The anonymous Hemingways of the 17th century

Notwithstanding the widespread view that the language of the King James Version is too complex and convoluted, I find it to be often the case that the King James is more compact, punchy, direct, and forceful than anything found in modern translations.

As an example and a test, here is a question. If you wanted to convey the idea that people who blaspheme against the Holy Ghost will never be forgiven, how would you do it?

Once you’ve answered the question (and please take as much time as you like), open the extended entry and see how Jesus states this idea in the King James Version (Mark 3:29):

[H]e that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness.

That is fantastic language: “hath never forgiveness.” Our modern English can’t hold a candle to it.

Here is the entire passage:

Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

And by the way, “blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme”: that is fantastic. To me, “wherewith soever” is not clunky, heavy, impossibly old-fashioned. It is alive and exciting.

- end of initial entry -

Michael S. writes:

Your recent discussions of the King James Bible and the nobility of its language recalled several passages to my mind. The first is from the Introduction to Barbara Reynolds’ 1970s translation of Ariosto’s giant Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso. Discussing the first, Elizabethan, translation of the poem, by Sir John Harrington in 1591, she writes, “The success of his translation must in great part be attributed to the qualities of the English language of that period. As Walter Raleigh remarked, ‘the speech of that eloquent age ran freely from his tongue, and in the numerous incidental similes and “sentences”, or moral aphorisms, he often attains the note of finality’. The material lay to hand, like some gorgeous glittering brocade; it had only to be cut and fashioned to the shape of the original…. This is the English which lay ready to Shakespeare’s hand for such lines as ’ The intertissued robe of gold and pearl. ’ It is as natural as picking flowers in a garden.”

The relevance to the King James Bible is, I think, obvious. The Elizabethan period was in many respects a very troubled and defective age, but its English had reached a singularly felicitous period which would be difficult to equal today, even if today’s writers and translators aspired to achieve the same effects. By and large they do not. It’s important to note, however, that when they do they are criticized, or rather, to be precise, savaged.

The problem with today’s “updated” translations is that our updated language is incapable of being both authentically contemporary and of expressing the thoughts and feelings that the originals did. This is because our souls, and therefore our language, have become corrupt. I don’t know if you as a non-Catholic followed the turmoil over the new translation of the Roman Missal, the prayer-book for the Mass, which was promulgated last year. There were massive complaints from all the usual suspects about how the nasty old celibate men at the Vatican and so forth were forcing their reactionary beliefs and words down the throats of the sacred People who just wanted to pray as they had always prayed, i.e. in the words from the ’60s and ’70s rather than the eternal Latin of their fathers. The complaints were over such changes as replacing “one in being” with “consubstantial”, and “Lord God of power and might” with “Lord God of hosts,” changes in the direction of greater clarity and accuracy, a larger and more precise vocabulary, and more traditional and poetic language. I and all traditionalist Catholics applauded such changes, but the complainers were right from their own perspective: the traditional language of the Christian Church does not express their habitual thoughts and feelings, and for the kind of religion they believe in the slack and frivolous idiom of modernity suits them better. So it is with the New International Version or its Catholic competitor, the New American Bible. Where they’re not simply inaccurate, they’re ugly—which is its own kind of inaccuracy.

For most moderns, the contrast between the noble and elevated language of our fathers, which expressed and gave voice to their noble and elevated culture, and our own debased and degraded language serves simply to make us uncomfortable with the thought-world of every human generation before our own. This is what the twilight of civilization looks like: the barbarism on television is not only familiar, but also homely: it reflects who and what we are; while to nearly all of us every mind from Homer to Jane Austen is foreign and disturbing. For English-speaking Protestants the King James Bible once served as the gateway not only to the Word of God, but also into the entire world of the past; its words and images formed the material for speech and thought to those who knew it better than any other book, conforming those who used it to the minds of its makers and providing passage into the house of literature, history, philosophy and theology for which the Bible was the sustaining keystone. This was still true in the early 20th century. Today, to most of us, King James is as alien as Gilgamesh.

June 7

Ben M. writes:

Michael S. wrote: “Today, to most of us, King James is as alien as Gilgamesh.”

Who is Gil Gamesh? King James I assume is Labron.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 05, 2012 11:58 PM | Send

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