Ye olde Bible hailed as Shakespeare's rival
By Michael Collett
Updated Fri May 6, 2011 9:33am AEST
When King James I of England published his authorised translation of the Bible 400 years ago, his aim was to establish control of the church and so cement his rule.
But while his reign itself no longer excites popular interest, his namesake lives on, credited with democratising religion and rivalling Shakespeare's influence on the English language.
This month marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version's publication and an exhibition in tribute, The Book That Changed The World, opens today at Parliament House in Canberra.
On display are an original King James Bible from 1611 and an even earlier translation with Shakespeare's notes in the margin, as well as Australian relics including a Bible that belonged to Governor Lachlan Macquarie and others that were taken to war.
While the King James Version is instantly recognisable for its use of anachronisms like 'loveth', 'prayeth' and 'believeth' - simply add '-eth' - literary critic Peter Craven says it still dominates the most basic of everyday speech.
"It's the greatest influence on prose in the English language and together with Shakespeare it's the most influential of all texts," he said.
"It influences Mark Twain, Hemingway... It's hard to write English without being influenced by the King James Bible."
Grandeur and poetry
Among the translation's seemingly unlikely champions: high-profile atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who have both used its anniversary to recognise its momentous literary impact.
"It's important to people who are at some remove from religious belief but who understand the grandeur and the poetry of that vision," Craven said.
As well as helping to formalise English, the King James Bible is credited as responsible for dozens of popular phrases including 'The love of money is the root of all evil', 'How are the mighty fallen' and 'All is vanity'.
Craven says he regrets the current direction of Bible translations, which remove the poetry and replace it with simplified modern language.
He cites the Lord's Prayer and the transformation of "Hallowed be thy name" into "Your name is holy" as an example of meaning being lost in simplicity.
Craven says another high-profile example of this could be seen at the wedding ceremony of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, during the Bible reading given by Catherine's brother James.
"He talked about their love being genuine," he said.
"I think what the King James Bible would have said is 'true' rather than 'genuine'. It strikes me that true is a richer word."
Language of the people
But Rev Dr John Harris, who is curating the Bible Society's exhibition, says modern translations are actually keeping to the King James Version translator's intention to be "understanded by the people".
"It's a marvellous scripture and a marvellous piece of English literature and I greatly admire and respect and love it," he said.
"But if the King James Version's translators were alive today, they would wish that they could translate into today's language."
Fifty-two English scholars worked on the Authorised Version - with the King himself thought to have translated some of the Psalms - and it was published after seven years of labour.
Rev Dr Harris says the King James Bible was designed to give the commoner as much access to the Word of God as the Pope and clergy, making it a revolutionary political symbol as well as a religious one.
"It arrived at a time when England was reaching its colonial supremacy... and it became the Bible of Protestant England and therefore the Bible of the Protestant English-speaking world," he said.
Rev Dr Harris, a historian and theologian, has himself overseen translations of the Bible into Aboriginal and Pacific languages.
He notes that not all modern translations have been able to replicate the literary power of the King James Version.
The Book That Changed The World, which has already been to Adelaide, will be at Parliament House until June 28 and is making its way around Australia until early 2012.
Article taken from http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/05/06/3209390.htm?section=justin