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Thoughts on Writing

How King James Got His Bible

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 Writamin.) While the history surrounding the document is intriguing, I want to focus on the act of translating the text and the way the translators settled on the final versions. They used editing techniques that we can use today.

The King James Bible is probably the most widely published book in the English language. Literally hundreds of millions of copies of this book have been disseminated all over the world since its publication in 1611. Excerpts from it are still read aloud at dinner tables, in living rooms, and in churches all over the world. My question is, "Why?"

Many readers may answer, "Because it is the word of God," but this does not address the question of why the King James translation of the Bible should be preferred above the multitude of other translations. As Nicolson points out, the scholars who translated for King James were working from Greek translations of Hebrew texts written thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away. Who were these translators and how did they come up with a translation so powerful that it still inspires faith and dispels despair?

Nicolson writes that in 1604 the King set the ground rules: "No contentious notes in the margins; no language inaccessible to common people; a true and accurate text, driven by an unforgivingly exacting level of scholarship.To bring this about, the King gathered an enormous translation committee: some 54 scholars, divided into all shades of opinion, from Puritan to the highest of High Churchmen. Six subcommittees were then each asked to translate a different section of the Bible." The translators all were experts in ancient languages who brought a huge breadth of life experience to their tasks. 

Here is how Nicolson describes the translating and editing process (italics are added):

They went about their work in a precise and orderly way. Each member of the six subcommittees, on his own, translated an entire section of the Bible. He then brought that translation to a meeting of his subcommittee, where the different versions produced by each translator were compared and one was settled on. That version was then submitted to a general revising committee for the whole Bible, which met in Stationers' Hall in London. Here the revising scholars had the suggested versions read aloud—no text visible—while holding on their laps copies of previous translations in English and other languages. The ear and the mind were the only editorial tools. They wanted the Bible to sound right. If it didn't at first hearing, a spirited editorial discussion followed. A revising committee presented a final version to two bishops, then to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then, notionally at least, to the King.

This was the ultimate editing by committee. Most important of all to us as writers is the fact that they read the translation aloud before approving it. In the Worktalk writing trainings, reading aloud is an editing tool that I recommend highly. There is no substitute for reading aloud if you want to hear the cadence of your language, judge whether you have punctuated it correctly, and know whether you have made a coherent point. All the biblical scholars kept the papers in their laps and listened to hear if the language flowed. And they succeeded majestically.

To see an example that illustrates the power of the King James translation over a long-winded abstract rendition of the same idea, read the blog post at http://worktalk.com/business-writing-tips/writamins/how-king-james-got-his-bible

© 2011 Elizabeth Danziger

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

Tired of reading unclear, error-filled writing from your organization? Ready to transform the quality of your firm’s writing? Contact Elizabeth Danziger today to learn about the Worktalk Core Writing Trainings.  Call (310) 396-8303 or write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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    These courses are not taught by a general skills trainer who happens to teach writing. Elizabeth Danziger has been published by major publishing houses such as Random House and Harcourt Brace. Her work has appeared in many national magazines. She is an expert writer and editor who brings her knowledge as a resource to participants.
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