined by the KJV’s attempts at literalness: “fall flat on his face,” “a man after his own heart,” “to pour out one’s heart,” “the land of the living,” “from time to time,” “the skin of my teeth,” “to put words in his mouth,” and “like a lamb to the slaughter.”
McGrath quotes Hebrew scholar John Selden, who was twenty-seven when the KJV was first published and who provided some of the critical disdain initially drawn by the translation:
If I translate a French book into English, I turn it into English phrase and not into French English. “Il fait froid”: I say “it is cold,” not “it makes cold.” But the [King James] Bible is translated into English words rather than English phrases. The Hebraisms are kept and the [Hebrew phrasing] is kept. As for example, “he uncovered her shame,” which is well enough so long as scholars have to do with it, but when it comes among the common people, Lord what gear do they make of it.
Selden’s concern for the common man might be justified today not because of the KJV’s attempts at accuracy, but because of its dated language. I recall a sermon or two about a woman’s place as her husband’s “helpmeet,” a word originating from a misreading of the KJV’s “…but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.” What gear the preachers made of it!
Reynolds Price agrees with McGrath that the King James Version must have been strange to the ears of its first public. In his introduction to Three Gospels, Price goes further and argues that the KJV’s strangeness reflects the strangeness of the original Greek New Testament to Greek-speaking Palestine of the first and second centuries. In other words, we think the King James is strange; the Elizabethans thought the King James was strange; and the New Testament gospels’ first readers probably thought the gospels were written in a very strange sort of genre and form of Greek. Our mystification may connect with ancient mystificatoin.
I have rarely felt more connected with the New Testament’s original audience as when I read Price’s claim that total clarity wasn’t part of the picture for the New Testament’s first readers, either. It reminded me of Peter’s admission that some of Paul’s letters, which Peter was commending to his readers, contained things that were “hard to be understood.” It reminded me also of my first Bible instructor’s only half-joking justification for his selected translation: “If it was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.” The guy may have been on to something after all.
Price attributes the KJV’s eventual popularity to its willingness to sound strange for just enough centuries for the confusion over the KJV’s diction and syntax to turn to veneration:
…[w]hile it is customary to say that [the KJV’s] enduring popularity derives from the King James’s sonorous diction and stately syntax – the diction of Shakespeare and Ben Johnson – a close comparison of its language to that of the originals will very often show that the power and memorability of the King James is an almost automatic result of its loyal adherence to principles of literalness and the avoidance of paraphrase. Nearly four centuries of Greekless readers have sensed, unconsciously perhaps but with considerable accuracy, that the very strangeness – the sober exoticism – of the language of the King James is truer to its strange originals than any of its successors.
I’m one of those prescient Greekless readers. I did have something of a hint, though. When I was about thirty, the New American Standard displaced the KJV as my primary translation. The NAS translators put some of what they considered literal translations as margin notes where they believed sticking the literal meaning in the text might prove confusing. Many, if not most, of the NAS’s margin notes turn out to be simply the renderings given by the KJV in its text.
As much as I have enjoyed the King James Version over the years, I find it hard to accept philosophically that its language is as good as it is cracked up to be. I love its language, but then I have been conditioned to do so. Its phrases – and something even of its tone and syntax – are found in a lot of the canon of English literature written between the Restoration and World War I, a period of about two hundred and fifty years during which the KJV had a virtual monopoly on English Bible translation and during which English society, despite the Enlightenment and Darwin and everything else, was overtly Christian. In a sense, I almost can’t pass on the King James Version as literature. It is too close to me.
It is ironic to me that most of the best-known English translations of the Bible to come out in the past hundred years seem to want to displace the King James Version as the best-selling English translation through the clarity and the beauty of their language. This seems to be the opposite strategy of the KJV’s translators, which apparently was to be as literal and as obscure as necessary, and to wait a couple of centuries for the English language to refract around their foreign-sounding idioms.
Of course, even if a new translation adopted such a longsighted strategy, it would hardly enjoy anything like the King James Version’s influence on a brave new English-speaking world, barring the confluence of unlikely historical, cultural, and religious circumstances.