I have long felt that this was the case, and it’s nice to have it confirmed by someone with an ear for Hebrew as well developed as that of Robert Alter (scroll down to find his presentation), who’s been reading the language since boyhood:
Poetry in the King James Version….reads magnificently as English verse… Eloquence seems the proper attribute for these renderings of ancient Hebrew poetry. Yet…the eloquence is more Jacobean…than biblical: orotund, expansive, at times exhibiting a relish in the accumulation of ringing words and syllables, whereas the Hebrew is compact and incisive.
What I’ve been saying does not constitute a stylistic critique of the King James Version… The problem is that in numerous places, by virtue of such momentary elevation of diction, the style becomes grandiloquent, which is fine in its own right but nothing like the original.
I like literary beauty. I love it, even. And, other things being equal, I prefer my Bible translations to feature such beauty. But I also think it’s impossible to mimic every literary feature of a base language text in every receptor language. Sometimes you’re going to miss out on literary beauty despite your best efforts. Sometimes your efforts to include it are going to be too successful, perhaps by accident.
One example: “faithless, heartless, ruthless” in Romans 1:31 reads pretty well in the ESV, I think—it’s an accident of language that three words with such great assonance and consonance happen to be excellent renderings of the underlying Greek. And they mimic a repetitive feature in the Greek, the alpha privative—ἀσυνθέτους, ἀστόργους, ἀνελεήμονας (asunthetous, astorgous, anelememonas). But there are two other words in the sentence that have that alpha privative—ἀσυνέτους and ἀπειθεῖς (asunetous and apeitheis)—and those words don’t have English renderings that fall into the ____less, ____less pattern. They’re translated “disobedient” (rather than obedientless*) and “foolish” (senseless would not be quite right). So we get an almost accidental literary beauty, and it matches the Greek, but it doesn’t fully match the Greek. We’re missing a literary feature, the repetition of that alpha privative. And there’s nothing we can do about that. And ten thousand other tiny literary and stylistic features of the Greek and Hebrew that just don’t come through in translation.
Back to Alter. He is commenting about the “general character” of the poetry in the KJV, he says. And if that’s so, he turns a common pro-KJV argument on its head. That argument is, of course, that the KJV should be retained because it is unsurpassed in literary beauty.
But what if it surpasses the Greek and Hebrew?
And, more importantly, what if orotund grandiloquence actually gets in the way of understanding? I think, sometimes, it does.