The December 2011 issue of National Geographic contains a fascinating article by Adam Nicolson about the genesis of the King James Bible. (A link to the article appears at the end of this post.) While the history surrounding the document is intriguing, I want to focus on the fluidity of the language. In choosing the final versions of every verse, the translators put the manuscripts in their laps and simply listened to how the words sounded when read aloud. In the Worktalk writing trainings, we emphasize the importance of using this powerful editing tool.
George Orwell did an exercise that illustrates the power of the language in the King James Bible. He took an excerpt from the book of Ecclesiastes and rewrote it using abstract, long-winded words. Ecclesiastes has been in continuous circulation for millennia. The original book was written in Hebrew over 2000 years ago and the translation was done 400 years ago. Here is the passage– try reading it aloud:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Notice the power of the language: the short, familiar words, the use of visual images, and the parallel structure. Hear how it flows. Now here is Orwell’s rendition of the piece:
Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Sure, it contains similar ideas, but how likely is it that people would turn to Orwell’s version in times of distress? How many people will be reading it for inspiration a thousand years from now? Not too many. This exercise illustrates just a tiny portion of the King James Bible. The scholars who put together the whole translation took the time to edit with their ears as well as their pens, and produced a document that helped unify a nation and spread its message throughout the globe.
When we write for business, we are not striving to create language for the ages. Most of us will be happy if our message lasts just long enough to get to the person to whom we are writing. But the message of King James’s scholars rests with us as well. Get several people to look at a document and reach consensus about what sounds best. Put the manuscript aside for a while and then read it aloud. Where your voice pauses, insert a comma. Where your voice stops, insert a period. Where your voice stumbles, rewrite. Even if you fear that you are casting pearls before swine, remember that in the beginning was the Word.
© 2011 Elizabeth Danziger
For more information about the Worktalk writing trainings, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Adam Nicolson has done an admirable job of tracing the history of this powerful document and describing its role in the development of European history. Here is a link to the article: > http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/12/king-james-bible/nicolson-text/1