King James: Translation or Revision?

Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, (for then the imputation of Sixtus had been true in some sort, that our people had been fed with gall of Dragons instead of wine, with whey instead of milk:) but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavor, that our mark.

THE TRANSLATORS TO THE READER: Preface to the King James Version 1611

 lev 1.1-4 bishops and kjv1611

Image: Comparison of Lev. 1:1-4, Bishops Bible and KJV1611

Did the translators working at the behest of King James actually translate the Bible or did they simply revise the work of others? In this sample you can see that the Bishops Bible text has been revised, principally in spelling. But there are a few instances where a different word was chosen (for example, the change from sacrifice to offering).

My question for Hebrew scholars is this: can you show places where in fact the King James Version did improve  the rendering of the Hebrew into English? I thought Leviticus might be a good place to look because of the medical and religious terminology.

The group called to translate this section had some serious scholars in Hebrew, principally, Geoffrey King, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge and Richard Clarke.

But William Tyndale also seems to have been a serious student of Hebrew and is reported to have used the Hebrew for his translation of the Pentateuch:

For example, the Prolegomena in Mombert’s William Tyndale’s Five Books of Moses show that Tyndale’s Pentateuch is a translation of the Hebrew original.

Source: Wikipedia

So, which is it: Translation or Revision?

28 thoughts on “King James: Translation or Revision?

  1. Theophrastus says:

    First, it is more than a little criminal to comparatively examine the KJV without first consulting the extensive notes of John Bois, one of the translators — which clearly show the style of thinking of the translators.

    One can barely find a chapter of the Hebrew Bible which was not improved by the KJV translators. Some examples:

    * Look at Isa 24:16, where the Hebrew plays a repetitive word game with the root bgd. Instead of giving a simple, if rough, equivalent like “lie”/”liar”, or of following the Geneva’s practice of using different words (“the trangressors have offended: yea, the transgressors have grievously offended“) the Authorized Version goes whole hog. In a rendering which joins the original’s repetition to a schoarly exactness in getting the correct sense of the Hebrew root, they produce a rebarbative rendering: “The treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously: yea, the treacherous dealers have dealt very treacherously.

    Similarly, consider the use of near-synonyms in the Hebrew Bibles, such as the parallel verbs gāwā and mūt. The first has the meaning “to expire, perish, die”; the second the more common verb “to die”. See, for example Genesis 25:8. But I want to turn to Job 3:11., where the verse divides into a classic Hebraic parallelism:

    Why not from-the-womb I died/from the belly I came-out and-I expired

    The Geneva Bible imposes identity rather than parellism by translating both sets of synonyms, the two verbs in question and the nouns rechem “womb” and “beten” “belly” as if they were the same word repeated:

    Why died I not from the womb? why died not I when I came out of the womb?

    In the Authorized Version the full parallelism is created with synonymous verbs and nouns:

    Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?

    Turn now to the second occurence of the parallel in Job at 14:10:

    And-man dies and-is-prostate/and-he-expires man and-where-is-he?

    Now the Geneva has:

    But man is sick, and dieth, and man perisheth, and where is he?

    While the KJV has:

    But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?

    Now here is my point: only from the KJV can the English reader realize that the Hebrew of Job 14:10 uses the exact same parallelism as the Hebrew of Job 3:11.

    I have many more examples to come, in further comments

  2. David Ker says:

    More than a little criminal? Does that mean I’m a big criminal and the Bible police are going to arrest me? 😉

    Lively, Bing and Spaulding all worked on Job and were Regius Scholars of Hebrew.

  3. Theophrastus says:

    The superiority of the KJV becomes even clearer when we look at the formulaic synonyms of biblical poetry — the extent to which the Authorized Version translators observed a word-for-word translation policy will appear if we look at the way they rendered, as one example, the various Hebrew synonyms for “darkness” in the Prophetic books. In Joel 2:2 and Zephaniah 1:15, the same phrases appear: yōm chōshech we’apēlāh and yōm `anān we’arāpel. The word common to both, yōm, means “day”; and in both phrases the day is described by synonyms for “darkness”. In the first, chōshech is the most common the four words: it is used to denote darkness in Genesis 1:2, for instance. ‘apēlāh is its least common synonym. If it occured on its own, then “darkness” would be the most appropriate rendering; but in tandem with chōshech it requires the translator to find a synonym. In the second phrase, `anān is the common word for “cloud”; and ‘arāpel, connected perhaps with the verb ‘arāp “to drop”, might mean a thick or heavy cloud. So, the literal translation of the phrases would be:

    Day of darkness (chōshech) and-darkness (‘apēlāh)day-of-cloud and-thick-cloud.

    The Geneva translates the verse in Joel like this:

    A day of darkness and blackness, a day of clouds and obscurity.

    In Zephaniah, the Geneva uses the same synonyms, but changes their order:

    A day of obscurity and darkness, a day of clouds and blackness.

    The Authorized Version keeps exactly the same four synonyms and exactly the same order in both verses:

    A day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness.

    Of course, sometimes, the KJV translated erred. Thus, in Isaiah 58:10 and 59:9 we see an inconsistency with Job 10:21-22; this seems to be a deliberate decision, since the translators had Tremellius’ Latin Bible (Tremellius was a converted Jew who spent some time in England. His Bible appeared in 1579, and became the Latin “Authorized Version” for several generation of European Protestants. It is one of Milton’s chief biblical sources) and Tremellius achieves total concordance with terms such as chōshech (= Tremellius “tenbrae”) and ‘ōpēl.

    So far in my examples, I have merely considered translation on a word-by-word level. In my next set of comments, I will move up a lexical unit and consider the KJV treatment of sentences and show how it improves vastly on the Geneva.

  4. Michael Nicholls says:

    “So far in my examples, I have merely considered translation on a word-by-word level. In my next set of comments, I will move up a lexical unit and consider the KJV treatment of sentences and show how it improves vastly on the Geneva.”

    Those are good aspects to look at, but what about all the other aspects of translation that so often get left behind?


    Key terms
    Figures of speech
    Implicit information
    Logic flow

    Did I miss any?

    The KJV and other ‘literal’ translations do a great job with word order and lexical consistency, but what about the many other aspects of translation that they violate? Or perhaps the translators aren’t aware that these aspects of language also exist and are valid, since they are so rarely discussed.

    By the way, isn’t 27% difference quite a big change? From memory, aren’t the RSV and ESV more like 5% or something (correct me if I’m off)? So that would show that the KJV is more of a translation than a revision, if you just go by percentage of change.

    Also, to what does the percentage refer (it just says ‘variant word count’)? Letters, grammar, sentence structure, morphemes? Or a combo? You’d hope it would refer more to morphemes and structure, since morphemes are the smallest unit of meaning, and it makes more sense to count changing a present tense ‘-s’ to past tense ‘-ed’ as one change, not two. If it just means that one word has changed to another, that’s a bit insufficient isn’t it?

    “Of course, sometimes, the KJV translated erred.”

    According to the list above, they erred quite often. Register, topic/comment, discourse, logic flow, collocation, senses, climax and implicit info all come to mind. But they did a pretty good job with word order. 🙂

  5. David Ker says:

    Michael, you should have a look at the site that I got those stats from. It’s word-level so in the first verse for example there is a 5% (more or less) difference (1 word out of 18) even though it is simply an alternative spelling.

    So the actual difference between these translations is much less.

  6. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, you repeat the thought “only from the KJV”, but the only alternative evidence you cite is from the Geneva Bible, although David’s comparison was with the Bishops’ Bible. Did you check whether the wording of the verses you quoted was indeed unique to KJV, even in its own time, or whether it was essentially copied from Tyndale or the Bishops’?

  7. Michael Nicholls says:

    David, I had a look at the site. It doesn’t seem like ‘word-level’ is a good way of distinguishing translations.

    My Hebrew’s not great, so I can’t comment on which translation is better/an improvement, but I do like the Bishop’s Bible in Lev. 1:3:

    “If his sacrifice be a burnt offeryng of beefes”

    Sounds like some BBQs I’ve been to. 🙂

    I also perused the Preface to the 1611 that you posted (part 10), and thought these were interesting:


    What, they want to tell us about their lazy-boys and Murphy beds? 😉


    …Therefore as S. Augustine saith, that variety of Translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: [S. Aug. 2. de doctr. Christian. cap. 14.] so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is no so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded….

    I thought that was an interesting admission.


    Another things we think good to admonish thee of (gentle Reader) that we have not tied ourselves to an uniformity of phrasing, or to an identity of words, as some peradventure would wish that we had done, because they observe, that some learned men somewhere, have been as exact as they could that way….

    And interesting that they claim that they intentionally weren’t as literal as they could have been, and that dogmatic lexical and phrasal consistency is not desirable. Good on them.

    I wish translators of 2009 English would feel the same.

    And at the end of that section:

    …But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

    Funny that this sentiment of the KJV translators isn’t followed today by its proponents.

  8. Theophrastus says:

    Michael —

    I value your criteria differently than you.

    First, I note a number of your terms overlap in meaning (e.g., “style” vs. “register” or “idioms” vs. “figures of speech”).

    Second, a number are included in my analysis (e.g., key terms, idioms, etc.)

    Third, many of your criteria are more properly determined by the source material than translation. You mention “chronology”, for example. Some translations attempt to “fix” the Biblical chronology (just search on “chronological bible” in Amazon to find an array of selections.) I am uninterested in those Bibles because they are not representative of the original text. I can make analogous comments about grammar. As is well known, both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures use grammar that is non-standard, e.g., the wide use of anacoluthon in the Greek New Testament (in particular in Mark and the Epistles). We can debate over the degree to which this was a deliberate effect (I will not defend here my own view: that it was deliberate in Mark and a stylistic failing of Paul). Of course, this poses a serious problem for translation; but translations that attempt to mimic it in English should not penalized (for it is also jarring in Greek). In Hebrew, of course, the Talmudic and medieval Hebrew commentators found meaning in each particular instance of grammatical shortfalls.

    Fourth, other of your categories seem to me to lie in the realm of interpretation, e.g., “symbolism”. While some translations may attempt to resolve this for the reader (e.g., many ancient translations of the Song of Songs or some contemporary translations such as The Message) for the class of translations I am here considering, excessive interpretation is considered a liability.

    Fifth, one point you raise here which is a serious failing of the KJV is that it tends to use a far more uniform style than the original texts, which vary tremendously in difficulty and stylistic features. However, relatively few translations attempt to capture stylistic features at a detailed level (the most important of those that do is Buber-Rosenzweig; in English Everett Fox has most closely attempted to model the B-R translation).

    Peter —

    I have tried to be intellectually honest in my evaluation. The verses I considered were not translated by Tyndale (who is truly the great hero of Biblical translation into English, by far our greatest genius); those books (Job, Isaiah, Zephaniah, and Joel) in Matthew’s, Coverdale’s, Taverner’s, the Great Bible, and the Bishops’ Bible translations were from Latin or German (as was the Catholic Bible, but that was only significant for the King James translators for the New Testament; the Old Testament did not begin to appear until 1609). Thus, for the books I cite above, the only true competition from Hebrew translation in English was the Geneva Bible.

    Nonetheless, I have consulted those versions in my analysis, but do not report on every variant here because I am writing comments to a blog post, not a definitive monograph (definitive monographs, of course, do exist).

    What I have not done is attempt a comparison with the many outstanding Latin versions, notably, Tremellius. This is beyond the scope of comments here; I am only commenting into translations into the vernacular. A more serious question comes into play with comparison of the English Bible translations with the Luther Bible — this question is important and it will need to wait for another day — my position is that Luther’s Hebrew translation, while revolutionary, was deeply flawed in comparison with Tyndale, Geneva, and KJV.

    David —

    John Bois is one of the more colorful figures of the Jacobian period, in many ways a true prodigy (and certainly a figure able to take his seat together with Lancelot Andrewes and Miles Smith). We certainly owe our understanding of the intricate workings of the KJV translators to his notes.

    Send me your address and I’ll mail you a copy of God’s Secretaries which you will enjoy tremendously for its combination of scholarship and just a touch of People style gossip about the translators.

    All —

    Of course, I do not wish here to downplay the importance of the true genius and hero of English Bible translation, Tyndale; neither do I wish to suggest that the KJV was free of politics (to the contrary, it was full of politics, but far less than the Geneva or Bishops’). However, the KJV was the high-water mark of English Bible translation in the following sense: it combined the best scholarship of its era with the best writing (arguably ever) used in English Bible translation. Furthermore, it was highly accessible (if you try to read a Shakespearean or other English Renaissance play or poem juxtaposed with the KJV, you will immediately see my point). However, while being accessible, it while still retaining a high degree of literal fidelity to the original source material. In our own era, accessible translations are almost always associated with paraphrase or “dynamic” translations.

    I will post later with further analysis of the improvements of the KJV over the Geneva.

  9. Theophrastus says:

    …But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

    Funny that this sentiment of the KJV translators isn’t followed today by its proponents.

    To the contrary, I believe that most proponents of the KJV today, particularly KJV-only advocates, tend to have less education and exposure to literature than average. A quick comparison of religious demographics tells the story — compare education achievement among Evangelicals (7% postgraduate), Mainline Christians (14%), Other Christians (20%), and Jews (35%), for example. Indeed, the only demographic groups identified by the Pew forum who make out worse than Evangelicals are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Historically Black Churches (I note that many of the latter are also KJV users).

    I do not know what relative education achievement of Evangelical Fundamentalists against other Evangelicals, but my own anecdotal experience suggests that Fundamentalists tend to fare worse as far as knowledge of literature and science are concerned; and they seem less able to handle complex or archaic English (of course, there are numerous exceptions).

    Furthermore, as I argue above, the KJV is actually far easier to read than most English Renaissance literature. For example, most people read the KJV without annotation; while almost every modern edition of Shakespeare I have seen has extensive annotations on the meaning of archaic words. You can perform this experiment yourself: test your comprehension of The Rape of Lucrece without annotation (which you can easily find on the Internet) against the KJV’s Gospel of Luke without annotation. You will find the latter work to be far easier to understand.

    Among the total population of KJV advocates, those who promote its use based on literary grounds (such as I do) are a tiny minority.

  10. David Ker says:

    “Among the total population of KJV advocates, those who promote its use based on literary grounds (such as I do) are a tiny minority.”

    But having those two populations agree so fervently on the merits of the KJV does make this a fascinating topic.

  11. Wayne Leman says:

    Theo. concluded:

    Among the total population of KJV advocates, those who promote its use based on literary grounds (such as I do) are a tiny minority.

    It would be interesting to try to get some reliable stats for percentages of population groups who promote use of the KJV on literary grounds. My own sense is that it would be larger than “tiny,” but I have no stats at all to back up that sense.

    I’m wondering how much promoting the KJV on literary grounds is related to the portion of the Preface to the KJV which David Ker quoted:

    …But we desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

    It seems to me that this statement promotes the idea that an English Bible version should be worded in the “vulgar” (i.e. common) language of a people. If that is so, if the KJV translators were alive today, I suspect they would shudder at how non-vulgar many currently produced English Bible versions are.

  12. Michael Nicholls says:

    Good posts Theo.

    I agree that a number of categories on my list overlap. I was going off the top of my head for the most part, but also, as is the nature of language, some things will always overlap.

    The difference between style and register in my experience, is that although a discourse can be in one particular register, say informal speech, there can be different styles within that register.

    Regarding idioms: idioms can be peculiarities of a particular language without actually being a figure of speech. E.g., Bantu languages use repetition of pronouns to specify sameness, e.g., “Mtu yule yule anakuja (lit: person that that s/he is coming),” “That same person is coming.” It’s not a figure of speech, but it’s idiomatic. I mention it because a word for word translation of Greek/Hebrew into Bantu languages would mean something different than the intent of the author, so respective idioms should be followed according to the rules of each language.

    As for chronology, I listed that because a number of languages have ‘rules’ for introducing chronological material within the same discourse. Mark 6 is a classic example:

    16 But when Herod heard [thereof], he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.
    17 For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her.
    18 For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.
    19 Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not:

    In many languages, this section is utterly un-understandable (I have a pretty hard time making head or tail of it in English). But in many other languages, no speaker has ever made an utterance with such jumbled chronology, and as such the language has developed the discourse feature of introducing chronological constituents in the order in which they chronologically occurred. To translate this section of Mark following the Greek order is to produce an un-understandable, unusable, and confounding translation, because it’s breaking the ‘rules’ of the target language.

    Regarding grammar, I mean abiding by the grammar of the target language. E.g., in English, verbs inflect differently for plural nouns (The cat is eating, the cats are eating), but in Greek, 3rd person singular verbs go with plural neuter nouns. When translating, we want to follow the grammar of the target language, not copy grammar from the source language. I assume you’re well aware of this, but I wanted to make sure you knew that’s what I was referring to by listing ‘grammar’. It’s a simple idea, but it’s not always followed in English Bible translations.

    excessive interpretation is considered a liability.

    All translation is a work of interpretation, and actually is a work of excessive interpretation. I think what many people dislike in contemporary translations is the degree of making explicit what was implicit, expounding terms and ideas that are unknown to the target language, and the handling of the different discourse features of the source and target languages. Every word in a text must be interpreted by the translator, otherwise the translator is saying “I don’t know what this means in the target language, but I’ll just stick it in like this,” potentially misleading people. ‘Interpretation’ has become the whipping boy of translation criticism, when what should be discussed is the handling of other elements of translation (such as those in my list above).

    I wrote:
    Funny that this sentiment of the KJV translators isn’t followed today by its proponents.

    To the contrary, I believe that most proponents of the KJV today, particularly KJV-only advocates, tend to have less education and exposure to literature than average.

    What I meant is that most people who support the KJV today do not support the sentiment of the KJV translators that the Bible should be in the language of the ‘vulgar’, or ‘common language’. As Wayne said, if the KJV translators were translating in 2009 and still carried that same sentiment, they would be producing translations far less formal than the NASB or ESV, which are not in the language of the vulgar. At least, it’s not my language, and I’m pretty vulgar. 😉

    I agree with you that (in my experience) most KJV-only advocates “tend to have less education and exposure to literature than average.”

    Btw, are Jehovah’s Witnesses classified as Evangelicals?

    Furthermore, as I argue above, the KJV is actually far easier to read than most English Renaissance literature.

    This would support the KJV translators’ claims of producing a translation in the vulgar. But many translations today are not easier to read than contemporary literature.

    But having those two populations agree so fervently on the merits of the KJV does make this a fascinating topic.

    I assume you’re referring to “those who promote its use based on literary grounds” and “most proponents of the KJV today [who] tend to have less education and exposure to literature than average,” in which case, lol 🙂

  13. Peter Kirk says:

    most people read the KJV without annotation

    No they don’t, Theophrastus. Maybe most of the rather few people who read KJV read it without annotation, largely because they have never been offered the kind of annotation they need. But most people have long given up reading KJV, for other versions or for no Bible reading at all, largely because they cannot understand KJV without annotation.

    But thanks for clarifying why you compared with the Geneva Bible not the Bishops’.

  14. Theophrastus says:

    Peter — your interpretation of my statement is absurdly literal (were I to say that most people drink white wine without ice, you would doubtlessly reply that the majority of the world’s adults do not drink white wine).

    In your eagerness to sign the death-knell for the Authorized Version even before its fourth centennial, you imply that the KJV lies mostly unread, on the shelf. Whether this is the case or not, I cannot say: the KJV is a perennial best-seller; but it is also a large book, and perhaps it intimidates some readers.

    However, I note that the two current most celebrated English paperback collections of major literature, the Oxford World Classics series and the Penguin Classics series both have an English Bible in their series — and I am certain you will have little difficulty guessing which literary translation was selected by those editors.

    Now, let us set aside for a moment the question of what “read” means (if a congregation audience attentively listens to a passage read by the lector, have they read the passage?) and let us just consider those literary eagles who have dog-eared copies of the paperback editions on their bookshelves. I suspect they have read the Bible with greater comprehension or concentration than those Evangelicals with an NLT in their Bible bag.

    Indeed, one notices in the bookstore volumes such as Read Through the Bible in a Year, The Bible in 90 Days, and Learn the Bible in 24 Hours (all actual book titles); volumes with the sort of desperation — at efforts and vows made repeatedly and broken repeatedly — that one typically sees in diet books (diet books have, I might add, not dissimilar titles and themes than one sees in various programmed reading presentations or “life application” Bibles.)

    I wish to suggest that if people do not read the Bible, it is not so much because the language of the translation is too difficult, but because the concepts in the source material are difficult. Contrary to those who claim that the Bible has a simple, pure message of love, in fact, it is an anthology of works of considerable complexity and difficulty.

    And in a sense, I think we all know this is true. Our age is blessed with not just one but many “easy-reading” translations in English, and yet more than one scholar (or ecclesiastic) has decried the decline of Scriptural knowledge in our generation. You may answer that archaic and dated translations don’t help with the problem; but if all of those English majors were not allowed to read the KJV and forced to read one of the simple English translations instead, then perhaps even that demographic would join the ranks of those who never got around to reading the Bible.

    I think that contemporary Bible translation in English, having promised so much, has much to answer for: why is the Bible so little read in English today with so many versions available?

    Of course, all of this is purely speculation. But, since our age sees Bible editions tailored for narrow sectors such as alcoholics (ISBN 1414309619), golf players (ISBN 1586403230), female African-Americans (ISBN 0310934788), or marines (ISBN 1586401041), you will certainly not begrudge literate readers (e.g., those who are most likely to actually sit down and read the Bible) their chance to enjoy what has been the most influential and arguably the most well-written English translation of Scripture.

    (I am a bit tired tonight, so my comments about the sentence-level analysis of the KJV will need to wait for another night.)

  15. Peter Kirk says:

    Theophrastus, I am not particularly interested in how a tiny number of “literary eagles” have read and understood KJV, certainly not if their mode of understanding does not include any openness to respond to its message of repentance and faith. Of course I do not have the slightest intention of denying them the chance to read KJV if they want to. But I am 99 times more interested in the 99% of the population for whom KJV is largely inaccessible because of its obsolete language. I accept that for many such people NLT etc are also difficult, because some of the concepts in the Bible are difficult. But the basic message, which is obscure to many in KJV, is clear in modern translations: turn away from your sins and believe in Jesus!

  16. David Ker says:

    Actually, Peter, the KJV has been significantly modernized for readability. Consider these examples:

    KJV 1611
    Bring forth therfore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within your selues, We haue Abraham to our father: For I say vnto you, that God is able of these stones to raise vp children vnto Abraham.

    KJV 1769
    Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

    I believe the 1769 is the version seen on most websites as well as in print these days.

    “Abraham to our father” hmmm, that’s got me scratching my head.

  17. Michael Nicholls says:

    that our people had been fed with gall of Dragons instead of wine (quoted from the first post)

    To what are the KJV translators referring when they say ‘Dragons’ in normal speech (what did common people of 1611 think dragons were?)?

    I ask because the KJV uses the word ‘dragon’ in its translation. Is it supposed to be the same thing?

  18. Richie says:

    Yes, David, it is not often noted how many times the KJV was itself edited to bring it up to date, so to speak, with more current speach, spelling, grammar, etc. However, since in other ways it was already out of date when it was first published – by the use of even archaic language for its own time – it has has always lagged behind contemporary language. This seemed less so up until the last 40 years or so since before that time the KJV was so much a part of the language and culture of English speaking peoples that the effect on the English language that was spoken in day to day life was often circular – i.e., KJV verses and thought had become part of the culture and language.

    This is certainly no longer true to any great degree except in certain regions where the KJV still predominates such as in parts of the American South, or rural, or mountain regions of America, etc. However, as much as I love the KJV since I was brought up on it, I can’t imagine many situations where it would be the Bible that I would give to someone other than for historical or comparative purposes. Irrespective of the beauty of the language of the KJV – and it is undeniably an English Classic and the most influential book in both British and American history – the numerous translation errors in it are also a serious problem. For many people who grew up with the KJV reading a version like the NIV, TNIV or even ESV enables them to make immediate leaps in their biblical understanding.

    All further revisions in Tyndale/KJV are better options for understanding the meaning of the Bible and even the better dynamic equivalent versions such as the NIV and TNIV have sought to maintain some continuity with this tradition. Tyndale remains the rightful “father of the English Bible” but surely he would argue for better and better translations to convey the meaning to new generations – in fact, that’s what he gave his own life for.

  19. Peter Kirk says:

    David, of course I know that KJV has been updated in spelling. But I think my comments apply equally to the 1611 and 1769 editions. In other words, to most modern readers neither of them is readable.

  20. Theophrastus says:

    You will be happy to note that the trend in publishing circles is to move back to more original versions of the 1611 Bible; thus the appearance of the New Cambridge Paragraph Bible (basis of the Penguin edition); similarly, a wide variety of publishers (e.g., Zondervan) have adopted the (original) Cambridge Paragraph Bible. These are also helpful because they include the original translation notes.

    As to Peter’s claim that the KJV is largely inaccessible to 99% of the population because of “obsolete language”; I am not sure. I would have put the number at 80-90% myself; with the remainder being among the best educated and most influential members of society. As I argue above about the relative difficulty of the KJV and most other literature; Peter’s claim, if true, suggests we require radical revision of our high school and college literature curriculum, dropping not only Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton (all of whom are more complicated than the KJV), but also many contemporary authors who reference the language of the KJV (e.g., Faulkner) or who themselves use complex presentation (e.g., Joyce or Eliot). This is an alien definition of college-preparatory education to me.

  21. Theophrastus says:

    Let me begin my comments on sentence level analysis with a general philosophical remark:

    The KJV’s preface famously snorts disdainfully at those who, for example, want each Hebrew word always to be translated by the same English equivalent. Its question as to whether the kingdom of God consists of words or syllables is essentially a claim that no such thing as an exact translation can exist. Languages are so different that is scarcely possible to find a high degree of overlap, leave alone identity, between either words which express common actions and things or words which express abstract concepts.

    But such an observation is relative to what is actually being translated. When a Renaissance translator worked from a normal text it was customary for him to expand, interpolate, and omit, according to his taste and what he assumed the taste of his readers to be. To take an early example, John Skelton — a writer whose language has been illuminating compared to Tyndale’s — was happy, in his translation of Poggio’s Bibliotecha Historica, to expand eight words in his original into a paragraph of nearly two hundred words. (See N. Davis, Tyndale’s English of Controversy, reprinted from his March 4, 1971 lecture at University College, London). Even when the translator was prepared to follow his original closely, his normal practice was to make the English version explanatory rather than imitative. A widespread element, for instance, was the use of doublets and triplets to render one word in the original. Tyndale’s contemporary, Sir Thomas More, used doublets even when he was translating his own wriging: comparing the English version of his History of King Richard III with the Latin version, his editor Richard Sylvester comments:

    “English doublets abound in the History . . . . More will write ‘bolde and hardye’ for the Latin ‘promptus’ . . . and ‘royall estate, preeminence and kyngdome’ for ‘procurationem’.”

    It tells us something about More’s attitudes to Bible translation that he often adopted the same principle when he put a Bible verse into English; to take an extreme example, in his Dialogue of Comfort he rendered the Vulgate’s translation of Psalm 17:15 like this:

    Vulgate: satiabor cum apparuerit gloria tua

    More: I shall be satiate, satisfied, or fulfilled, when thy glory, good Lord, shall appear.

    Despite More’s abuse, Bible translation was crucially different from other forms of translation. Not only were there no substantial additions to the original, or omissions from it — to have made either would have been a tinkering with God’s word — but at the level of sentence and clause translators did their best to maintain a word for word equivalence. No English version maintains the equivalence more strictly than the KJV, but its basis for doing so rests on Tyndale’s example.

    Consider the pronoun. Hebrew is a fully inflected language, so that often it uses a separate pronoun for purposes of emphasis, in place of, or as well as, a pronominal suffix. This is not commonly reproducible in translation in a lightly inflected language like English; but where it is possible Tyndale often makes the effort. In Genesis 2:11, for instance, the first of the rivers which runs through the Garden of Eden is described like this, in Tyndale’s version (my italics)

    Tyndale: The name of the one is Phison, he it is that compasseth all the land of Hevila.

    This goes into the Authorized Version as (original italics, indicating interpolation):

    KJV: The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Hevila.

    But having reproduced the form once, Tyndale does not bother to do so with the second and third rivers, although the Hebrew also gives them a pronominal emphasis. This is Tyndale’s rendering, followed by the KJV’s where the Hebrew emphasis is maintained:

    Tyndale: The name of the second river is Gihon, which compasseth all the land of Inde. And the name of the third river is Hidekell, which runneth on the east side of the Assyrians.

    KJV: And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia. And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward to the east of Assyria.

    In Genesis 20:5 the pronoun is introduced to empahsize the self-righteousness of Abimelech’s claim that in attempting to make Sarah his wife he had been ignorant of her marriage to Abraham. Tyndale conveys the protestation by using “yea” and the reflexive pronoun.

    Tyndale: . . . said not he unto me, that she was his sister? Yea, and said not she herself that he was her brother?

    The contrast with the Vulgate could hardly be greater, where there is little sense of panic on the speaker’s part:

    Vulgate: Nonne ipse dixit mihi: Soror mea est: et ipsa ait:
    Frater meus est?

    The NIV dissipates the effect by making the husband’s and wife’s statements to Abimelech identical:

    NIV: Did he not say to me, “She is my sister,” and didn’t she also say, “He is my brother”?

    It is the KJV which gets the full force of Abimelech’s feelings by building on Tyndale’s rendering:

    KJV: Said he not unto me, She is my sister? and she, even she herself said, He is my brother.

    This kind of emphasis became a characteristic of English Bible style. Contrast the two English renderings of Deuteronomy 3:22 with their Latin and German equivalents. Here the Hebrew repeats the pronoun directly after God’s name:

    Vulgate: Ne timeas eos: Dominus enim Deus vester pugnabit pro vobis.

    Luther: Furchtet euch nicht fur inen, denn her Herr ewr Gott streit fur euch.

    Tyndale: Fear them not, for the Lord your God he it is that fighteth for you.

    KJV: Ye shall not fear them: for the Lord your God he shall fight for you.

    The most striking thing about the KJV’s syntax in the Prophetic and Poetic books its extreme fidelity to the original: so much so that individual examples can hardly begin to demonstrate it. This is not always a matter of introducing barbarisms or un-English elements, for the translators find a recognizable native form to reproduce the Hebrew — in achieving this they show that Tyndale’s claim for the English language’s word-for-word closeness to the Hebrew was not so far from the truth as later, more ignorant commentators have claimed.

    In my next post, I will show several examples of this.

  22. David Ker says:

    Thanks for this terrific “post.” One of the main reasons for posting on this topic was to allow people like yourself to lend their perspectives to the topic. I emailed some of my other Hebrew buddies but they chose not to enter into the fray.

    Speaking of More, wasn’t his translation method symptomatic of the difference between his Latin and his English? I’m not for a minute minimizing his Latin skills (he like the KJV translators was conversant in Latin) but still his English would have been the deeper language for him and thus more able to be expanded as you’ve shown. I’m a fluent speaker of Portuguese but even so my reservoir of English vocabulary is far deeper.

    I think a strength of modern translation theory is the acknowledgment of discourse level features in source and receptor languages that transcend simple concepts of clarity and naturalness.

  23. Theophrastus says:

    More, besides being the star of a movie that is great fun (if not exactly historically accurate), was a true scholar; Erasmus dedicated In Praise of Folly to him and described More in correspondence with other humanists as the model Man of Letters. Of course, Utopia is read by college students even today (and More introduced the world to the word.)

    Here’s my point: Utopia was written in Latin; and Erasmus was of course famous for his pure Latin. I think it is safe to say More’s Latin was better than your Portuguese (or my Japanese or Chinese).

    More was rather following the custom of his age in translation. But in a way, the same style can be found even today — in genres as varying as the Amplified Bible to commentaries that “explain” a few verses from a poem with a thousand words, when just the poem itself was enough.

  24. Andrew Currah says:

    Hello everyone,

    Thought you would be interested in this new app just published by Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, UK. The Making of the King James Bible is available now for iPhone, iPad
    and Android:

    Featuring over 60 items from the exhibition, including original and previously unseen manuscripts, the app traces the history of the King James Bible, particularly the role of Oxford, and the influence of the translation in England up to 1769. We’re excited to give users the opportunity to explore such a wide range of original manuscripts.

    We would love your feedback and/or any help to get the word out to
    interested groups.

    Thanks, Andrew

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s