Tuesday, December 6, 2011

(A version of this article appeared in the Nov/Dec edition of Lexpert under the title 'Twas a Labour of Love')

The greatest story ever translated


Howard Richler

You can't always be of be of good cheer and not suffer from sour grapes. The stumbling block may be your holier than thou attitude and your feet of clay that won't allow you to either fight the good fight or eat, drink and be merry.

While I'll admit that the above paragraph I concocted does not represent inspired prose, at least it has the distinction of containing italicized phrases that have been immortalized in an English language book that has provided inspiration to billions. Surprisingly, this book is a translation, written by a committee. In case you haven't divined yet the book`s title, I am referring to the King James Version of the Bible (KJB) and 2011 commemorates the 400th anniversary of its release.

King James I commissioned fifty-four Bible scholars for a new version of Scriptures. They were divided into six nine man teams, two at Cambridge, two at Oxford and two at Westminster. The project took seven years to complete and this joint venture created one of the masterpieces of English literature.

The authors believed they because they were translating the word of God; mistranslating anything would be tantamount to heresy. Scholars marvel not only at the accuracy from Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew but also at its lyricism. Its euphony is striking and it is clear that the ruling organ of the prose is the ear. The Bible was meant to be read aloud in churches to the laity and the committee members were conscious that a melodious word flow would attract a larger and more devout following.

A good book must have a snappy beginning and right from the book`s genesis the language is gripping:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form , and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said Let there be light: and there was light.

The KJB translation team were also able to render down to earth language in a majestic manner. Take the following passage from 1 Corinthians that appeared in William Tyndale`s 16th century Bible:

Now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking but then we shall see face to face.

In the KJB the passage is rendered with greater conciseness and is far grander and clearer: For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face.

For those who find the language of the KJB archaic with expressions such as “art in heaven” and its multitudinous goeths and knoweths, I counter that these touches actually add power to the writing and convey the sense that we are not dealing with ephemeral content. Even during the early part of the 17th century when the KJB was being compiled some of the grammar and phraseology were out of date. For example, the expression “yea, verily” had been passé for half a century. This, however, was done deliberately because its authors were aware that word fashions change and they wanted a book dedicated to an eternal God to transcend any particular era.

Although I am an atheist, I recognize that the Bible, and other sacred texts, have brought great solace to many people during life`s inevitable dark moments. In the BBC documentary The Making of the King James Bible, narrator Adam Nicolson speaks to a fisherman whose twenty-four year old son had recently perished off the coast of the Outer Hebrides. When he asked the fisherman how he was coping with the loss he told him that Psalm 77 “expressed everything he could think or feel.” Intrigued, Nicholson read the passage in his KJB: “Will the Lord cast off for ever and will he be favourable no more?” Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fall for everyone?... Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known.”

It is remarkable that verses penned millennia ago in Hebrew and translated four hundred years ago into English can speak so poignantly to the human heart.

I therefore heartily offer sweet counsel (Psalm 55:14) to read a segment of the King James Bible, even if it represents a mere drop of the bucket of its contents. (Isaiah-40:15)

Howard Richler's latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.