Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"The gravity and splendor...God’s words deserve"

This is the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version [KJV] of the Scriptures and I'm learning a lot from the articles published in appreciation of that version. Very few today would argue that it remains the best translation. Better source material has become available since that time and scholarship has advanced. But no Christian should fail to appreciate what it represented in the history of the English-speaking Church, and no one, regardless of faith, should be unaware of what it contributed to the language and the culture.

Barton Swaim, at Touchstone gives us "God's English: The Making & Endurance of the King James Bible, 1611–2011", from which I have taken the following excerpts. The article is much longer and includes much more of interest.
The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) is fast becoming one of the great unread books of Western civilization—remembered and admired but not used. True, there is still a small band of believers in the fundamentalist tradition whose loyalty to the KJV remains uncompromised. But the vast majority of Christians in the English-speaking world think of the King James Bible as a hindrance rather than a help: an interesting document but, in the twenty-first century, pointlessly difficult to understand; an artifact prized by one’s grandparents because it reminded them of another time. ....

For well over three centuries in Britain and North America, the King James Bible was the Bible. Its language permeates our literature. In twenty-first-century Britain, where biblical illiteracy is almost total, phrases from the King James Bible still echo across the cultural landscape—a fact attributable to the nation’s Christian past, but also to the biblical translation that defined that past.

Even so, the Authorized Version, as it used to be called, is now thought of chiefly as an historical novelty. Young people raised in Christian homes today are hardly aware of its existence. ....

One of the great ironies about the King James Bible is that it wasn’t the outcome of godly intentions. The decision to commission a new translation of the Bible was, in fact, part of a cynical political maneuver on the part of the monarch and his allies. ....

Yet however unlovely the circumstances of its provenance, as a translation, the King James Bible was a first-rate work of scholarship. ....

...[T]hey understood, far better than modern translators have, the importance of rhythm in language. This is partly because learned men of the seventeenth century were steeped in written languages—English and Latin, but also Greek, Hebrew, French, Italian, and Spanish—to a degree that even the best educated cannot match now. They understood the dynamics of poetry: Andrewes was himself a brilliant poet, but the others, too, would have been deeply familiar with ancient and modern meters.

Equally important is the fact that the King James translators knew that their renderings would be heard even more than they would be read. The great preponderance of parishioners in early seventeenth-century England were partly or wholly illiterate, and for that reason the translators were careful to make their sentences easy to read aloud. Time and again the KJV’s language falls into a snappy iambic cadence that rolls off the tongue. ....

One of the principal reasons the King James Bible has achieved such astonishing durability is that its diction captures the gravity and splendor one feels God’s words deserve. The Scriptures are old, and the feeling that they should sound old is a natural and proper one. Partly, of course, the KJV sounds old because it is old. But there’s more to it than that. The King James Bible was never what we would call a “modern” translation; even in 1611 it sounded antiquated. The ancient feel of its language was, in fact, largely deliberate.

This was in some measure the consequence of an assumption shared with biblical translators throughout the preceding century: they assumed that the structure of God’s sentences should be given the greatest possible deference. .... [more]
And in The American Spectator Roger Scruton gives us "Translating the Word":
.... How lucky we English-speakers were, that this translation should have been made in the wake of the Elizabethan dramatists, at a time when the English language was at its most muscular and taut, when it could be applied to matters both earthly and heavenly and at once give a fully imagined account of them, gripped in what Gerard Manley Hopkins was to call the "native thew and sinew" of the English tongue. All subsequent translations, set beside this version, are on a downhill path toward banality, and by the time of the New English Bible (completed 1970) it is fair to say that the immediacy and urgency of the King James Bible had been more or less dissolved in watery literal-mindedness.

It is not just the literary merits of the King James Bible that recommend it, however. This was the Bible that the Pilgrim Fathers brought with them across the Atlantic, that the Methodist riders took around the farmsteads and cabins of rural America, the Bible that the merchant adventurers carried to India, Australia, and Africa, the Bible that provided the texts of Handel's oratorios and which inspired the hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. It is the Bible that was planted in the depths of the English-speaking soul during the crucial centuries when the sphere of English-speaking freedom was formed. I doubt that you can understand the motives of the early settlers of America without it. It gave them the names of their towns and villages, the names of their children, the maxims of their daily life and the routines and rituals of their sparse forms of enjoyment. They fought and cursed, made love and sermons, in the language of the King James Bible, and everywhere about us we see the difference that this has made. ....
Touchstone Archives: God's English, The American Spectator : Translating the Word