Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Honoring the KJB

Posted By on Wed, Nov 9, 2011 at 11:34 AM

The King James Bible is this year 400 years old. And to close out this anniversary year, the University of Memphis together with Rhodes College are honoring the KJB, first published in 1611. The events include:

A traveling exhibit called "Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible," with facsimile images based on holdings from the Bodleian Library at Oxford University and from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. (in addition to early English Bibles from Rhodes' Special Collections). The exhibit runs at Rhodes' Barret Library from November 9th to December 21st.

Another event, on Thursday, November 10th, is a lecture by Robert Alter, distinguished translator of the Hebrew Bible and professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley. He will deliver his talk on the King James Bible at the University of Memphis' University Center. (Reception, 6 p.m.; lecture, 6:30 p.m.)

To hear Robert Alter again, be on hand on Friday, November 11th, when Rhodes hosts a "1611 Symposium" featuring presentations by a number of biblical scholars. Alter will serve as respondent at the symposium, which takes place from 1 to 5 p.m. in Blount Auditorium inside Rhodes' Buckman Hall.

The King James exhibit, Alter's lecture, and the "1611 Symposium" are free. They're open to the public. And for more information, go to Rhodes' website or contact Scott Newstok at You should also go to the brilliant writings of Alter himself.

Alter is the recent author of Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton University Press), which examines the literary style of the KJB in general and its influence on the work of Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Bellow in particular.

Alter's "The Glories and the Glitches of the King James Bible: Ecclesiastes as Test-Case" is also among the papers collected by Hannibal Hamlin (who will participate in the Rhodes symposium) and Norman W. Jones in The King James Bible after 400 Years: Literary, Linguistic, and Cultural Influences (Cambridge University Press).

But for answers to a handful of questions about the King James Bible and its "afterlife," here's what Robert Alter had to say recently by phone:

Your lecture at the University of Memphis is titled "The King James Bible and the Question of Eloquence." What do you mean here by "eloquence" and what is the question?
Robert Alter: I'm not using that term in any highly technical sense. When we talk about eloquent speech or language, we mean language that moves us, because it seems artfully organized and makes a powerful impression on those who listen to it or read it. The King James Bible is legendary for its eloquence. But I think that the question of its eloquence needs to be looked at more carefully. There are two questions I want to explore:

One, what in the eloquence that we find in the King James version is like the Hebrew original? And two, is the King James Bible, in fact, consistently eloquent? There are more lapses than we generally remember. I'll talk about the high points and those lapses.

I take it this has been a busy year for you?
Oh yeah, and for the double reason that I'm a literary scholar who happened to have written, without the anniversary in mind, Pen of Iron, and at the same time, I've been doing my own translations of the Hebrew Bible.

Most recently, the Wisdom Books — Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes — in a book by that title from W.W. Norton.

What do you think of the proliferation of "niche" Bibles today — loose translations to appeal to a particular group of contemporary readers?
The King James had become more or less canonical for English readers, but in the late 19th century, when it was thought there were problems — that it was archaic; that it was inaccurate — there was a revised version, which still tried to preserve the general translations of the King James Bible.

But after the Second World War, there were various committees producing different translations: the New English Bible, the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, the Jewish Bible from the Jewish Publication Society. All these were guided — or, I would say, misguided — by the principle that you have to render the Bible in ways that are entirely compatible with modern idiomatic usage. They abandoned word-for-word translation drastically. They repackaged the syntax. They substituted modern idioms for biblical ones.

Stylistically, the consequences of that strategy have been pretty disastrous. In my own translations, I've gone back much closer to the word-for-word strategy.

What has been the most challenging book of the Bible for you to render accurately?
I would say, without too much hesitation, the Book of Job. One, it's very great poetry — the greatest poetry in the Hebrew Bible. And as great poetry, it's full of virtuosity: amazing puns, terrific compactness of expression. All of that is very hard to render in English.

There are textual difficulties throughout the Bible. Any body of literature that is copied by scribes ... scribes are humanly imperfect. They skip words, or repeat words, or substitute a familiar word for an unfamiliar word ... hundreds of errors. Every book of the Bible had some of these.

The Book of Job ... because the poetry was so difficult, it used a very unusual vocabulary. The scribes couldn't understand it. The text is often rather jumbled. It's really hard to know what to do with that.

Do you think the King James Bible will ever regain the cultural "afterlife" and literary authority it had for hundreds of years?
I think probably not. Some people are convinced we can never return to an archaic-sounding translation, unfortunately.

The King James Bible, back on its 300th anniversary, was still the almost universally used Bible, at least among Protestants. That's certainly not true now, and it's sad, because whatever its problems, it's a great achievement of the English language. It's sad too because so much of great English literature is one way or another imbued with elements from the King James version. If you haven't read the KJB, you're not picking up certain things in Dickinson or Blake or Whitman or Melville.

That is a real loss.
That is simply the cultural reality.

Thank you, Professor Alter.
Thank you.

(N.B.: If you're not versed in the KJB, you're also not picking up on certain things about a certain figure with his own afterlife. That world-famous figure kept his volume of the King James Bible near him. And that very volume is on display in the Folger Shakespeare Library's own "Manifold Greatness" exhibit, through January 15th, in Washington. The King who treasured his King James: Elvis Presley.)

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