Last week, Dr. Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, spoke at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas on translating scripture and the influence of the King James Bible. This interview originally appeared on the Harry Ransom Center’s Cultural Compass blog.
In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from the King James Version translators’?
For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.
In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?
Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.
With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?
Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.
Kelsey McKinney is an undergraduate intern at the Harry Ransom Center and a regular contributor to the Cultural Compass blog. The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, a companion exhibition to Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, is on view at the Ransom Center until July 29, 2012.
This week the Manifold Greatness exhibition is once again on the road, traveling to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin; Hope College in Holland, MI; Mid-Columbia Library District, in Kennewick, WA ; and Mobile Public Library in Mobile, AL.
Danielle Brune Sigler of the Harry Ransom Center is co-curator of “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence,” a variation of the Manifold Greatness exhibition. This week, she blogs on common phrases from the King James Bible and how the book has influenced contemporary culture, from the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Robert De Niro’s tattoos in the film Cape Fear.
“The King James translation has left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of English-speaking people throughout the world,” she writes.
Read her complete blog post here.
Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website. She is a communications associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
With 2011, the 400th anniversary year of the King James Bible, now firmly in the history books itself—and with the world now turning its attention to Charles Dickens’s 200th anniversary—you might think that Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible would be wrapping up, too.
Not so! Although Manifold Greatness was created to mark the 400th anniversary of the 1611 King James Bible in 2011, the project continues throughout 2012 and into 2013. And, of course, we hope the Manifold Greatness website and Manifold Greatness publication continue to provide helpful resources to online visitors and readers even longer.
A quick overview of what’s on right now… and what lies ahead:
- The Folger Shakespeare Library’s Manifold Greatness exhibition remains on view in Washington, DC, every day through its final day on January 16. By happy coincidence, January 16 is also the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., whose rhetorical use of biblical passages and cadences is noted in the Manifold Greatness exhibition itself, as well as our online Modern Life gallery, and curator Hannibal Hamlin’s blog post on Washington’s new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.
- After closing at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the exhibition travels to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where it will be on view from February 28 to July 29, 2012, incorporating rare works from the Ransom Center collection as well.
- In Claremont, California, the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition may be found at Claremont Graduate University through January 6 (see CGU’s Manifold Greatness web page for visitor info, video links, and photos); until just before the recent holiday break, it was also displayed at Arizona State University (ASU Manifold Greatness web pages, student reporter video) and Rhodes College in Memphis (Rhodes 1611 web page with many links, our earlier blog post).
- In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Manifold Greatness programs will begin well in advance of the traveling exhibition opening on January 19, with two film screenings this Thursday—and a family Bibles consultation and workshop next Thursday—at Hattiesburg Library; the traveling exhibition itself opens at William Carey University on the evening of January 19, with more free, public programs to follow, including talks, panel discussion programs, a book discussion of Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries (on the King James Bible translators), and a final film screening.
- Two other complete traveling exhibitions will also be on view by mid- to late January at the University of Minnesota (opening January 25), which is hosting a February 3 colloquium, its own exhibition “The Word Made Flesh,” and other public programs, and the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
And that’s not all! During 2012 and 2013, the Manifold Greatness traveling exhibition will be displayed at another 31 libraries around the United States, each of which—like all of the host institutions so far—plans multiple public programs. Many are exhibiting rare works from their own collections as well. Try our traveling exhibition schedule to follow the travels of the panel exhibition in the months and years ahead.