Thursday, December 22, 2011

Editing by Ear

The year 2011 soon slips away so it’s worth a pause during the holidays to mark a celebration that occurred this year – the 400th anniversary of the Authorized, or King James Version of the Bible.

Regardless of religious persuasion, most agree the KJV marks one of the greatest writing achievements in English. National Geographic featured the KJV in a cover story for its December issue, which opines “You don't have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words – simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact.” The article provides insights we forget:

First, the KJV represents one time a committee got it right. It is the product of 54 scholars, not of all of whom were particularly religious, nor were all with the Church of England. They produced their masterwork in a time of political upheaval with bitter divides over religious belief, and every faction already had a translation. But the “most high and mighty Prince James,” as the preface calls its sponsor, saw a new translation as one way to bring his squabbling subjects together.

How did the committee do it? Second, the KJV was intended to be read – aloud – in church and home. The committee’s goal was “that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar,” the preface adds. Yeah, they really talked that way back then. The committee divided into teams and read their draft translations of the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek aloud to each other, knowing the ear serves as an excellent editor and tends to find the perfect written phrase.

Modern writers and editors improve their product when they lean back in the chairs and speak the words just typed on a screen, as surely as reading words written with a quill on parchment.

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