Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

At the Harry Ransom Center

Q and A With Bible Translator Robert Alter

The Holy Bible, conteyning the Old Testament, and the New: newly translated out of the originall tongues: & with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by his Majesties speciall commandement. Appointed to be read in churches. London, 1611. New Testament internal title page. Folger Shakespeare Library.

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.


The Truth Shall Set You Free

The Main Building at the University of Texas, Austin with the inscription “Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.” Photo by Marsha Miller.

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.

 


Happy New Year! Manifold Greatness in 2012… and 2013!

On the road: Franz Hogenberg after Georg Hoefnagel. Elizabeth I arriving at Nonsuch Palace (detail). Civitates Orbis Terrarum, 1582. Folger.

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:

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.


Manifold Greatness website launches today!

We are delighted to announce the launch today of Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, a major new website marking the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible of 1611.

More than a year in the making, the site includes stunning image galleries ranging from Early Bibles to Modern Life, interactive timelines, original video interviews, and still more special features that allow you to compare translations side by side, examine pages of a 1611 King James Bible in depth, and listen to excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, which takes much of its text from the KJB. (Special bonus: the recordings are from a Folger Consort / Oxford (Magdalen College) performance!) Resources for Scholars guide academic researchers to rare books and other source materials.

Children’s and family pages include a wealth of images, information, new craft videos, games and activities, and more—the screenshot we’ve highlighted here is from Making a Ruff. Trust us, we could go on… but why read about it when you can explore it for yourself? Consider this your personal invitation to jump into the new website today. We’re so happy to share it with you.

The website is part of Manifold Greatness, a multi-faceted project of the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford, with assistance from the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin. It has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Why “Manifold Greatness”?

Dedication to King James I, King James Bible

Bible. English. Authorized. 1611. Folger.

If you visit the King James Bible Trust website, as we often do, you may notice that the words “manifest,” “great,” and “greatness” come up fairly often in its events list. At the University of Toronto, “Great and Manifold: A Celebration of the Bible in English,” is on display through June. At Cambridge, “Great and Manifold Blessings: The Making of the King James Bible” wraps up that month as well.

And then, of course, there’s our own Manifold Greatness project, a major, two-continent endeavor that includes a new book from Bodleian Library Publishing, a Bodleian Library exhibition opening at Oxford on April 22, and, funded by the NEH, an exhibition this fall at the Folger Shakespeare Library, an early 2012 exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, a major website that’s now launching within weeks, and a traveling exhibition produced in partnership with the American Library Association.

But why “manifold” and why “greatness”? The answer lies in the King James Bible’s dedication to King James I, not always printed in modern editions, which begins, “great and manifold were the blessings” when James became king.  (“Manifold” here means both “varied” and “abundant.”) Today, the same words describe the King James Bible itself.


In the beginning …

It seems amazing how far we’ve come since I first broached the subject of doing something on the KJB at the Folger when I was a fellow back in 2007-2008.

What started out as an idea for a Folger exhibition has snowballed into a joint exhibition with the Bodleian and the Harry Ransom Center, a traveling panel show, and a major website, funded by the NEH, and a collection of essays to accompany all this, The Making of the King James Bible, published by the Bodleian. Since I was already organizing a conference at Ohio State and editing a book for Cambridge – The King James Bible after Four Hundred Years – before the Folger events were even thought of, the last few years of my life have become pretty much all KJB, all the time.

But these many months of labor are starting to bear fruit. I’m excited to see the fabulous website now in its final stages, ready to launch in mid-April, to hear about libraries and colleges across the country that are applying to the ALA to host the panel exhibition, and to see, with my co-curator Steve Galbraith, and Caryn Lazzuri, Exhibitions Manager, the exhibition itself start to take shape, as decisions are made, texts are written and rewritten, and loans secured from across the country and overseas. One of the panel titles is “Many Forms for Many Readers,” referring to the variety of shapes and sizes in which Bibles were printed. We could say the same about the whole exhibition – many forms for many readers, viewers, listeners, and visitors at the Folger and beyond. Amazing!

Hannibal Hamlin, an associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, is co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.