Why do people dislike reading the King James Bible, preferring other translations?

By: | Post date: August 18, 2016 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

How do I dare disagree with the Magister Optimus Michael Masiello, on this his home turf?

By telling a personal anecdote around Classics, in the hope of sucking up to him.

When I was doing my PhD, I had occasion to cite a few Ancient Greek texts. It was a linguistics thesis done after 1900, so I had to supply a modern translation alongside those citations. For reasons of probity, I chose to supply someone else’s printed translation, where available.

One of the texts I cited was On the Syrian Goddess by Lucian. Lucian was describing Syrian religious practices (he was Syrian himself); and he chose the Ionic dialect of Herodotus to do so. Greek literature did do a little bit of dialect specialisation per genre; but for Lucian do pick a 600 year old, long dead dialect for his story, as a once-off, was a bit of antiquarian showing off.

Now, the Loeb Classical Library is the canonical set of translations of Ancient Greek and Latin literature in English. A guy called A.M. Harmon did the Loeb Lucian in the 1920s. And in his translation of On the Syrian Goddess in 1925 [https://lucianofsamosata.info/do… : PDF], he decided:

It would be most unfair to Lucian to turn this tale into contemporary English. In order to have the same effect that it has in his own day, and to be really intelligible, it must seem to come from the lips of an ancient traveller. The version here offered seeks to secure that effect through mimicry of Sir John Mandeville. It is true that Herodotus was better known in Lucian’s time than Mandeville is known now, and his language seemed less remote. In every other respect, however—in his limited vocabulary, in his simple style, and in his point of view—Mandeville provides a mask uniquely adapted to the part—if only its wearer does not fall down in it and break it.

He adds that if you want a modern English version, you can always go to Strong & Garstang’s translation.

So, he emulated someone writing in 600 year old Greek, through someone writing in 600 year old English.


In Surrye, not fer fro the Ryvere Eufrate, is a Cytee that Holy highte and holy is in sothe, for it is of Iuno Assurien. Yit I wene that the cyteene hadde not this name atte firste, whan that it was founded, but of olden tyme it was other, and after, whan here servys of the Goddesse wex gret, it was chaunged to this. Touching this cytee I purpos me to seyn alle that is in it, and I schalle speke of the customes that thei folwen in here rytes, and the feste dayes that thei kepen, and the sacrifises that thei perfourmen. And I schalle reherce alle the tales that men tellen of hem that establisschede the holy place, and how that the temple was bylded. And I that write am Assurien, and of that that I devyse you, some partie saughe I with mine owne eyen, and some partie I lerned be informacioun fro the prestes, that is to seyn, tho thynges that I descryve that weren beforn min owne tyme.

And so it goes on for 30-odd pages. With only the occasional marginal explanation of a word; like here, italicised above, = ‘their’.

Now. If you know Middle English (as all cool people in 1925 should have), this is really, really cool. Like, “why don’t more people do this” cool. (And you get a bit more of it with Aristophanes’ Doric.)

If you don’t know Middle English, it is… well, it’s still cool. After all, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog had an appreciative audience (though of course his version of Middle English was perforce toned down).

But… if you’re trying to present a translation of Lucian so that a linguist can understand a subtle shade of meaning in a locative… is Mandevillean English the most effective way to convey that?

And are we really surprised that the text of On the Syrian Goddess you find online is the 1913 Modern English translation?

Yes, the tone of the KJV is magisterial. Yes, it has been decisive in our cultural, religious, literary and linguistic history. Yes, in fact, I cite the Bible in KJV rather than NIV or RSV, in any context where I can get away with it.

But, Michael, you and I are in the literature business, when we do get to get away with that. We’re not in the theology business.

After all, if people are too illiterate now to understand Jacobian English, they were being just as illiterate 400 years ago, when they couldn’t understand Hieronymic Latin.

And if, as a good Protestant, one is concerned that all Christians should be able to establish an unmediated relationship with God through their own study of the scriptures, then their business is to ensure that the text speak as directly as possible to the faithful.

All translation is a compromise; and the formal requirements of translation have been left to slide, perhaps, in more recent translations, as they have in the literary culture in general. Who does rhymed verse translation in English any more, after all?

(Though I don’t find the authoritative recent translations of the Bible into English particularly flat.)

But I identify with the answer given by Father Adam Booth Csc (not a good Protestant!) And having bumped into his answers here before, I know the reverend doctorand is hardly illiterate:

If I’m going to read a translation, I want a translation into the English I speak, not the English of 500 years ago.

I am very happy I live in a world where Harmon’s Lucian exists. In fact, I daresay that (just as with Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog) his Middle English is a lot more readable than it should be.

But if I want to find out more about Syrian religion, I’m going to use Strong & Garstang’s Lucian.

So. I disagree with your first rationale, with all the guilt and respect you’ve come to expect of me.

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