Grandiloquence and the KJV

by Nov 3, 2014KJV, Linguistics7 comments

robert alter_shrink

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—συνθέτους, στόργους, νελεήμονας (asunthetous, astorgous, anelememonas). But there are two other words in the sentence that have that alpha privative—συνέτους and πειθεῖς (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.

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  1. Paul M.

    Good thoughts, Mark. I once discussed the infamous Phillippians 3:8 use of skubala with a mutual acquaintance of ours who is editing a new study Bible. I made all the usual points about the intended offense of the term and worried that translating it as ‘garbage’ or ‘refuse’ toned down that offense, thus ameliorating the gospel insult. His response: think of the children. The Bible is going to be read in churches with children present and we wouldn’t want their sensitive ears to hear vulgar words like ‘turds’ (Wycliffe), ‘drit’ (Purvey), or even ‘dung’ (Tyndale, Geneva, KJV). Thus the choice of the milquetoast ‘garbage’ or ‘refuse’ which are very very technically accurate. Of course, the irony is that the historical offensiveness of skubala falls on an inverted Bell curve, carrying the most offense both in antiquity and today and the least in the middle, early modern England.

  2. mlward

    BTW, HT: Paul Matzko. =)

    BJU just got a trial subscription to the Loeb Classical Library. We already subscribe to TLG. One of these days—because you raise a good test case—I should look up σκύβαλα in those services, see how it got used.

    • Mark Ward

      Coincidentally, I’m writing today about offensive language and why it’s offensive. I went ahead and used our trial with Loeb to look up all the uses of σκυβαλον. I had page-view limits and somewhat limited time, so I could not look up the century of origin for all these usages (some were part of random scraps of material and not larger, easily dated works). Where the information was accessible to me I included the century. According to the sense of the translators, σκυβαλον was only translated as “excrement” once in the uses Loeb found for me. I’ve been needing to do this… Now I need to check TLG.

      Plutarch (I-II): “What wonder then if the lees of wine are removed too by filtering, like any sediment or *refuse*?”

      Achilles Tatius (III): A fisherman caught an oyster and thought it was just some *offal* of the sea.

      Clement of Alexandria: “At the Isthmus the sea cast up a miserable skubalon.”

      Hegesippus: “The fishermen brought up from the sea in their net a half eaten man, a most mournful skubalon of some sea-voyage.”

      Philips of Thessalonica: “You gave me up dead to the land, cruel sea, and now you carry off the little skubalon of my ashes.”

      Julian (III-IV): “King Zeus…set in order and corrected and changed for the better all that seemed lifeless and barren, the *refuse* and so to speak offscourings of things, their dregs and sediment.”

      Plutarch (I-II): “No surplus left from food and no *excementitious matter* is pure and clean.”

      Maecius Quintus: “Primps…roasted and enjoyed munching [the lobster] with his half-decayed teeth, but this its *shell* he gave to you.”

      The evangelical commentaries lean toward a strong meaning for the word, referencing excrement. I like Karen Jobes, who studied under Silva, because of the linguistic sensitivity of her comment. She noted that the etymology often repeated among evangelical commentators may or may not be accurate, but if it was what most users of the word thought was the etymology, it still helps us figure out what Paul meant.

      • Paul M.

        This points to something that’s long tugged at the back of my mind. I suspect that there is a distinct literary bias in commentaries that discuss ancient usage (and, I suspect, in a “Classical Library.”) They’ll pull out out Plutarch, just for sake of example, and assume that he represents common usage. But that’s a bit like looking at Hawthorne and assuming that he represents the colloquial speech of the 19th century (or, worse, of the 17th century).

        That’s the value of graffiti. It tells us about common usage of language, not how the literary elite used language. I’ve read that skubala is common in graffiti with the excrement meaning in the forefront although I don’t have the expertise to check that. Does Loeb include graffiti?

  3. Mark Ward

    A great point. Come to think of it, I had indeed heard that it was a common graffit0, though I’d forgotten—and that fact (?) wasn’t referenced in the multiple commentaries I looked at.

    I think it was Bruce’s New Testament History, or the class I took which used it as a textbook, where I heard that of the estimated umpteen million clay tablets used as receipts to pay Roman soldiers in ancient times, a mere six had been found. So your point is very well taken, but extant cultural artifacts are all we have to go on.

    Paul, you just have to read one of my all-time favorite posts, a quote from Moisés Silva.

  4. Mark Ward


    It reminds me of the odd cultural experience I had while in Germany riding in the car with a man a bit over my age. It was very stuffy, so I rolled down the window—only a crack, having heard that some Europeans don’t like to do that. He immediately reacted, asking me (nicely) to roll up the window and grabbing his neck. He explained that rolling the window down was likely to give us neck aches. I guess they don’t have convertibles?

    I realized that there must be some cultural custom I accept that would seem obviously superstitious or silly to him. But I haven’t discovered it yet!