A faithful translation: The King James Bible


A TRANSLATION, a French writer once said, is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is not beautiful.But that’s the French for you. The English would say that if it was both faithful and beautiful, it must be the King James translation of the Bible. It is so revered for its literary grace and the way it has shaped English that even non-believers study it as they would Shakespeare.

But while its text may be sublime, it was conceived in ignoble, self-aggrandising politics, commissioned in order to cement the privilege and power of the British Establishment.

The story of the King James Bible, first published in 1611, shows how greatness can spring rather undeservedly from shabby beginnings. It shows how people with power fight the spread of ideas that threaten them. And it offers reassurance to those who fear we are speaking a “dumbed-down”, degraded form of English today; their concerns echo centuries-old anxieties among intellectuals about the way language evolves.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, is a new book on the subject by a professor of historical theology at Oxford University, Alister McGrath.

McGrath writes with a scholar’s eye for detail and disdain for frivolity. He devotes six pages to the technology of the first printing and a mere aside to the titillating fact that good King James, whose name for centuries has been linked through this Bible with conservative religious righteousness, had strong homosexual tendencies and was given to lecherous fondling of his favorites in public.

James was a man with an eye to the main chance in other ways too. According to McGrath, he snatched at the idea for a new translation of the Bible in an attempt to placate Puritans who had expected him to reform the Church of England along their severely Protestant lines. James, who feared Protestantism because he saw it as linked to republicanism, had no such intention.

But he was happy to authorise a new translation that would eradicate the alarmingly democratic language of the then-popular Tyndale New Testament of 1526, which often translated “king” as “tyrant”, “church” as “congregation” and “priest” as
“elder”, thus undermining both monarchy and episcopacy.

The Geneva Bible, from which Shakespeare drew the quotations for his plays, was even more open in its challenge of the divine right of kings. It suggested royal orders should be disobeyed if they conflicted with the will of God and warned that tyrants’ days were numbered.

English authorities had tried unsuccessfully to ban English-language biblical texts and the next best thing was to produce their own authorised version. For James, writes McGrath, political and religious unity were to be achieved through him as monarch and through a single version of the Bible issued with his authority as king and as head of the church.

Luckily for literature, the 50-odd Oxford and Cambridge scholars given the task tried to translate faithfully from the Hebrew and Arabic of the original Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. They aimed for accuracy, not beauty, but the unexpected byproducts were poetry and pungency.

For centuries, the King James Bible was the main book illiterate people heard read, and those who were literate often learned to read from it. It was a unifying force in that it set modern, standard English.

Before then most people spoke strong dialects, and spelling was idiosyncratic (according to Melbourne linguist Dr Mark Newbrook, the Elizabethan seafarer Sir Walter Raleigh signed his name at least five different ways). The King James also enriched the vocabulary and imaginative power of English. The many Hebrew idioms from the Old Testament now taken for granted as English include “to pour out one’s heart”, “the land of the living”, “sour grapes”, “like a lamb to the slaughter” and “to go from strength to strength”.

New Testament translators drew from the earlier work of William Tyndale, to whom English owes much. He coined pithy expressions such as “the powers that be”, “my brother’s keeper”, “the salt of the earth” and “a law unto themselves”. He also invented new words to accommodate Biblical ideas, including “Passover”, “scapegoat” and “atonement”, although his aim was to produce a text that even a ploughboy could understand.

Let’s hope he received his reward in the next life. In this one, he was burnt at the stake – mercifully strangled first, it is thought – by church authorities in Belgium. Clergy were enraged by translations into the vernacular from Latin, the official language of the church spoken only by elites, because it threatened their control of religious belief.

Temporal rulers were anxious too. The term “liberation theology” may not have been coined, but it was feared that if ordinary people could read and interpret the word of God themselves, they might revolt.

After the publication of the King James Bible, an archbishop publicly burned a Geneva Bible and England banned all English-language Bibles printed in the more radical atmosphere of Europe. The excuse was that it protected the livelihood of English printers; in reality, it prevented the importation of ideas that challenged authority.

The divine right of kings is no longer an issue, at least in the West. But the translation of the Bible into English was opposed for another reason that still resonates today.

In 16th century England, the elites spoke English only to their inferiors, confining themselves otherwise to the more “refined” French or Latin. They feared religious texts would be cheapened if translated for commoners. “To translate into the language of the people was to vulgarise and trivialise the message,” says Dr Peter Horsfield, a lecturer in communications at RMIT.

Today, paradoxically, the English translation they feared is held up as a beacon by those who think 20th century English has become impoverished. “It seems to me it emerged from the period where the English language was at its most expressive and beautiful,” says David Silk, Anglican bishop of Ballarat and a member of the church’s liturgy panel. “It has a music, a poetry, a rhythm and a vivid style which the English language hasn’t really aspired to since. When people start to recite the 23rd psalm, `The Lord is My Shepherd’, it’s the King James version they still slip into.”

He says modern English is verbose and has replaced the active and the vivid with the passive and the abstract. “If Columbus set sail not in 1492 but now, he would not have said the world was flat, he would have said the world is an open-ended on-going situation.”

Newbrook, a lecturer in linguistics at Monash University, acknowledges the force of the King James Bible in the development of English; it was so dominant that many did not realise it was a translation and opposed change to it with the argument that “If the King James Bible was good enough for St Paul, it’s good enough for me”.

But Newbrook takes a more cynical view of its claim to grandeur: “Often something does sound very august and full of dignity and nicely written when it’s a bit archaic. At the time of Jesus, it was thought that really good Greek was speaking as Athenians had spoken 500 years earlier.”
Much of the impact of the King James Bible is being undone by the march of history. Its unifying effect on the language boosted English nationalism, but colonialism has since made English an international language. The King James Bible helped standardise usage and spelling, but email and cybertalk are “de-standardising” again with grammatical shortcuts, abbreviations, phonetic spellings and neologisms, according to Horsfield.

After electronic media, advertising is the main influence on language today, he says. “Advertising is continually working with language to make it do new things, such as creating ambiguous sentences that connote rather denote; `Just Do It’, for example, or `We do it all for you’, where it actually invites the reader to share in the construction of meaning.”

HORSFIELD says there is still debate about which level of culture should carry faith. In Sweden, entrepreneurs plan a glossy new version of the Bible aimed at young people in which mass-media icons are photographed as Biblical characters; supermodel Claudia Schiffer is tipped for Eve and Pamela Anderson’s ex-lover Markus Schenkenberg for Adam. There will be some nudity, said one of the promoters, “because the Bible is very sensual and we are going to exploit that”. Some church figures are appalled; others think anything that draws people in is a good thing.

“This is another attempt to translate the Bible into the vernacular,” Horsfield says. “The same struggle is going on now: Should Christian faith be preserved in an elevated language which is no longer the language of the marketplace?”

Alister McGrath would say no. McGrath loves the King James Bible. Like every child born in Britain in 1953, the year of Elizabeth’s coronation, he was given a copy by command of the Queen. Probably unlike most of them, he pored over it, fascinated by the words and the stories. But, discussing the pressure from traditionalists who wanted to retain the King James Bible, he argues that they “actually betray the intentions and goals of those who conceived and translated it – namely, to translate the Bible into living English”.

The man who preached to the poor and the dispossessed in marketplaces 2000 years ago would probably agree.

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, by Alister McGrath, Hodder and Stoughton, $34.95.

First published in The Age.