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God's English

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

The English major in me has a great appreciation for the literary quality of the King James Bible. Barton Swaim wrote an intriguing article in Touchstone Magazine entitled "God's English." As Swaim notes of the translators, “…They understood, far better than modern translators have, the importance of rhythm in language.” After all, learned men of the seventeenth century were steeped in languages (including Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish) and poetry. He adds that they were attentive to the fact that their translation would be heard far more than it would be read. Notwithstanding its faults and flaws it is truly a beautiful rendering of God’s word into English.

I found that I was rather ignorant of the history surrounding the translation. For example, I didn’t realize (or probably had forgotten) that James and his allies detested the popular Geneva translation due to its energetically Calvinist notes. In part the King James Bible was commissioned because, “…James had no intention of giving the Puritans what they wanted,” namely, an authorized Geneva translation. Those ever-troublesome Calvinists!

But what prompted me to blog about this article was another interesting tidbit of which I was unaware. Swaim argues that a principle reason the King James Bible achieved such durability is that, “…its diction captures the gravity and splendor one feels God’s words deserve.” He goes on to observe:

But by far the most important way in which the King Bible sacralizes its English (if that’s not too highfalutin a way to put it) is by retaining archaic pronouns and verb endings–thou knowest, etc. It’s true that prior translations had used these forms, but by the early seventeenth century most of them were not in common use, particularly in urban environs. The King James translators may have retained them in order to give their renderings a sacred or ancient texture, or simply to maintain continuity with older translations.

I did not realize that these archaic pronouns and verb endings were already passe when the King James version was commissioned. The translators may have employed them in order to maintain a sacred, ancient texture or continuity with older translations (or both). Its striking that their translation philosophy, in any of those cases, was precisely opposite of nearly every modern English translation. And for me, at least, that is another lamentable feature of the English translations that proliferate in our day.

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