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Monday, September 18, 2006

Scattered thoughts on the KJV

I have written about the King James Version before in very positive terms. But the diction is varied and there is much to like and much to dislike. It is better for me to come clear on what irritates me first and then look at what can be learned.

Primary among the transgressors are the latinizations - words like justification, sanctification, salvation, propitiation, redemption, temptation, fornication, damnation, etc. They can't be disposed of entirely but they can be used minimally, choosing only those that are essential. The Greek itself uses words that were already present in the language. It would be nice to do the same with English.

Along with these intruders in the text are the ecclesiastical terms: church, bishop, deacon, etc. Then come the transliterations: synagogue, mystery, and baptism. All of this vocabulary lends an unevenness to the English that the Greek does not have. It makes for an awkward mix.

Next, and most offensive are those terms which owe nothing to either Latin nor Greek in origin, and don't sound like much in English either.

    former conversation
    the old man
    bowels of mercies
Okay, let me stop and respond to your protest,

    That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love Col. 2:2
This sounds lovely and evokes an image of sweaters knit by (fill this one in yourself - or don't!) But the Greek says 'made to come together', that's it! It is possible that others may look at the Greek and not see clearly the morphology of this term, but it is transparent to me. It does not say 'knit'! I wish it did.

'Quicken' is the same. The Greek says 'made alive'. So the translators were indeed improving on the original. But this kind of translation obscures the compound nature of these words; it covers up the genius of the Greek.

Here is another set of phrases, delicately configured alliteration and imagery. But they do not in any way reflect the structure, or evoke the style, of the original.

    world without end Eph. 3:21
    peculiar people Titus 2:14
    often infirmities 1 Tim. 5:23
    do thy diligence 2 Tim. 4:21
    in times past Gal. 1:13
    tossed to and fro Eph. 4:14
So what valid contributions does the KJV make to style? It does at some points successfully translate the natural word building style of the Greek language. It does represent with accuracy and artistry from time to time the morphology of the source language. Here are some of the best.

    singleness of heart Col. 3:22
    lowliness of mind Phil 2:3
    breathing out threatenings Acts 1:9
    nurture and admonition of the Lord Eph.6:4
    bringing into captivity every thought 2 Cor. 10:5
Sometimes the word order makes a positive statement.

    according to his mercy he saved us Titus 3:5
Ultimately, there is no reasons not to make the most of the imagery and rich morphology of the Greek, and to play with the word order, and varied sentence length, both abrupt questions and 'laundry lists' of virtues and vices.

I cannot reverence the KJ version, but I can appreciate its position in English literature and consider what it has to teach us. Whether this in any way inspires me to think of how a new version might look, I don't know. I don't want to think about one more translation - not right now!


At Tue Sep 19, 03:37:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

"Late-Elizabethan" seems to me a far better description than "early Jacobean." The language of the committee of translation hadn't changed abruptly with the accession of James in 1603, nor would it have in the following six or seven years they had to work in. To a great extent the group was adapting the language of the pre-Elizabethan Geneva Bible and the early Elizabethan Bishop's Bible, which themselves had features running back to Tyndale and Coverdale. (With some influence from the Rheims New Testament, also of Elizabethan date.) Most of the useful evidence for its vocabulary and grammar is sixteenth-century, not seventeeth century. And, despite admitting some "ink-horn" terms borrowed from Latin (and subject to interpretation), instead of hunting for (potentially controversial) "pure English" equivalents, they were avoiding obvious novelties.

At Tue Sep 19, 04:25:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

As a separate issue; performances of Shakespeare quite commonly have larger or smaller cuts, and various small (and sometimes major) adaptations of the text so that it makes sense to modern listeners.* And sometimes try to sweep away possible confusion with cues from the actors. (Not always giving the most likely interpretation, but the one they think will work.) Reputation, casting, and staging count for a lot, too. (In the nineteenth century, Berlioz was swept away by a performance of "Romeo and Juliet," in English -- which he didn't understand.)

At that, modern performances are a lot less "adapted" than they used to be -- the "Shakespeare" of the English stage, from the Restoration to the early twentieth century, was often very, very, contemporary with the audience. And audiences complained at the omission of familiar passages that had never been known at the Globe.

This doesn't always work. I've heard plenty of people admitting afterwards (usually rather quietly) that they had trouble following what was going on. (For that matter, I prefer to read the play beforehand, in something like a Penguin, Folger Library, Signet, or Arden edition. Which may be why I notice the cuts and deviations, but does make things a lot clearer.)

Any edition of Shakespeare for the classroom is more or less heavily annotated, to clarify the language, if not larger issues. And needs to be, if the teacher is not to spend a lot of time explaining what the text really says, or allow students to make guesses. (And I've heard some wild ones.)

The absence of similarly glossed editions of the KJV -- which should certainly include something on early modern grammar, too -- is no sign that they aren't needed. Only that people don't want them, or publishers don't think they need to take the trouble (instead of a new binding, or bigger print, as selling points). Which is an entirely different situation.

Not to mention that some of the required glosses are going to offend some people, who want to be edified, not informed. There is no honest way to get around the fact that, in 1611, "flagon of wine" did NOT mean "cake of grapes/raisins," and the translation of "ashishah" in 2 Sam. 6.19, 1 Chron. 16.3, Song of Songs 2.5, and Hosea 3.1 is what is called a mistake.

*"Liver" as the seat of passion may be replaced by "heart" -- as with "bowels," our popular psycho-physiology has changed over the centuries, and passages may be intelligible word-for-word, but seem either very odd or meaningless to the uninformed.

At Tue Sep 19, 07:07:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

Fine, we'll agree to disagree. But remember, on a calendar the sixteenth century ended in 1600 much more obviously than "Elizabethan English" stopped being written in 1603, so any term chosen will have some ambiguity. I picked the one that fit the adult (if not lifetime) environment of the members of the committee, and main linguistic filter through which they themselves read the older translations.

For the purposes of this discussion, I was restricting myself to the relative dates of those translations, and the already slightly older kind of English they represented, rather than their characteristics AS TRANSLATIONS, which, for the most part, isn't relevant to Suzanne's observations about how they will be (mis)understood in the twenty-first century.

To return to Shakespeare, there are those who like to speak of "Shakespeare's Jacobean Plays," which makes perfectly good sense, but rather emphasizes his connections with a younger group of dramatists.

Your experience with an unglossed Shakespeare sounds interesting. I assume that someone actually explained what some off the words meant, at some point? Or at least noted which ones were "false friends"?

I've never met a High School student or undergraduate who -- granted the concession that, if he or she HAD to take Shakespeare, it would be worth paying attention, which may not be forthcoming -- didn't want some help from foot-of-the-page, marginal, or opposite-page glosses (and sometimes a separate glossary) in the popular Shakespeare editions I mentioned. (Mostly the Penguin, Signet, and Folger -- the Arden editions are probably a bit sophisticated for most, on first impression).

From college, I still have my well-marked "Riverside Shakespeare," with up to an inch of small-print glosses on almost every page. Opening at random, to "All's Well that End's Well," Act III, Scene V. "Sc. v. SD tucket: a flourish on a trumpet. 14. honesty: chastity. 18. suggestions: temptations. 20. engines: devices." These may be self-evident to some, but hardly to everyone.

In graduate school, we sometimes used not just unpunctuated old-spelling texts of Elizabethan literature, but facsimiles -- although mostly as training in how to get beyond editorial interference. And were expected to know what resources to go to before making a decision. (I can still see that worn copy of C.T. Onion's "A Shakespeare Glossary," originally issued in 1911, and last revised or supplemented about 1958 -- so even more painfully out of date these days, but, fortunately for others, it was fully revised by Robert Eagleson in 1986.)

At Tue Sep 19, 07:24:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

Suzanne, I've been producing longer comments than I had in mind, so I cut short the points on which I agree with you, in order to emphasize that I did, along with some other things.

I assumed that you do know the correct, period, meaning. I wanted to emphasize that, from where I stand, the the problem you were raising was a real one. Most people either won't remember old lessons, or just never learned them, and others may not know enough to ask. (Which begins to sound something like the Four Children in the Haggadah!) But all will make an assumption about the text, anyway!

On "knitting," I do have some doubts about how strong an association there would have been between the word and"knotting" in most minds, and whether, c. 1600, the relatively absract sense of "connect" was already secondary to the more concrete one. But yes, by now it does suggest a metaphor that isn't there in the Greek text. It doesn't much matter whether it would have been read that way in 1611 or not. And importing an image is usually a bad idea. (In this case, probably an anachronism, too; like the clock striking in "Julius Caesar." There are worse examples, of course. I recall Ursula K. Le Guin's account of how Joseph Needham, of "Science and Technology in China," pointed out to her that "The Lathe of Heaven" in Legge's Victorian translation of Chuang-tzu was a basic blunder, and her reply that she supposed so when used it for a title, but like the image anyway.)

At Wed Sep 20, 03:05:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

I hope you are aware that I, as a reader of several languages, and a high school teacher, am not unaware of those same meanings.

Are we starting to throw around credentials and qualifications?

Indeed, the author of the website, Douglas Harper, appears to only posses an undergraduate degree, and that was from Dickinson College. He does not seem to have any philological training.

And he is therefore to be regarded as useless? I don't know the man, but I always hesitate to assume someones work is useless until I have personally checked it out. You have checked it out, and he appears to be in error. Still, I hardly see how his actual union card (re: degrees!!) makes or breaks his opinion. I have met well read readers whom I must concede to as my superiors despite my academic training. Bunyan, Spurgeon, etc., had no formal training. And yet, I gladly acknowledge that their capacity well surpasses mine.

However, let me say this (and if anyone comments without regarding this, you will know they didn't read the whole thing!): Different subject matters will change my opinion on education and credentials! When it comes to your "philological training" I see no problem with wishing the person had more credentials. However, when it comes to many preachers and teachers, I absolutely refuse to get in the way of the Holy Spirit and his work. And see no problem with wishing pastors to be well trained, but understanding that the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, and he can do his work just as effectively with an untrained person as with a trained person (unless of course either is haughty. The Bible speaks about this frequently enough.)

"Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus."
Acts 4:13 (NASB)

That they were unlearned and ignorant men - agrammatoi, Persons without literature, not brought up in nor given to literary pursuits-and ignorant, idiwtai, persons in private life, brought up in its occupations alone. It does not mean ignorance in the common acceptation of the term; and our translation is very improper. In no sense of the word could any of the apostles be called ignorant men; for though their spiritual knowledge came all from heaven, yet in all other matters they seem to have been men of good, sound, strong, common sense.—Adam Clarke's Commentary

(Just ignore the KJV oriented comments. The pasted greek has turned into English. Didn't know it did that with my program???).

At Thu Sep 21, 02:50:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Anon, isn't there another alternative: "Read the Bible in an English version which" does not fall "short of literary greatness" but has not yet been "widely recognized as literature proper". Of course the question is whether there is any such translation, but you did mention Alter's version as a candidate. But it seems that your only criterion for literary greatness is "widely recognized", except that I'm sure you would qualify that by accepting only certain people as qualified to recognise this, because if you went for a strict democratic vote you would probably have to count The Da Vinci Code as great literature! So, don't we come back to a subjective and elitist definition of literature, rather than the objective one some of us have been asking for?

At Thu Sep 21, 08:45:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Actually, your comment on his actual qualifications came after the other grevious errors you identified. Sort of like a final nail in the coffin. What is the, Coup de grace?

Therefore, the context appears to be correct.

Follow my argumentation. Argument proceeds from point A to point B. C is realized next. However, following this, summary is made in order to dismiss claims regardless of A, B, and C. Lack of credentials is the summary dismission, regardless of how well A, B, and C would have turned out. Something tells me, that if A, B, and C had turned out well, it would have been, to you, IN SPITE of his credentials. While his failure to give accurate information, to you, is because of his credentials (or lack thereof).

If this is not the message you intended, rather than telling me I got context wrong, you should think about how you portrayed it. Whether you accurately represented your own thoughts or not.

Either way it doesn't really matter and I personally would dismiss this small difference of opinion (re: your context) for the fact that we more or less agree on the place that credentials should have in someones validity as an opinion and as a person.

At Sat Sep 23, 11:18:00 PM, Blogger bulbul said...

By 1611 the English rendering had become completely literal: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. Now to the modern ear, this has logical and and linguistic weaknesses: To kiss with a kiss is tautologous; even more with a kiss of the mouth. Consider instead the NLT's Kiss me and kiss me again. The NLT avoids the rebarbatively alien tautologies with a recognizable and acceptable phrase (although it shares the error of Coverdale's Bibles). But in rejecting in the alien and introducing the familiar, the modern version has ceased to be a translation.
Hm, what a strange definition of translation.
"To kiss with a kiss" is a wonderful example of a structure where the verb is amplified by a following noun, known from many Semitic languages, especially Arabic. It would be most appropriately referred to as an idiom. To translate an idiom using an idiom is the best translation practice there can be. Now we might argue about whether "Kiss me and kiss me again" is the most suitable one. I quite like it, or perhaps something along the lines of "Kiss me again and again" would be good, too. But to say that by using an idiom the translation "has ceases to be a translation" is simply ridiculous.

One must go beyond a dictionary, for the feel of a word. There is some artistry, some sense of weighing a word for its various qualities.

Were students to always use annotated editions, it would hardly explain the popularity of unannotated editions (such as facsimiles of the Shakesperian folios and quartos
Oh the many shelves of libraries where the volumes stacked have never been opened but only laid out as a symbol of vanity and fruitless ambition!
In other words, not everything bought is actually read.

At Sun Sep 24, 08:36:00 AM, Blogger bulbul said...

I assure you, sir, I have read the entire paragraph.
While I cannot comment on NLT in general, I have the following to say concerning SOL 1:2:
Coverdale and the Authorized Version embedded in their readings the implication that the kissing will be of the frankest and most mutual kind: mouth to mouth
As opposed to...? Do we really know that much about the practice of kissing in the ancient Israelite community?
As for the "mutuality" - to quote a poet, even in kissing, there is a giving and a receiving side. And considering the nature of the text I would say that "one-sided abundance" is the perfect description of what is going on between the Bridegroom (God) and the Bride (Israel, humanity).
Even if I would accept that "kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" does indeed imply mutuality, it does not cease to imply the abundance and intensity conveyed by the structure. The KJV translation keeps the former while losing the latter. NLT loses the former while keeping the latter. Which is better when both are equally bad?

At Sun Sep 24, 04:16:00 PM, Blogger bulbul said...

I think that to one who has kissed passionately, my description is perfectly clear and rings true.
Well then I guess it's the fault of this reader and his linguistic-obsessed mind that he cannot agree with your position :o)

Shir ha-Shirim can be viewed as an allegory, certainly, but it is also a highly erotic love poem
I'd be the last person to dispute that.

something that clearly comes out in the KJV and not in the NLT
Alas, I am not sufficiently familiar with NLT to comment on this. But I have seen my share of Canticles translation to know that there are many cases when the translators ignored the aforementioned aspect of this poem. In the light of the enormous learning you have displayed here and elsewhere, sir, I will gladly accept your judgement.

At Mon Sep 25, 04:51:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

"if they consider Da Vinci Code as literature... theirs will be a minority view."

Don't count on it! There are a lot more people out there raving (in more senses than one, sometimes) about The Da Vinci Code than there are scholars defining and supporting the "cultural canon". But I think we can agree that, fortunately, these things are not decided by majority vote.

"A more interesting question to ask is: is the elevated status of the KJV mere caprice or snobbery or herd-instinct, or is there a reason that so many people who speicalize in studying literature esteem it so highly?"

I'm not sure that I would quite go for the first alternative. I would add other parts to the description here: tradition, and originally royal and ecclesiastical sponsorship. I guess you would go for the latter. But if so, what is the reason? The whole thrust of this thread has been to push for some good reason to be given.

PS Don't worry about shocking Bulbul, see (adults only!) this posting on his own blog.


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